Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil (1832) is a fascinating parable about hiding behind appearances instead of following our consciences. How would your friends react if you started wearing a veil to school?
Read the story: The Minister's Black Veil, Character Analysis & Summary, Genre & Themes, Symbolism of the Veil, Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Paired Readings, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
Reverend Mr. Hooper - The preacher of a small congregation in Milford, Massachusetts who suddenly appears one Sabbath day wearing a black veil, copmletely covering his features, except the mouth and chin. He was a good preacher, but not energetic; his temperament was described as a "gentle gloom."
Goodman Gray - The sexton of the church who declares, "Our parson has gone mad!"
Milford parishioners - The congregation of worshippers who are affected by the strange changes in the Revend Hooper's new appearance. Each of them "felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought."
Old Squire Saunders - Probably the oldest of the congregation who has a reserved special chair in the center of the meeting-house, after service where the reverend first adorned his veil, Saunders "neglected to invite Mr. Hooper to his table, where the good clergyman had been wont to bless the food, almost every Sunday since his settlement."
Elizabeth - A young lady, Hooper's fiance, is the only member of the congregation who had the courage to ask the Reverend directly why he wears the veil. She intimated the rumor that he might be hiding "under the consciousness of secret sin" to which he provided her an answer and reveals his true feelings for her. The veil remains between them, they never marry.
The story is about a small town congregation's reaction when their minister, Reverend Hooper, appears at the meeting-house adorned in a black veil, for which he offers no explanation, nor does he appear to behave any differently. At first, the veil frightens and confuses his congregation, making him appear ghostlike from head to foot. Yet the veil has the strange effect of making his sermons and his spiritual leadership more powerful. The story is a parable (moral lesson) about the common practice of hiding behind appearances rather than facing our consciences, and how institutions of religion and societal norms can mask (or reveal) our true nature. Those who reveal their true selves may cause discomfort or be ostracized by others who would rather stay hidden.
Hawthorne's story is in the genre of Romanticism, considered a masterpiece in the sub-genre of Dark Romanticism for its focus on sin, human fallibility, and the religious and societal institutions which perpetuate, rather than eradicate "secret sin that all people carry in their hearts."
Symbol - The veil
Irony - The reverend wears the veil to represent others' secret sins and tries to teach them to reveal their consciousness, but in the process alienates everyone, including his own fiance, Elizabeth
Conforming to Societal Norms
Mortal judgement vs. eternal judgement
Lead by example (the reverend's intent) vs. Isolation and despair (the consequences of wearing the veil)
The veil, as Reverend Mr. Hooper reveals in the story, is a symbol of secret sin, hiding one's true nature, and a lack of awareness of one's own consciousness. It's the external "face" we all wear to comply with expectations from our neighbors, society, church. Its presence was the emblem of his lesson; it caused discomfort, revealed petty suspicions and busybody behavior. The reverend never waivered in his convictions; he refused to remove it in his attempt to teach his parishioners to reveal their own true selves. Ironically, though the parishioners should have been the ones wearing veils, Hooper sacrificed himself on their behalf, suffering isolation, despair, and heartbreak.
We can clearly extend the symbolism of the veil to represent the "crown of thorns" Jesus wore, representing all sin, suffering for his people, whom he hopes find enlightnment after his sacrifice and death.
Hawthorne does not "shroud" the message of this powerful parable. The veil represents both evil and redemption at the same time.
The story, written in 1832, is set in a Puritan (Protestant) village in New England, Milford, Massachusetts. Puritans left England for the New World to escape persecution and judgement in the hands of others in power. The strict religious convictions and social morays of the religion required conformity and cast judgement and punishment on anyone in their congregation who failed to conform to the Puritan ideals.
