The Minister’s Isolation
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Minister’s Black Veil: A Parable in 1836. Hawthorne was a man known for his grim view of life and society, and this point of view frequently colored his work as an author. His inspiration for this short tale about a minister who dons a black veil over his eyes and nose until his death may have been inspired by a real event. A clergyman named Joseph Moody, of York, Maine accidentally killed a friend as a young man and wore a veil over his face until his own death. There are many theories as to what message Hawthorne was attempting to convey in this story. Some think the main theme is secret sin, with the veil being used literally in order to reach out to his followers. Others, like Edgar Allan Poe, believe the veil was used to symbolize guilt over a terrible crime. While the veil is without a doubt symbolic, one is also drawn to believe in its use as a tool to symbolize isolation; however, secret sin and guilt are also underlying themes.
Because some of the congregation assumed that the veil represented Hooper’s own hidden sins, they felt comforted by the fact that their religious leader was, like them, a sinner who could understand how it feels to be a sinner. Within the Puritan community people hoped that they were among those predestined to go to Heaven. Since there was no way of knowing with certainty, they tried to live as exemplary a life as they could. Those who did sin were careful to keep it a secret. Hooper has isolated himself away from the congregation with the result that they feel closer to him. They understand that he knows the darkness of being a sinner and is able to counsel those who are also in that dark place.
According to E. Earle Stibitz, of Southern Illinois University, in his essay titled Ironic unity in Hawthorne’s ‘The Minister’s Black Veil,’ “…the minister is revealed as experiencing a twofold alienation—from man and from God. Because of the strange veil the members of the congregation sense the minister’s distance, and he, in turn, sees them darkly. Also, the veil comes between him and God as he reads the Scripture and as he prays.” (Stibitz 185) His isolation is presented as a result of knowing the loneliness of sin. He feels what they feel and can understand it.
Hooper is isolated from a normal life, and, as a result, being able to give love and have it returned, when he refuses to remove the veil so his fiancée Elizabeth can see his face. “This dismal shade must separate me from the world: even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it!” Elizabeth entreats further, and finally says “Lift the veil but once, and look me in the face.” ‘Never! It cannot be!’ replied Mr. Hooper. ‘Then, farewell!’ said Elizabeth.” (Hawthorne 2436) Stibitz sees this as Hooper’s failure to take salvation through the acceptance of human love. (Stibitz 188)
An interesting view of the veil comes from Judy McCarthy in an essay called “The Minister’s Black Veil”:...