Masterclass in Symbolism: Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil

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The Minister’s Black Veil is a dynamic example of effectively utilizing symbol to create a lasting impression towards the darkness of the human condition (a delusion likewise veiled by symbol). The story, published by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1837, opens simply with the routine gestures of Sunday worship in a quiet, New England village. But on this particular Sunday morning, amidst the subtle, ritual pilgrimage taken on by young and old, Parson Hooper has a strange obstruction about his face. This veil “such as any woman might wear on her bonnet” becomes a striking symbol of fear and mystery amongst the villagers (Hawthorne 20). Hawthorne masterfully utilizes this symbol. Through the use of metaphor and narrative suggestion, he empowers this enigmatic symbol to reflect as a black-mirror the evils of the human heart.

Before analysis of the text, we must consider the subconscious power and innate paradox invested in a symbol. Manley P. Hall, in his grand occult examination of all things hidden, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, states: “[s]ymbolism is the language of the Mysteries; in fact it is the language not only of mysticism and philosophy but of all Nature, for every law and power active in universal procedure is manifested to the limited sense of perceptions of man through the medium of symbol” (Hall 37). Symbol has always been used to express what cannot be conveyed in words. It speaks to what is unknown, what is deep and what is dark within. Hawthorne understood clearly the power drawn from the use of symbol, most especially a symbol that remains obscure. By withholding meaning, this symbol takes on life as an entity. It transcends the normal boundaries of story and unleashes the imagination of the reader.

Great attention was given to the creation of this symbol. In our introduction to this incendiary tale, the entire village is of normal disposition. Mr. Hooper’s appearance is described as “gentlemanly” with the exception of “but one thing remarkable” (Hawthorne 17). “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 … [it gave] a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things” (17). The literal description of Mr. Hooper’s impeded vision matches the metaphorical nature of this new obstruction. With this double meaning, the new mystery takes on power in the mind of the reader. No longer can anything be taken at face value. The reader is challenged to engage the symbol head on.

Hawthorne reinforces his symbol in the following scene: “That mysterious emblem … shook with his measured breath … throw[ing] obscurity between him and the holy page” (18). Once again the literal nature of the veil matches its metaphorical value to enhance the dual nature of the symbol. Hawthorne takes advantage by provoking his reader through the narrator: “Did he seek to hide [his face] from the dread Being whom he was addressing?” (18). This inquiry immediately draws attention to the “elephant” upon the pulpit. The palpable and pervasive feeling of dread sinks in. Hooper’s audience, pale faced and petrified, are succumbed to this ominous symbol: a mirror shining brightly in the night, casting light upon that they thought was hidden.

The effect of this symbol is shown through the descriptive reactions of Mr. Hooper’s audience. The Minister stares out at the newly adorned “veils” of his congregation as “the people hurried out with indecorous confusion” (19). Following his indictment, his “sheep” quickly construct masks through means of habitual social interaction that feign normalcy, but overcompensate ever slightly; dismissive in attitude, but only before his presence. In his absence, their words take on new violence, invoking the ancient proverb: “But violence covereth the mouth of the wicked.” (King James Bible, Proverbs 10:6) Through the emotional response of the villagers, the reader knows the veil is accomplishing an effect.

Hawthorne chooses to progress his symbol further in the setting of the mysterious funeral of a young woman. Mr. Hooper’s now “appropriate emblem” is charged with supernatural magick, causing the “corpse [to] slightly shudder” and brings his people to tremble before him (Hawthorne 20). The symbol takes upon itself the reflective qualities of a black mirror, for secretly the crowd “darkly understood him” (20). But what is it that they understood? The next day this symbol has an iron grip upon the psyche of the village. Each individual is seized within the horror of whatever atrocity they imagine the veil to represent. The narrator’s commentary is perfect: “It was remarkable that of all the busybodies and impertinent people in the parish, not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Hooper” (20). While supplying the reader with integral commentary to the human condition, the narration dually brings to question the legitimacy of their fear. What if the veil is merely a misunderstanding? Once again, Hawthorne utilizes narrative suggestion, but this time for a different effect.

Fully anticipating that direct confrontation will free us from the weight of the unknown, we turn our attention to the only sensible solution manifest in Elizabeth. Elizabeth, “[Mr. Hooper’s] plighted wife,” takes it upon herself to broach the subject: “Come good sir, let the sun shine from behind the cloud” (22). Her comment alludes to the sunny normal day the story began with, which is the second and final mention of “the light.” With it, the notion is put forth that by the power of its mere pronunciation the “word” will dispel all that remains in shadow. But fully expecting satisfaction with her confrontation, Elizabeth (and the reader) is cast deep within the labyrinth by Mr. Hooper’s cryptic response: “There is an hour to come … when all of us shall cast aside our veils. … Know, then, this veil is a type and symbol, and I am bound to wear it” (23). Through Mr. Hooper’s careful response, Hawthorne protects the mystery and enables his symbol to take full force in the collective imagination of the village and his reader as an unknown or an ultimate!

Hawthorne continues to reinforce the strength of his symbol until the end. Elizabeth departs and the multitudes cast Mr. Hooper into the murky pools of public spectacle. However, as we’re informed by the narrator, “[no] attempts were made … to discover the secret which [the veil] was supposed to hide.” (23) Mr. Hooper, his person now absorbed within this symbol, continues on as a shadow until the day of his death. Most write him off as insane. Many taunt or ignore him entirely. Still, the congregations gather around him and honor him with the title of “Father.” But what is most important is not evident in the mere actions of those around him, but more apparent in their inaction. Absolutely no one would approach the mystery directly.

What is it that we fear in the unknown? Why do we shine light on moving shadows in the night and why do we jump when caught by surprise? Why could no one face him? “[For] when one gazes long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you” (Nietzsche 153). Human beings are psychologically pre-disposed to avoid hard truths. The reality that every individual harbors evil within them is more than most can bare. When faced with the inevitable darkness within ourselves, it is much easier to point a finger exclaiming, “Dark old man!” than to stare our own reflection (Hawthorne 27). But Hawthorne’s symbol offers a unique opportunity to each of us. Symbols are merely keys to the doorways of understanding. And though the keys to Mr. Hooper’s symbol were never truly obtained by the villagers, the symbol’s power affected the minds and lives of every person it came into contact with. So what is there to learn learn as we stare into darkness?

Mr. Cooper challenges, “Why do you tremble at me alone! … Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil?” (27). This is the very nature of his symbol . It has absolutely nothing to do with the black veil. The black veil is only a scarecrow. Mr. Hooper holds a key before our eyes– a key of ultimate liberation. This key unlocks the door to the inner mysteries of who we are: “Every visage a Black veil!” (27). And it is here Hawthorne completes his masterwork in symbolism by refusing to disarm his symbol, but rather intensifies it through deliberate ambiguity and enigma. His symbol undergoes final metamorphosis, breaking the chrysalis and uttering a primordial scream as it rears its face before us. Hawthorne has created an abyss. And having gazed into its depths, it now gazes back into you.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil”. A Reader for English 2, compiled by Professor

Garcia, Santa Monica College, 2017, pp. 17-28

Hall, Manly P. The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Philosophical Research Society, Penguin Group,

2003.

The King James Bible. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989.

Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Seventy-Five Aphorisms from Five Volumes”, Basic Writings of Nietzsche.

Translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York: The Modern Library Classic, 2000.

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