Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Minister’s Black Veil

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 20

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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.

The elements of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Veil” are not unfamiliar to anyone who has read much of Hawthorne’s work. It has a mysterious, sometimes even sinister, tone with a slightly didactic approach. I’m not sure, though, whether this teachy aspect is Hawthorne himself or simply the title character’s attempts to teach a lesson to his congregation and those outside his church – even if this “lesson” goes on for the rest of the minister’s life.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Reverend Mr. Hooper appears one day at his Meeting-House wearing a black veil around his head blocking from view his face except for his mouth and chin. Just this description alone can give the reader a few chills. The reaction of Mr. Hooper’s parishioners are mixed in that some can’t look away even though they want to and others begin to think he is trying to teach an important lesson.

Nobody really knows what the minister is trying to do and Hawthorne, himself, never really gives any specifics as to what the black veil might represent. This lack of information actually helps the story steer away from being too preachy on Hawthorne’s part. It’s still fictionally preachy on the part of the preacher.

If I had to guess what the black veil means, I would say that it gives the impression of the evil that can exist in humanity both collectively and individually.  Evil that can be seen outright and evil that can be hidden. In some ways, the minister is trying to point out that humankind is “fallen” or “sinful” even if many of his congregation don’t want to see that theological concept lived out in such a vivid manner.

“The Minister’s Black Veil” is included in the Hawthorne collection The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories.  I read it when I selected the Queen of Diamonds for Week 20 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

4 responses to “Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Minister’s Black Veil

  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve read this story, and you’ve made me want to read it again. Hawthorne rarely disappoints me. I didn’t blog about it, but his story “The Vision of the Fountain” was a new discovery to me this year that I thought was just wonderful.

    • I can imagine Hawthorne doing something wonderful with a story called “The Vision of the Fountain”. I’m not sure that one is included in my collection but I will have to find it. “The Minister’s Black Veil” is intriguing because Hawthorne manages to write a teachy, preachy story without being teachy and preachy.

  2. This story always creeped me out! I felt so sorry for the minister. Why is he hiding? Why must he isolate himself? He does seem to be trying to externalize his own evilness. But the reaction of the people seems maybe worse? They don’t try to accept or understand. Are they being hypocritical because they are acceptable only because no one knows their secret sins? It’s so fascinating and yet so depressing.

    • The image itself of the minister wearing the black veil is enough to give me chills. It’s taken awhile to realize it, but Hawthorne can rank right up there with Poe as far as scary stories go.

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