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The Minister's Black Veil
By Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work and Publication
Setting
Characters
Point of View
Tone
Plot Summary
Was a Crime Committed?
Climax
Themes
Figures of Speech
Source
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Hawthorne
Complete Free Text
Index of Study Guides
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012
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Type of Work

......."The Minister's Black Veil" is a short story centering on the need for human beings to acknowledge their sins. It is sometimes categorized as a dark romance. 

Publication 

.......The story first appeared in 1836 in The Token and the Atlantic Souvenir, a collection of prose and poetry edited by Samuel Goodrich and published in Boston by Charles Bowen. The story begins on page 302.  

Setting

.......The action takes place in a small Puritan town in colonial New England. The name of the town is Milford. Whether it is a fictional town or the name of a real town—such as Milford, Maine; Milford, Massachusetts; or Milford Connecticut—is uncertain. 
        Puritanism began in England in the late sixteenth century when Protestant reformers attempted to purge the Church of England (or Anglican Church) of the elaborate ceremonies, rituals, and hierarchical structure it retained from the Roman Catholic Church after King Henry VIII established Anglicanism by acts of Parliament between 1529 and 1536. The Act of Supremacy, approved in 1534, officially established the Church of England as an independent Protestant entity separate from the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Church of England retained Catholic rituals such as the mass and prelates such as bishops. For the Puritans, the pure word of the Bible, presented in part through inspired preaching, took precedence over rituals while direct revelation from the Holy Spirit superseded reason. After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, the Puritans petitioned the new monarch, King James I, to adopt their reforms. In January 1604 at a special conference at Hampton Court Palace near London, the king rejected most of the proposed Puritan reforms but he did grant a Puritan request for a new translation of the Bible, which resulted in publication of the King James Version in 1611. 
        Many disenchanted Puritans left the country. Those who remained behind joined with members of Parliament opposed to the crown's economic policies. Together they defeated the king's forces in the English Civil War. With the king out of the way, the Puritans became a dominant faction in the new Commonwealth government headed by Oliver Cromwell. However, after Cromwell's death in 1558, a movement to restore the monarchy began, and King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. Under the Clarendon Code, approved in 1662, the Church of England expelled all Puritan ministers who refused to accept church tenets. Many Puritans then emigrated to America and established their brand of religion in Massachusetts and other colonies. 
......."The Minister's Black Veil" takes place after the Puritans established themselves in New England. 

Characters

The Rev. Mr. Hooper: Minister in a Puritan community with a meetinghouse. One Sunday, he wears a black veil over his face while presiding at services in his church. Thereafter, he never removes the veil. His appearance on the streets unnerves the townspeople and casts a pall of gloom over the community. 
Elizabeth: Mr. Hooper's wife-to-be. 
Goodman Gray: Member of Mr. Hooper's congregation. 
Squire Saunders: Parishioner who usually invites Mr. Hooper to Sunday dinner.
Sexton: Church officer who rings the bell and maintains the building.
Old Woman: Parishioner who thinks Mr. Hooper's veil has changed him into "something awful."
Physician: Parishioner who suggests that Mr. Hooper may suffer from a mental debility.
Physician's Wife: Parishioner who observes that the black veil has become "a terrible thing" on Mr. Hooper's face.
Deceased Girl: Young woman at whose funeral Mr. Hooper presides.
Superstitious Woman: Woman who observes Mr. Hooper leaning over the corpse of the deceased girl.
Funeral-Procession Partners: Man and woman who have a feeling that Mr. Hooper and the spirit of the deceased girl are walking hand in hand during the funeral procession.
Young Couple: Bride and groom at whose wedding Mr. Hooper presides. They tremble at the sight of Mr. Hooper's veil.
Delegation of Parishioners: Church members who go to Mr. Hooper's house to learn why he wears a veil.
Church Deacons: Parishioners at the bedside of Mr. Hooper when he is dying.
The Rev. Mr. Clark: Minister from another community who ministers at the bedside of the dying Mr. Hooper.

Point of View

.......Hawthorne presents most of the story in objective third-person point of view. However, he occasionally uses omniscient third-person point of view to reveal the thoughts of characters. Here are examples of the latter.

Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. 
But that piece of crape, to their imagination, seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them. 

With self-shudderings and outward terrors, he walked continually in its shadow, groping darkly within his own soul, or gazing through a medium that saddened the whole world.

Tone

.......The tone is somber, gloomy, and ominous, as the following sentence indicates: "When Mr. Hooper came, the first thing that their eyes rested on was the same horrible black veil, which had added deeper gloom to the funeral, and could portend nothing but evil to the wedding. Such was its immediate effect on the guests that a cloud seemed to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape, and dimmed the light of the candles."
 
