“The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays the nature of human behavior in dealing with guilt. The author uses the symbol of the veil to show how people hide their secret sins and private life from public to avoid embarrassment. In the case of the minister, the veil symbolizes “his shadow, the secret sin that overpowers is life and prevents him from developing close relationships with the town people or Elizabeth, the woman he intends to marry” (O’Connor 154). However, hiding their sins does not lessen the guilt in people’s conscience, evidenced by Mr. Hoover’s wearing of the mask perhaps as a way of suppressing guilty feelings. In addition, the author suggests that like a veil, secrets prevent people from knowing each other intimately. Consequently, they are unable to develop intimate and beneficial relationships due the barriers presented by their secrets. This essay discusses the symbolic significance of the veil in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
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The most visible interpretation of the veil is its suggestion of secrecy. It hides people’s secrets and sins from public scrutiny. In the story, the Reverend Hoover the congregation saw approaching was different from the one they knew. The author says that they “beheld the semblance of Mr. Hooper” (Hawthorne 323), suggesting that the real Hoover was hidden behind the veil. This portrayal of the Rev. Mr. Hooper’s person suggests the idea that the image people project in public is not real. People hide their real character to avoid public embarrassment. The true self is a secret because it has a darker side that the individual would not wish to make public. Like the Rev.’s veil, the public life that people display is a mask that hides the secret fantasies of their minds and hidden motives in their hearts. Like the scarlet letter that disguises Hester Prynne’s inner life, the black veil suggests people’s tendency to project a false outward image (Bell 191). The Rev. Hoover revealed this deception in people’s character by dramatizing how individuals hide the dark side of their lives from others. The uneasiness that greeted the Rev. Hooper’s entry into the meeting-house illustrates that people are not willing to confront the reality of their guilt and secret sins. Instead, they look the other way and look for escape routes. Rev. Hooper’s black veil was a public statement of human nature; that everyone has skeletons in their closets, buried and hidden from public scrutiny. Those present seemed to be aware of this, that Rev. Hooper’s act was representative of all of them. It was a harsh reality, a probing into their consciences and deep lying secrets. This is evidenced from the behavior of the congregation; men and women turned around uneasily when they saw the shame of their own lives behind the Rev.’s veil. There was a “rustling of the women's gowns and shuffling of the men's feet .......while little boys clambered upon the seats” (Hawthorne 324). Through the character of the Rev. Mr. Hooper and his symbolic wearing of the black veil, Hawthorne portrays the nature if social interactions. People talk to each other, wish each other well and feel happy for each other; yet, behind all that charming camaraderie, no heart knows the secrets of the other.
The veil, as a symbol of mourning, also suggests an act of confession and repentance. Thus, it can be argued that Mr. Hoover is mourning, perhaps for his own sake, or perhaps for the lost souls of his flock. The idea of mourning has a biblical allusion if taken in the sense of the shepherd/caretaker mourning the lost sheep. There is a direct comparison with the actions of Jesus who mourned when he foresaw the Jerusalem’s doomed future. Thus, the Biblical verse “Jesus Wept” can be interpreted alongside the statement “the minister mourned” in reference to the Rev. Hooper’s lamentation about the sins of his followers. Ironically, the hint that he is hiding something exonerates him because he admits, symbolically, of harboring some secrets. It is like when a person is guilt of cheating on their partner, and says....”Dear, I did something and it’s driving me crazy, and I’m not sure that this is the right time to say it.” Thus, one is made aware that their partner has some secret that he or she is not willing to openly discuss or reveal at the moment. On their part, the culprit lessens the burden of guilt on their conscience by the knowledge that they’ve confessed the fact of their harboring a secret. Likewise, the Rev. Mr. Hooper is comforted by the knowledge that he has revealed, symbolically, the fact that he has secrets of his own although he could not state them openly. Mr. Hooper’s act of ascending the stairs, “and showing himself in the pulpit, face to face with his congregation, except for the black veil” (Hawthorne 324) is symbolic of his desire to confess. It is a gesture of repentance. The irony of the moment, however, is that instead of the veil hiding his sins whatever they were, its presence suggests that there are secrets. The veil symbolizes the act of hiding something publicly, letting the others know that there is a secret, but it is not to be confessed explicitly. Some scholars, most notable Kate Rogers in Ambiguity and Conflicts in the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, argue that the veil suggests the story’s multiple interpretations. She supports her claims by referring to Hawthorne’s writings about the Puritans (such as in The Scarlet Letter) who came to America to establish a just and righteous society, yet they lacked a clear sense of right and wrong (Rogers 6). Her argument is further supported by the author’s footnote to the story that it is a parable, underlying the possibility of multiple interpretations. Indeed, the act of reading the sermon through a veil suggests obscurity of meaning.
However, the idea of ambiguity is overshadowed by the fact that Mr. Hoover precisely knew the symbolic significance of the veil; a gesture of confession and repentance. If he did not wish others to know about his wrong doing or suspect him in any way, he could have simply avoided the veil. After all, the worshippers knew him as “good Reverend Mr. Hoover,” before he made them change their opinion of him by wearing the veil. To that extent, the symbolic admission that “I’m hiding something,” represents Mr. Hoover’s way of dealing with guilt. The veil covers the naked details of the sin while the act of putting it dramatizes public admission that the individual has committed sin. It is the only way a guilty conscience can confess without revealing the details of the sin, perhaps because they are embarrassing. In a larger sense, Hawthorne suggests that people wear masks in public to hide their true character and the sensitive secrets of their private lives. A good example is the couple who display love and intimacy in public while their marriage is in tatters; the flamboyant man who displays high-class living when his debts are mounting.
Another idea that Hawthorne advances with the symbol of the veil is the suggestion that secrets hinder individuals from being honest and intimate with each other. In this case, secrets act as a veil, a barrier that prevents others from seeing the real person, one they could either love or sympathize with. For instance, at the end of the story the reader sympathizes with Rev. Hoover for his burdens and the anguish he suffers to repent. It is also worth noting that his sermon alludes to “secret sin and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness” (Hawthorne 325). This observation illustrates the extent to which people could go to hide details of their secrets and private lives. It is a manifestation of the rotten human condition, of sinful hearts so guilty that their owners could not fathom showing them in public. They wear masks in their hearty conversations and conceal deceit and ill motives in their cheerful smiles. Behind the cheeriness and charming smiles lie malicious thoughts, knowledge of shameful deeds, envy, deceit, lies, and all things evil. Beneath the charm of their public camaraderie, people carry in their hearts the heavy burden of guilty consciences.
In conclusion, symbolism is a prominently portrayed in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil.” The veil is a symbol of mourning, referring to the minister’s anguish for his sins and those of his followers. It is also a symbol of secrecy, a mask that hides people’s shameful deeds, private lives and sins committed in secret. Finally, the veil symbolizes lack of honest and intimate relationships between people as a result of the secrets they keep from each other. Through the symbol of the veil and the character of the Reverend Mr. Hoover, the author portrays the condition of the human heart/mind (full of secrets) and how people deal with guilt- by projecting desirable images in public to hide the shame of their sins.