Few of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories have garnered as much commentary as “The Minister’s Black Veil: A Parable” since its original publication in the Token in 1836 and its subsequent appearance in the collection entitled Twice-told Tales in 1837. The haunting, black crepe veil and its wearer, Parson Hooper, have become the source of endless speculation regarding their meaning and Hawthorne’s authorial intentions. Does the veil represent ignorance, a false devil’s symbol, the universal cover-up of sin, a demonic object, or an artistic symbol itself? Does Parson Hooper symbolize a proud, faithless, evil devil; a misguided, ultimately blasphemous religious zealot; a strict but selfish Calvinist afraid of women and sexuality; or a living parable condemned by his own actions to a life of isolation and despair? Does the story engage with the themes of sin and guilt, self and other, exile of the self from the self, human self-delusion, or the writer’s craft? Perhaps the story’s very ambiguity makes a single interpretation impossible and instead opens the mind to a plethora of possibilities, all of them accurate readings of a story Hawthorne deliberately made open-ended and therefore intriguing.
Intrigue itself propels the story forward, for from the initial footnote Hawthorne includes with the title—that this story parallels a narrative about Mr. Joseph Moody, another clergyman who covered his face because in his youth, he had accidentally killed a friend, but that this story has “a different import” (21)—the reader begins searching for answers to the riddle of the tale. What makes it a parable—defined in Christian terms as a story with a moral and described in Greek terms merely as a story side by side with another—and which kind of parable is it? As soon as the young Rev. Mr. Hooper dons the black veil that “entirely concealed his features” (22) and then delivers a sermon on “secret sin and those sad mysteries we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness” (23), he sets the townspeople of his congregation wondering about why he wears the veil. The change is so sudden and thorough that immediately after the service, the pastor, usually welcome in every home, finds not a single congregant’s family willing to ask him to dine with its members. Yet no congregation member will ask the Reverend Mr. Hooper directly about why he wears the veil at all times—to services, funerals, even weddings. Instead, these townspeople gossip and surmise and imagine what horrible sin Pastor Hooper hides. Even when a group of church members finally gathers the courage to go en masse to speak to the minister about the veil, they ultimately lose courage and leave his home without ever having asked the question. Only his betrothed, Elizabeth, asks him, and he responds only that “this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever, both in light and in darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes” (28). When Elizabeth, too, becomes fearful of the veil and asks him to remove it at least in her presence, but he refuses, she leaves him. Even the pastor himself shudders when he sees a reflection of himself in a mirror.
Yet in spite of the fear and aversion the veil produces, he continues to wear it, and the townspeople conclude that surely, he has committed some grave sin—perhaps even a sexual sin, one that the critic Carl Ostrowski concludes has given him syphilis that has typically deformed his face. The townspeople recoil from Hooper so that “love or sympathy could never reach him” (30). But even as his own congregation withdraws from him, his power in giving sermons increases, and people travel from all over New England to hear him preach, to watch the veil that “kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart” (31) move slightly with his breath as he speaks. Ironically, the very veil that is supposed to conceal actually draws attention to him and his possible sin, but perhaps Pastor Hooper has intended that attention all along: attention to “ what mortal might not do the same” (28).
He wears his veil for all the years of his life, and finally, as he nears death and Elizabeth has returned to nurse him, she and the new pastor, Rev. Clark, believe he will at last confess his sin, expose the “horrible crime upon [his] soul” (31), and remove the veil. Still, he will not agree to do so and instead replies, “Why do you tremble at me alone? . . . Tremble at each other! I look around me, and lo! on every visage a Black Veil” (32). He goes to his grave without ever removing the veil, without ever confessing anything. Do his last words warn the townspeople to see their own veils—their own ways of hiding their sins and faults from themselves and others—instead of seeing only his—and by extension, each other’s? Or do these words, as N. S. Boon contends, instead demonstrate that all people need a veil to protect and distance their individual otherness from those who would like everyone to become the same? Or does Hooper become a failed Christ figure, who takes on the sin of the whole community but instead of producing in them inward self-examination causes only speculation about his sin? Perhaps, most of all, he demonstrates that no one can ultimately discern the truth—about himself, about others, about symbols, about what one reads. Surely, the black veil of this story rests not on Hopper alone but on the entire understanding of the text, where it waits for a reader to lift it away through individual interpretation.
Bell, Millicent, ed. New Essays on Hawthorne’s Major Tales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Cameron, Sharon. The Corporeal Self: Allegories of the Body in Melville and Hawthorne. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.
Crews, Frederick C. The Sins of the Father: Hawthorne’s Psychological Themes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Fogle, Richard Hurter. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light and the Dark. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964, 41–58.
Kazin, Alfred. “Introduction.” In Selected Short Stories, Edited and with an Introduction by Alfred Kazin. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1966.
Male, Roy. Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957.
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