Plot Summary

.......Ihe sexton rings the bell to summon the faithful to the Sunday service in the Milford meetinghouse. After they gather in front of the church, the Rev. Mr. Hooper approaches. His appearance surprises everyone.
        “Are you sure it is our parson?” Goodman Gray asks the sexton. The latter is certain.
        Hooper, a bachelor of thirty, wears his neat Sunday clothes as usual. But over his face hangs a veil of crepe covering everything except his mouth and chin. Because it is sheer, he can see through it. One woman comments that he has “changed himself into something awful.” Goodman Gray says he has “gone mad.”
        After the congregation assembles, Hooper presents a psalm, reads from the Scriptures, and prays. All the while, everyone wonders why he is hiding his face. More than one woman gets up and leaves. 
        Hooper preaches his sermon in his usual manner—without thunder, without drama—but with quiet persuasion. It is a powerful sermon, the most powerful one he ever preached. It centers on “secret sin,” the narrator says, the kind a person hides even from people close to him. The congregation, well familiar with his subject, becomes uncomfortable. Some begin shaking.
        After the service, some of the parishioners exchange whispers outside the church, and some go home in deep thought. Others laugh. Several shake their heads to signal their inability to  understand what they saw. There are those who think Hooper wears the veil to shade his eyes, tired and weakened by midnight reading. When the pastor emerges from the church, he greets his flock and blesses the children. But no one walks by his side. Nor does old Squire Saunders invite him to his Sunday dinner table, as the squire is wont to do. 
        In the afternoon, Hooper presides at a funeral for a young girl. He prays for her, for the mourners, and for all human beings who must remove the veil from their faces at “the dreadful hour.” In the procession to the cemetery, a woman looks back at Hooper and tells the man next to her, “I had a feeling that the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand.” The man says he had the same feeling.
        That evening, Hooper is to preside at the wedding of a young couple. When he arrives, the wedding party is horrified to see that he is still wearing the veil. It casts a pall of gloom over the gathering. Is it an evil omen? 
        Standing before the minister, the bride trembles and becomes pale. Someone whispers that the young girl buried that afternoon had returned to marry. After the ceremony, the minister cheerfully raises a glass of wine in toast to the newlyweds. But when he sees himself in a mirror, the image of the veil unnerves him. He spills his wine and runs out.
        The next day, the minister is the talk of the town—in homes, on streets, in the tavern. But no one asks him why he is wearing the veil. In the past, he was always approachable; anyone could talk with him. Now, the mystery of the veil tongue-ties everyone. Finally, however, the people send a delegation to make the inquiry. Hooper greets its members cordially. After they sit down, he waits for them to state their business. But the veil intimidates them; it represents a frightful secret between him and them. Confused, unable to form words to explain their mission, they simply sit there. If only he would remove the veil. Finally, they get up and report back to fellow parishioners, saying such a weighty matter requires the attention of a council of churches or a synod.
        However, there is one person who is not afraid to question him—his wife-to-be, Elizabeth. After they meet, she says, “No, there is nothing terrible in this piece of crape,” then asks him why he wears it. He replies that an hour will come when “all of us shall cast aside our veils.” Until then, he says, he will continue to wear his.
The veil is a symbol, he says, which he must always wear; it separates him from the world. No human being will ever see it removed, and even Elizabeth may not look behind it. She tells him that others may think he is hiding a secret sin, then asks him again to remove it to avoid scandal.
        "If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough," he replies; "and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?"
        She sat for a while, thinking. Is he mentally ill? As she gazes at the veil, she suddenly feels its terrors and rises, trembling. He begs her not to abandon him. Although the veil must cover his face, he says, there is no veil between their souls. When she asks him once more to lift the veil, he refuses.
        “Then farewell,” she says.
        Thereafter, a few people regard the veil as a mere eccentricity. But most of the townsfolk regard it as a bizarre or even sinister presence. Some people avoid him; others go out of their way to observe him as a strange curiosity. The terror of children at seeing him convinces him that the veil holds an otherworldly power. He himself refuses to look into a mirror or into still water. Rumors arise that he wears it to hide a heinous crime. Perhaps wraiths hover around him.
        However, the veil gives him a power that enables him to reach sinners. When they repent, they tell him that they, too, were once behind a black veil; now they stand in the light of God. The dying ask for him to comfort them even though they fear the veil. Strangers come from afar to attend his services. The government calls on him to preach the election sermon before legislators, and the laws they enact later are “characterized by all the gloom and piety of our earliest ancestral sway.”
        But suspicion and fear of him continue to persist. When people are well in spirit and body, they avoid him. But when they need him to minister to them, they send for him. “Father Hooper”—for that is what they begin calling him—is only too happy to heed their call. Years pass and his turn comes to face death. Parishioners and  physician gather at his bedside. A young minister—the Rev. Mr. Clark—rides from Westbury to pray over him. A nurse is there, too—Elizabeth. 
        Clark informs Hooper that the hour of death is at hand. But he reaches down to remove the veil, the dying man places both his hands on it and says it cannot be removed on earth. The young minister then asks what terrible sin is on his soul. Hooper musters energy in his feeble body and sits up. What makes the veil so fearsome? he asks. He says, 

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!"
After he dies, they place him in a coffin and bury him—his face still shrouded by the veil. Many more years pass. The narrator says, “Good Mr. Hooper's face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the Black Veil!” 

