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The Minister's Black Veil

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Paul Mills

on 14 March 2017

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Transcript of The Minister's Black Veil

The Minister's Black Veil
Puritanism and Piety
Conflict between Hooper’s strict Puritanism and Milford’s rather more lax Puritanism
In the beginning, the townspeople are thinking “secular” thoughts as they walk to church: children are laughing, and the young men are admiring the young women.
By contrast, Hooper denies himself the pleasure of marriage or friendship, even though Hawthorne makes it clear that he values both of these things; when pressed for his reason, he insists that he is more concerned with his reward in heaven than with his life on earth
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation
Puritan communities were extremely small and close-knit.
If someone misbehaved, everyone else would know about it. Hawthorne makes this dynamic clear in the first paragraph when he describes the way the sexton alerts the entire town to Hooper’s altered appearance.
In Hooper’s funeral sermon, he says that God is always watching, but the truth is that the townspeople are always watching and judging their peers.

Although the people are always watching, they’re superficial in their judgments. Unlike God, they have no way of knowing the status of other people’s souls; they can only see others’ appearances and make interpretations of what’s beneath.
Sin and Guilt
Hooper believes that everyone lives in a state of sin, inherited from Adam and Eve. He explains this on his deathbed, saying that everyone wears a “black veil.”

But the black veil over his own head could symbolize a specific sin he’s committed, or it could be a teaching tool that represents his inherent evilness as a human being.
The townspeople assume that Hooper has committed a specific crime, and because their Puritan community recognizes the danger of sin, they’re horrified that Hooper seems to be showing his sin to the public.
Ironically, even though Puritans believe that sin must be defeated at all costs, they would rather sweep it under the rug than talk about it and potentially cure it.
It’s also possible that the townspeople of Milford do understand what Hooper’s veil means; in other words, it reminds them of their own secret sins, and they ostracize Hooper as a defense mechanism to avoid coming to terms with their own guilt.
Teaching by Example
There’s a long-standing tradition in Christianity of “teaching by example”: passing on moral lessons to others by making oneself an illustration.
One of the key questions in “The Minister’s Black Veil” is whether or not the “teaching methods” used by Hooper, a Christian minister, are successful.
Arn, Jackson. "The Minister’s Black Veil Themes."
LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 17 Jun 2015. Web. 9 Mar 2017.
Themes in "The Minister's Black Veil"
Puritanism and Piety
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation
Sin and Guilt
Teaching by Example
Flaws and Contradictions of Puritanism:
Hooper’s veil encourages the townspeople to pay more attention to his sermons, and fear for the state of their souls — in a sense, to be better Puritans —however, Hawthorne never shows the reward for the townspeople’s “gloom.”
Has Puritanism has taken the townspeople’s joy and energy for nothing?
The Puritan townspeople, with their focus on sinfulness, quickly come to believe that the veil must represent Hooper’s sins, rather than understanding that through the veil he is trying to tell them to look to their own sins.
More Conflicting Ideas
Even Hooper, seemingly the perfect Puritan, may be violating his own beliefs. The black veil hides his face, but ironically, it makes him more “visible” and noticeable to the townspeople — in this sense, he could be guilty of the sin of pride.
Piety or Pride?
It’s not clear why Hooper is any more moral than the townspeople laughing and enjoying their Sunday walk to church — the only difference is that he’s miserable.

Ultimately, Hawthorne seems to suggest, Puritanism has its good points:

It encourages humans to live moral, pious lives.
However, it may go too far in depriving them of joy and encouraging them to “show off” their morality.
The sermon which he now delivered was marked by the same characteristics of style and manner as the general series of his pulpit oratory. But there was something, either in the sentiment of the discourse itself, or in the imagination of the auditors, which made it greatly the most powerful effort that had ever heard from their pastor’s lips. It was tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper’s temperament.
The people hurried out with indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement, and conscious of lighter spirits the moment they lost sight of the black veil. Some gathered in little circles, huddled closely together, with their mouths all whispering in the center; some went homeward alone, rapt in silent meditation; some talked loudly, and profaned the Sabbath day with ostentatious laughter
Though Hooper’s appearance changes after he wears the veil, everything else about him is the same:
still pensive
still in love with his fiancée, Elizabeth
still eager to greet his congregation
He delivers the same Sunday sermon as usual, but his appearance leads the townspeople to perceive the sermon as much darker and more severe than usual.

