Friday, January 22, 2016

School Paper: The Parishioners’ Black Veils (Spring 2012)

I have to be honest: I like this paper. And I really like the story it examines. While my efforts here didn’t earn any serious accolades from the professor (who was easily one of my favorites in college), I sometimes found it hard to discern what he really even wanted in a paper. So I suppose I just decided to write the kind of paper I wanted.

The Parishioners’ Black Veils
English Composition II | March 2, 2012

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” is a short story about the universal human tendency to hide sin from God and the world. In the story, Mr. Hooper, the parson of Milford meeting-house, troubles his congregation by perpetually wearing a black veil that covers most of his face. The veil is clearly emblematic, as Mr. Hooper states later in the story: “This veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever.”1 Many readers are tempted to assume that Mr. Hooper’s black veil is merely a symbol of some specific secret sin he himself has committed, and this assumption fuels an attempt to discern from the details of the narrative what that sin actually is. However, such an endeavor misses the larger significance of the veil within the story. The veil is not primarily a statement about Mr. Hooper himself, but it is rather an indictment against the members of his congregation, and more broadly, allwho vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator – loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin.”2

The veiled appearance of Mr. Hooper immediately causes a stir among the parishioners of Milford meeting-house. When he ascends into the pulpit he stands “face to face with his congregation, except for the black veil.”3 The veil completely hides Mr. Hooper’s countenance from the people in his congregation, which denies them the ability to read their pastor on an emotional level. He has shaded the windows of his soul, so to speak, and this effect of the veil is clearly articulated later in the story when the elders of the congregation approach Mr. Hooper to inquire about the meaning of the veil. It “seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them.”4 Whose is the secret, Hawthorne cleverly leaves ambiguous.

In his first veiled sermon, Mr. Hooper’s subject “had reference to secret sin and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest.”5 The sermon itself is not characterized by any style or diction uncommon to Mr. Hooper, but the mere presence of the veil makes his delivery unusually powerful. His words are not confrontational, but the veil itself is. It causes every member of the congregation to feel “as if the preacher had crept upon them behind his awful veil and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought.”6 After the sermon, Mr. Hooper mingles with his congregation, giving special attention to each demographic, for “such was always his custom on the Sabbath-day.”7 The parishioners, on the other hand, are so spellbound by the minister’s veil that his greetings are met with only strange and confused looks. “None, as on former occasions, aspired to the honor of walking by their pastor’s side,”8 and even Old Squire Saunders, who consistently opened his home to the parson every Sunday afternoon, “neglected to invite Mr. Hooper to his table.”9 We see in this entire scenario a focus on the effect the veil evokes in the members of the congregation. Even though Mr. Hooper is the one whose visible appearance has changed, his behavior remains normal, and this radically contrasts him with his parishioners, who retain their customary Sabbath attire and yet behave in a very uncomfortable and unusual way. The veil is Mr. Hooper’s comfort, but the congregation’s dread.

The story culminates at the deathbed of “Father Hooper,” as he comes to be known, and it is here that we most clearly see the meaning of the veil. Reverend Clark, the minister at parson Hooper’s bedside, insists that the dying man remove the veil that has for years hidden his face. But Mr. Hooper is unwavering in his commitment to wearing the veil, and the ensuing argument concludes with these words from the dying parson: “Why do you tremble at me alone?” “Tremble also at each other. Have men avoided me and women shown no pity and children screamed and fled only for my black veil?”10 With these rhetorical questions, Mr. Hooper clearly pinpoints the real power behind his veil. The people are not troubled by Mr. Hooper’s veil merely for its appearance, but for its phenomenal ability to reveal their own veils. The “simple piece of crape”11 that hides Mr. Hooper’s face from the world is a perpetually delivered sermon, a constant indictment against the folly of pretending, even before God, that you are not too bad a person. Mr. Hooper says, “When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend, the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin,—then deem me a monster for the symbol beneath which I have lived and die.”12 He compares his own veil with the insistence of depraved men to hide their secret sin from God and the world. As Mr. Hooper goes about his daily life with his countenance hidden, he is openly doing what everyone else is pretending not to do. His dying words capture the essence of what the veil is meant to communicate: “I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a black veil!”13

It is important for readers of “The Minister’s Black Veil” to understand that while Mr. Hooper’s veil does, in some sense, represent his own secret sins, its purpose is much wider than that alone. We as readers find ourselves identifying with the parishioners in the story, and asking the same questions they ask: What does this veil mean? Why do we find it disturbing? When we recognize that the veil is primarily a statement about the secret sins that the members of the congregation hide deep within their own hearts, we will understand why the story itself haunts us as readers. Those who are familiar with the New Testament are immediately reminded of texts like Hebrews 4:13: “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” We all have sin that we intend to keep hidden, and Hawthorne’s story, much like parson Hooper’s veil, is an uncomfortable reminder of that fact. In the way of Mr. Hooper with his parishioners, Hawthorne creeps up on his readers, making them feel as if he has “discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought,” and this is what makes the story powerful.


1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” In Twice-told Tales: Vol. 1 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1900), 42.

2. Ibid., 49.

3. Ibid., 34.

4. Ibid., 41.

5. Ibid., 35.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., 36.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., 49.

11. Ibid., 34.

12. Ibid., 49.

13. Ibid.

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