Saturday, October 27, 2012

Review: The Minister's Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne

By JccKeith

Minister's Black Veil
The story opens in 18th century Puritan New England on the steps of the meetinghouse with the sexton ringing the bell.  He is to ring the bell until Parson Hooper comes to start church but upon seeing Hooper, announces to the crowd there is something odd on the parson’s face.  All turn to look and behold in awe a black veil covering the top portion of Hooper’s face.  Hooper is introduced as a gentlemanly, cleanly dressed, mild mannered preacher.  The spectators are shocked by the simple black veil and feel terror at its sight. 

His sermon, due to the fear the veil instills, is more powerful and effective.  Afterwards, the townspeople immediately begin speculating on why Hooper is wearing the veil.  Suspicions center on his having committed some secret sin and feeling so guilty he now has to hide behind the veil.  The afternoon service occurs and Hooper is still wearing the veil.

The sight of him scares people
At a funeral, Hooper leans over the corpse of the dead woman and the onlookers swear the corpse shuddered at the sight of the veil.  They feel the veil added an even deeper gloom to the proceedings.  At a wedding, Hooper’s black veil adds a sense of gloom.  During the reception, when preparing to take a drink, Hooper catches a glimpse of his own reflection in the mirror and is so shocked he drops the wine on the floor and leaves.

None dare to ask Hooper what sin the veil conceals and leave this task to his girlfriend Elizabeth.  She takes Hooper aside and asks him to remove the veil for her alone and tell her why he wears it.  Hooper informs her he has vowed to never remove the veil for any mortal eyes, even hers.  Assuring her in eternity it will be removed, he abstinently refuses to remove it even for a moment in life.  Elizabeth at last becomes affected by the veil and leaves the preacher to suffer with it alone.

Mr. Hooper lives the remainder of his life wearing the veil.  Due to the effect of the veil, his sermons are known far and wide.  People travel from far away to come and hear him preach, and to see the fearful veil.  His life is lived honestly and he is irreproachable in conduct but completely isolated and alone.  When at last his time to die comes, Elizabeth returns to be with him in his final hours.  She has never married and retains affections for Hooper. 

As his final breaths occur, the Reverend Clark attempts to convince Hooper to remove the veil so that he may enter eternity without guilt and without secret sin.  Although, Hooper’s reason for wearing the veil are never revealed and no one knows if he has committed any sin to hide, it is assumed to be the case.  The Reverend tries to remove the veil in Hooper’s last moments but Hooper temporarily regains enough strength to stop him and to give an angry speech about how everyone wears a veil.  He says that everyone hides some sin from others, even their nearest and dearest. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Minister’s Black Veil is typical of Hawthorne’s work.  The theme throughout is the isolation due to guilt and hidden secrets or sins that everyone feels.  He objectifies this in the black veil which separates Hooper from the rest of the world.  The veil, to all who see it, represents secret sin.  Onlookers are horrified at the sight because it reminds them of their own secret guilt.  They cannot bear the thought or feelings coming face to face with their own sins causes. 

Hawthorne illustrates the point with his statement of the saddest prison being the human heart.  Everyone bears secrets in their hearts that they will never reveal to others. These secrets isolate every individual from all others.  Hooper’s refusal to lift the veil, even for his beloved Elizabeth, perfectly exemplifies this message.
Hawthorne further emphasizes the nature of secret sin by never revealing the reason behind Hooper’s veil.  We as readers never find out if Hooper committed any sin which might explain the veil.  This secrecy behind the veil adds to its effect.

The message of the veil is summed up with:

“All through life that piece of crepe had hung between him and the world: it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart; and still it lay upon his face, as if to deepen the gloom of his darksome chamber, and shade him from the sunshine of eternity.”

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