A simple piece of clothing alters their perception of a man they’ve known for years.
Hooper’s appearance leads the town to imagine elaborate interpretations of why he chooses to wear the veil.
Some think he’s losing his eyesight, some think he’s going insane, but most think that he has committed a grave sin and is afraid to show his face.
Elizabeth, who’s clever enough to understand how powerful appearances can be in Milford, urges Hooper to remove the veil, before the townspeople interpret it as a sign of his sinful behavior.
Even though the townspeople are too timid to ask Hooper about his veil, or accuse him of wrongdoing, Elizabeth knows that their interpretations are dangerous by themselves.
Indeed, the townspeople’s interpretation of Hooper’s appearance leads to his ostracism from Milford: because of the power of appearances and interpretations, he’s isolated almost entirely by the town.
Over the years, while the people of Milford have been interpreting Hooper, Hooper has been interpreting them.
On his deathbed, he comments on the townspeople’s obsession with appearances, saying that everyone in Milford wears a Black Veil.
In a sense, this means that the townspeople have focused too much on interpreting his appearance of sinfulness and too little on their own souls and sins.
Appearances are important in Milford, but Hawthorne shows how they can be counterproductive to true understanding, or true morality.
There was but one thing remarkable about his appearance. 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."
"Such was the effect of this simple piece of crape, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them."
The townspeople could be correct in saying that Hooper has committed a specific crime; in the end, we don’t know why he veils his face.
Hawthorne says that Hooper is “unlike” Joseph Moody of York, Maine, who veiled his face as punishment for accidentally killing his friend, but it’s unclear if this means that Hooper is innocent of specific wrongdoing or that he committed a different crime.
In the same way Hooper cuts himself off from the town, Hawthorne cuts readers off from understanding him fully, using third person narration to distance us from Hooper’s thoughts and feelings.
As a result, the story seems to suggest that it’s impossible to know to a certainty if another person is innocent or guilty of a specific crime.
This might suggest that people shouldn’t obsess over others’ sins, but respect others and allow them to work through their own guilt.
It’s clear that Hawthorne believes that the townspeople are wrong to gossip about other people’s sins; what’s less apparent is whether or not Hooper is right to obsess.
By wearing the veil, Hooper brings misery to himself, but also to Elizabeth, his fiancée, and the townspeople, who are newly frightened by his sermons.
“The Minister’s Black Veil” might suggest that the profound focus on sin to the exclusion of so much else is itself dangerous, not only because it makes people treat others poorly, but because it makes people guilty and unhappy with themselves.
“'Truly do I,' replied the lady; 'and I would not be alone with [Hooper] for the world. I wonder he is not afraid to be alone with himself!'
'Men are sometimes so,' said her husband [the physician]."
"In this manner Mr. Hooper spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish."
46 word sentence!
At the beginning of the story, Hooper is an inexperienced preacher who pleases his congregation with “mild, persuasive influences” but doesn’t impassion them to be good.
When he begins to wear the veil, he gives the same sermons and delivers them in the same tone, but because of his veil, his sermon is unusually sobering and effective.
As he grows older, Hooper’s sermons grow increasingly “severe and gloomy” (or seem to in the minds of his congregation), and as a result, the townspeople concentrate on Christian values and the afterlife.
People who convert to Christianity explicitly state that it was the sight of Hooper’s black veil that made them change their ways.
On his deathbed, speaking to the Reverend Clark, Hooper implies that he wore the veil in the first place to teach others a moral lesson: everyone is sinful (“on every visage a Black Veil”).
It’s unclear whether the townspeople ever understand Hooper’s lesson.
While it’s true that they take his sermons more seriously, and even convert to Christianity because of the veil, it would seem that they don’t recognize the full extent of their own sinfulness.
Hooper has to explain himself on his deathbed because none of the townspeople who have lived with him for decades can understand why he has worn the veil.
Hooper has taught the townspeople a lesson, but it’s not clear exactly what lesson he’s taught; meanwhile, the townspeople seem not to realize they’ve been taught anything.
Hawthorne questions Hooper’s approach to teaching by example.
Since people misinterpret moral lessons, it may be the case that morality can’t really be “taught” at all.

"'Have patience with me, Elizabeth!' cried he, passionately. 'Do not desert me though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls. It is but a mortal veil; it is not for eternity. Oh, you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened to be alone behind my black veil!'"
Immediately after Hooper wears the black veil, the people of Milford isolate him from their community.
Children and their parents refuse to respond when he greets them, Squire Saunders “forgets” to invite him to dinner, and even his fiancée, Elizabeth, abandons him.
These changes are especially painful for Hooper because, Hawthorne notes, he is a friendly, loving person.
Before Elizabeth leaves him, he begs her to stay, knowing full well that he will be doomed to a lifetime of isolation without her.
As Hawthorne writes of Hooper later in life,
“All through life that piece of crape 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.”
While Hooper’s veil isolates him from Milford, it also symbolizes the isolation that all human beings experience.
As he explains on his deathbed, he will remove the veil only “
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.

In Hooper’s view, all humans are isolated, in the sense that they are alone with their secret sins and their guilt.
Ironically, Hooper’s decision to wear a veil may have been an attempt to bridge the gap between himself and his friends by acknowledging sin and attempting to work through it.
Even if humans live in a state of isolation because of their sinfulness, Hawthorne suggests that it is possible to overcome this isolation with love, virtue, and patience.
Elizabeth breaks off her engagement to Hooper, but she continues to love him and even tends to him on his deathbed.
And for Hooper, who believes in the afterlife, all isolation is temporary, since in Heaven virtuous souls are united with God and with each other.
Yet the fact that Hooper tries to teach his lesson on isolation and the townspeople never understand what he is trying to tell them only further reinforces the essential isolation between all people.
“'There is an hour to come,' said he, 'when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crape till then.'"
Puritanism: Pros and Cons
Same Guy, Different Outcome
Elizabeth Knows
A Veil Or a Mirror?
Who has Sinned?
Who is Less Wrong?
Teacher, Teacher!
Yeah, But Do They
Get It
All By Myself
How to Be Not Lonely
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