There were two types: "separating" Puritans, such as the Plymouth colonists, who believed that the Church of England was corrupt and that true Christians must separate themselves from it; and "non-separating" Puritans, such as the colonists who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed in reform, but not separation. Most Massachusetts colonists were nonseparating Puritans who wished to reform the established church, largely Congregationalists who believed in forming churches through voluntary compacts. Legacies of Puritanism include modern-day practicing Protestants which include Lutheran, Anglican, and Quaker denominations, and the so-called "Protestant work-ethic" which implies staunch focus of hard work and good deeds. Read more about Puritanism in New England
Hawthorne, and many other authors who embraced the genre of Dark Romanticism, cast judgement of their own on Puritans' treatment of sin, judgement, and human fallibility. Their stories often revealed the hypocrisy or failure of these religious and cultural institutions to perpetuate, rather than eradicate, the sins they were trying so forcefully to admonish.
As an interesting footnote to the story, published in Hawthorne's book Twice-Told Tales:
"Another clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine, who died about eighty years since, made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper. In his case, however, the symbol had a different import. In early life he had accidentally killed a beloved friend, and from that day till the hour of his own death, he hid his face from men."
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
"Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on weekdays."
"There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance. Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crepe, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things."
"Perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them."
"That mysterious emblem was never once withdrawn. It shook with his measured breath, as he gave out the psalm; it threw its obscurity between him and the holy page, as he read the Scriptures; and while he prayed, the veil lay heavily on his uplifted countenance. Did he seek to hide it from the dread Being whom he was addressing?"
"The [sermon] subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them. A subtle power was breathed into his words."
"A person who watched the interview between the dead and living, scrupled not to affirm, that, at the instant when the clergyman's features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the countenance retained the composure of death."
"It was remarkable that of all the busybodies and impertinent people in the parish, not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Hooper, wherefore he did this thing."
"But that piece of crepe, to their imagination, seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them. Were the veil but cast aside, they might speak freely of it, but not till then."
In response to Elizabeth's direct question why he put it on: "'There is an hour to come,' said he, 'when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crepe till then.'"
"'Do not desert me, though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls! It is but a mortal veil--it is not for eternity! O! you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened, to be alone behind my black veil. Do not leave me in this miserable obscurity forever!'"
"In this manner Mr. Hooper spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved, and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish."
"...for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil."
1. What does the black veil represent?
2. What does Hooper mean when he says "the veil is mortal" and "There is an hour to come when all of us shall cast aside our veils"?
3. Hawthorne's complete title for this story is The Minister's Black Veil, A Parable. A parable is a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. What's the lesson of this story?
4. Discuss the situational irony of the reverend being the one wearing a veil, when it's his parishioners who are the one's doing the hiding of their own "secret sins."
5. Elizabeth is the one character with a higher level of consciousness who communicates frankly with the Reverend, and to whom he reveals his true feelings of love for her. But the physical symbol of the veil keeps them separate. When she pleads with him to remove the veil just once, why does he refuse? Why does she then reject him, yet never marry another?
6. How is this story representative of Dark Romanticism?
8. Compare the themes of sin, failings of human nature, and societal judgement in The Minister's Black Veil with one of the following works by Hawthorne:
9. Some readers (and members of his congregation) assume Reverend Hooper committed adultery or some form of secret sin, which is why he is wearing the veil. Discuss your own view of whose sin caused him to wear the veil.
10. Hawthorne offers an interesting footnote to his story: a clergyman from Maine who died eighty years before this story also wore a veil, but for his own sins: he accidentally killed a beloved friend, and he hid his face from men from that day forward until his death. Does Hawthorne include this note to assure us that Reverend Mr. Hooper had no "secret sin" of his own?
11. Compare the meaning of the veil in The Minister's Black Veil with the "veil" reference in Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher: "I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house...with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil."
Essay prompt: Relate an experience where you were wearing a mask or your face was covered for a costume for an extended period of time. Describe how you behaved and related to others. Relate your experience back to the story.
Compare and contrast themes and literary elements in The Minister's Black Veil with another story involving Puritans:
Lois The Witch (Salem Trials of 1692)
For your paired reading selection, compare plot and themes, how irony is central to the story, and contrasts that differentiate the stories.
Teachers: Challenge students to identify other stories they've read which contain dramatic irony, perhaps assign them to compose their own, to more fully appreciate the richness and appeal of irony in storytelling. It's both a pleasure for the audience and the writer!
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