Had Nathaniel Hawthorne died in his fifties, he would have been known majorly as a short story writer. This wouldn’t even be a discredit to what he later became, because many of these stories are real gems—take for example this one, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which many of us may have read in textbooks in high school (maybe not), but has both the vicariously thematic punches as well as the same starkly puritan catalog of themes from which they pull. This, though, is only the beginning—Hawthorne’s plain portrayals always find themselves inverted by some upside-down movement of a different reality. We find this in Reverend Hooper, who has suddenly begun donning a black veil everywhere, all the time, for no obvious reason, and is causing a fuss amongst his mystified parishioners. In almost every corner of his life, he finds himself ostracized because of this unseemly veil. And yet…
Among all its bad influences, the black veil had one desirable effect, of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman. By the aid of his mysterious emblem—for there was no apparent cause—he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin. His converts always regarded him with a dread peculiar to themselves, affirming, though but figuratively, that, before he brought them to celestial light, they had been with him behind the black veil. Its gloom, indeed, enabled him to sympathize with all dark affectations. Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper, and would not yield their breath till he appeared; though ever, as he stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face so near their own. Such were the terrors of the black veil, even when Death had bared his visage! Strangers came long distances to attend service at his church, with the mere idle purpose of gazing at his figure, because it was forbidden them to behold his face. But many were made to quake ere they departed! Once, during Governor Belcher’s administration, Mr. Hooper was appointed to preach the election sermon. Covered with his black veil, he stood before the chief magistrate, the council, and the representatives, and wrought so deep an impression that the legislative measures of that year were characterized by all the gloom and piety of our earliest ancestral sway.
Much like the later scarlet letter, Hawthorne’s black veil is the nomenclature of shame, the wall of death shading one’s life from one’s “good face.” It is different from Hester Prynne’s A in its anonymity: no parishioner, not even Hooper’s wife, knows its representative basis. It’s an intriguing turn on the part of Hawthorne because, in doing so, he is able to characterize the venomous and predatory response of the men and women of the church—their hunger for complete exposure of what dread this veil speaks of. At the same time, the veil speaks in the deep tones of the troubled and suffering heart, therefore enthralling the very ones who seek to uncover it. The parable comes to a fore on the minister’s deathbed, as the officiating minister attempts to finally “reveal the mystery of so many years”:
“Never!” cried the veiled clergyman. “On earth, never!”
“Dark old man!” exclaimed the affrighted minister, “with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?”
Father Hooper’s breath heaved; it rattled in his throat; but, with a mighty effort, grasping forward with his hands, he caught hold of life, and held it back till he should speak. He even raised himself in bed; and there he sat, shivering with the arms of death around him, while the black veil hung down, awful, at that last moment, in the gathered terrors of a lifetime. And yet the faint, sad smile, so often there, now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity, and linger on Father Hooper’s lips.
“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? 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! I look around me, and lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”