Was a Crime Committed?

        While writing a review of Hawthorne's short stories, Edgar Allan Poe raised the possibility that the Rev. Mr. Hooper committed a crime involving the young lady who was buried on the day that Hooper began wearing his veil. Poe's article appeared in Graham's Magazine of May 1842. In it, he said, “The moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye (having reference to the 'young lady') has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive.
        In the story, Hawthorne himself hints in the following passage that there may have been something between Hooper and the girl:

         The bearers went heavily forth, and the mourners followed, saddening all the street, with the dead before them, and Mr. Hooper in his black veil behind.
         "Why do you look back?" said one in the procession to his partner.
        "I had a fancy," replied she, "that the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand."
      "And so had I, at the same moment," said the other.

Climax

.......The climax occurs when the Rev. Mr. Hooper sits up on his deathbed and says everyone in the room is wearing a veil.

Themes

The Need to Acknowledge Sin

.......Wearing a veil is the Rev. Mr. Hooper's way of calling attention to the tendency of human beings to keep secret their shameful thoughts and sinful behavior. To earn a heavenly reward, people must lift their veils, reveal their faults—at least to God—and repent.

Alienation

.......In executing his plan to save souls, the Rev. Mr. Hooper alienates himself from his fellow human beings. As the narrator says, “It [the veil] had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.

Ambiguity

.......The people are at a loss to explain why the Rev. Mr. Hooper wears the black veil. Consequently, they guess at the cause. “Thus,” says the narrator, “from beneath the black veil, there rolled a cloud into the sunshine, an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the poor minister, so that love or sympathy could never reach him.” 

Reform and Repentance

.......The minister's veil causes people to repent their sins and reform their lives. The narrator says, 

By the aid of his mysterious emblem—for there was no other apparent cause—[the Rev. Mr. Hooper] 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.”
Sinners on their deathbeds send for Mr. Hooper. And, says the narrator, 
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.

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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in "The Minister's Black Veil." For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

The sexton stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house

Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, 

Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on week days. 

The cause of so much amazement may appear sufficiently slight. 

The subject had reference to secret sin

he well-nigh lost his wits by his own waggery.

Anaphora
His frame shuddered, his lips grew white
Metaphor
C
Thus, from beneath the black veil, there rolled a cloud into the sunshine, an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the poor minister, so that love or sympathy could never reach him.
Comparison of ambiguity to a cloud

It had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.
Comparison of his heart to a prison

Onomatopoeia
The children babbled of it on their way to school. 

Father Hooper's breath . . . rattled in his throat

Personification
Such were the terrors of the black veil, even when Death had bared his visage!
Comparison of Death to a person
Simile
Mr. Hooper raised a glass of wine to his lips, wishing happiness to the newmarried couple in a strain of mild pleasantry that ought to have brightened the features of the guests, like a cheerful gleam from the hearth.
Comparison of pleasantry to a gleam from the hearth

He even smiled again—that same sad smile, which always appeared like a faint glimmering of light, proceeding from the obscurity beneath the veil.
Comparison of the smile to a light

Her eyes were fixed insensibly on the black veil, when, like a sudden twilight in the air, its terrors fell around her.

Comparison of terrors to twilight


Source

 .......Hawthorne based his story on undocumented accounts of an incident involving the Rev. Joseph Moody (1700-1753), of York, Maine. Moody was said to have worn a handkerchief over his face most of his life as a result of the lingering guilt he felt for accidentally shooting a friend when Moody was eight years old. However, Richard Bowen, a program specialist for the Museum of Old York, conducted research indicating Moody wore the handkerchief for a different reason and perhaps for a limited amount of time. Bowen wrote: "He wore a white handkerchief for an undetermined time after the Fall of 1738, when he had a mental and physical breakdown. This breakdown occurred after the death of his wife and newborn daughter in childbirth and after many years of overwork and a lifetime of Puritan guilt, introspection, and bouts of depression.” 
        Apparently there is no evidence directly linking Moody's wearing of the handkerchief to the accidental death of his friend.

Work Cited

Bowen, Richard. “Museum of Old York explores Handkerchief Moody myth.” 11 March 2012 25 Feb. 2009 <http://www.seacoastonline.com/articles/20090225- ...........LIFE-902250326.>. 

Study Questions and Writing Topics

  • Write an essay arguing that the Rev. Mr. Hooper committed a grave offense that involved the deceased girl in some way. Support your thesis with quotations from the story and with library and Internet research.
  • Are there similarities between the Rev. Mr. Hooper and the title character of another Hawthorne story, "Young Goodman Brown"?
  • What does Mr. Hooper mean at the end of the story when he says that everyone around him is wearing a veil? 
  • As a class exercise, answer this question yes or no on an unsigned sheet of paper. Do you have dark secrets that you would not disclose even to family members? Then discuss whether Mr. Hooper was right or wrong when he said that many people where a black veil. After the discussion, tally the answers.

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