The Weight of Sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”
The significance of the veil in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” is something which has plagued critics since the story’s first appearance. Mr. Hooper dons the veil, separating himself from outside affections and connections beyond that of the soul. While the veil increases his effectiveness as a preacher it also causes the townspeople to fear him and the sin which the veil represents. It has been proposed the Hooper’s was a very particular sin, known and committed by himself.
However, Hawthorne’s minor footnote at the beginning of the tale, outlining the short history of Joseph Moody who had sheathed his face in a similar manner throws this assumption into question. Hawthorne notes that Moody’s veil “had a different import” (407).
Comparing this wording with the ambiguity of the meaning behind Mr. Hooper’s veil, the symbol can be viewed as a symbol of the sins which separate each man from his or her community. These sins do not separate man because of a personal darkness, but because of the perception of these sins blindly by the community’s imagination. The realization of these sins in Hooper’s appearance and presence compel them to shun and at the same time embrace him much as they do their own shame.
The reaction of the community to Mr. Hooper’s veil at the beginning of the story is one of shock and fright. The new, foreboding figure Hooper cuts as he makes his way to the church and to the pulpit effects even the most reasonable of the congregation. So startling is Hooper’s transformation that the people avert their eyes from his new visage, “’I don’t like it,’ muttered an old woman, as she hobbled into the meetinghouse. ‘He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face’” (408). In this Puritanical community, where one’s purity is worn on the outside to try and reflect an inner piousness, Hooper’s appearance leads to an automatic judgment of his character.
However, Hooper seems to have accepted this as the course the people of his community would choose. As the narrator notes, “It was remarkable that, of all the busy bodies and impertinent people in the parish, not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Hooper wherefore he did this thing”(411). To confront the source of Hooper veil would be to confront the own invisible barrier they themselves hide behind. Their piousness serves the purpose of presenting the best outward appearance while the black marks on their soul go unremarked. Hooper instead is wearing his soul on his sleeve. Though he reveals no reasoning, aside from vague references and assertions to his commitment, his own hatred of the veil is representative of a deep spiritual struggle.
As critic Jac Tharpe explains in his examination of “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Mr. Hooper’s own hidden self is tied to the community and their own misrepresentations of self-identity, “there is always a double veil. There is always illusion. There is a limited point of view from which every person observes. On the other side of every man’s veil is the make, image, or effect of every other man […] The minister hides nothing. He only wears the symbol of all that is concealed” (79). As he reveals his own dark side through the image of the veil, so then does he reveal the duality of each person within the community. They are unsettled by the appearance of the black veil because it is the materialization of their own darkness. If they truly believed it to be a sin on his part, the weight of the veil on the community would not have been so drastic nor longstanding. In the veil, they see a judgment of self which if confronted by a full understanding of the significance of the veil they would then have to accept as part of themselves. They do not ask the reason for the veil because they each have their own reason to shield their own selves behind invisible veils. By not confronting Hooper, they fail to confront themselves. Hooper admonishes the crowd by his deathbed, “Have men avoided me and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? […] When the friend shows his innermost heart; the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator […] then deem me a monster” (415). Instead the community leaves Hooper behind his veil and mystery, unwilling and knowing that they cannot confront the depths of their own conscience.
For Hooper it is not an easy burden for him to bear, but bear it he does. Even as he lay dying, Hooper still retains the dark shroud, “All through life that piece of crape had hung between him and the world; it separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love, and kept him in the saddest of all prisons, his own hear” (414). The darkness he wearily carries and accepts, viewing the world through a filter of truths and his own sins Hooper creates a martyred figure. He has been a walking representation for this community, which even as he has walked among them has shunned a full comprehension of him because to fully understand Hooper’s sins would be to confront their own. Instead, after many years of being separated and circling the fringes of the community while knowing the depths of their lives, he goes into death still weighted but more importantly spiritually freed by his confrontation with darkness.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 8th ed. Michael Meyer, Ed. Bedford/St. Martins: Boston, 2008. 407-415.
Tharpe, Jac. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Identity and Knowledge. Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale, IL, 1967.