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An Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Minister's Black Veil'

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Minister's Black Veil'
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

Hawthorne begins his odd story 'The Minister's Black Veil' with a dramatic, yet unexplained, change in the appearance of the town's pastor.

Up until the particular Sunday when the story opens, Mr. Hooper has appeared as 'a gentlemanly person, of about thirty, [who,] though still a bachelor, . . . dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band, and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday's garb.' One Sunday, however, he suddenly adopts something new: '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 crape, 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.'

This 'darkened aspect' is very important, for if it does not give us a clue as to the reason Parson Hooper adopted the veil on this particular Sunday, it parallels the changed viewpoint of the minister toward life, and foreshadows the effect it will continue to have on him throughout the remainder of the story. We learn on the following page, for example, that the veil 'threw its obscurity between him and the holy page, as he read the Scriptures.' Hawthorne is making a dual reference to the fact that the veil obscured Parson Hooper's face from view as he read the Bible, and that in doing so this made the Bible itself seem more obscure.

Why would this be a good thing? Or, more to the point, why would Parson Hooper think that it would be a good thing? The purpose of a clergyman, it would seem, is to make God's word clearer to the congregation. This is accomplished in three ways. First, the word of God is clarified through the clergyman's explanation of it. Secondly, God's word is personified through the comfortable and benevolent relationship between lay individual and clergy. But most importantly for Hawthorne, God's word is exemplified through the clergyman's role as a living example of his faith. To most people, these three functions meld together so well in a good clergyman that it is almost impossible to separate one from another. In Parson Hooper, however, they are mutually contradictory.

For whatever reason, Hooper has come to the conclusion that human beings in their sinfulness are irrevocably far from God. Nothing he can do -- in terms of reading the Scriptures, counseling the troubled, or living his faith -- can really bring his congregation into full communion with God because people are simply too worldly. Hooper, however, is different. He is not different because he is free from sin -- on the contrary, he is only too aware of his mortal sinfulness -- but he is different because of the profundity of his awareness of sin. This is what really separates him from his fellow humans; the black veil is simply a symptom of it.

Because he is so conscious of his sinfulness, he cannot share in the simple joys of living enjoyed by his parishioners. Worse, after donning the veil, Parson Hooper also finds himself incapable of clarifying the Scriptures, because together with his awareness of his own sinfulness, he has become more aware of the obscurity of the ways of God. Consequently, the only way he has remaining to perform his ecclesiastic office is to serve as a living example of his faith -- and a warning to those who see him.

This is clearly shown in the story's dramatic conclusion, when the minister tending to Hooper on his deathbed tries to remove the black veil, and Hooper resists so violently the younger minister is frightened. 'Why do you tremble at me alone?' cries Hooper. 'Tremble also at each other . . . . I look around me, and lo! on every visage a black veil!'

This story can be found in the collection entitled "Selected Tales and Sketches."

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