Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil" (2023)

Explicating a symbol: the case ofHawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil"

You have to be specific in spelling out themeaning of the symbols you undertake to discuss. Now it is onlywithin the situation as a whole that individual persons,objects, and acts acquire their particular symbolicmeanings in their own right. This means that in practice you haveto take into account the set of equivalencesbetween the whole symbolic situation and the wholesituation that it is symbolic of. Here’s a schemethat illustrates what is entailed in explicating the meaning ofthe overall symbolic situation in Hawthorne’s story"The Minister’s Black Veil." Our aim inconstructing it is to display the logical structure thatunderpins the phenomenon of symbolic representation in general. We will see that the element of thestory that most obviously puts itself forward as symbolic -- theparticular object the story's title points to -- can be madesense of only if we treat some larger situation that it is a partof as symbolizing some equivalent situation that contains withinit an element corresponding to the veil. The veilsymbolizes this only because this larger situationsymbolizes/ points to that othersituation-as-a-whole. Put another way: it is only invirtue of its complex of relations with other elements of thestory that the veil can symbolize anything at all. (Infact, it is by controlling the particular facts of the situationwithin which any one fact is embedded in a story that authorscontrol the meaning of that fact.) If we want to know whatit stands for, we will have to take careful stock of theparticular details that Hawthorne has chosen for constructing itsexact context in this tale.

But before we leap into these particulars,let’s take a quick look at the general form of such schemesof parallelism, and then "fill in the blanks" with theappropriate specifics for the particular case at hand. Thegeneral form is simply that of a proportional analogy:

A:B:C:D [etc.] :: a:b:c:d [etc.]

This we read out as "A is to B is to C is to D as "a" is to "b" is to "c" is to "d". Each "is to" represents some specific relationship, and the idea is that the corresponding relationships (as determined by their order in the series) are identical or at least similar. That is, the relationship between A and B is the same as the relationship between "a" and "b" but not necessarily the same as that between B and C (which is the same, however, as that between "b" and "c"). The double colon in the middle of the expression (which we translated as "as") is always the same particular relationship, namely, the relationship of equivalence.

In effect then, what this whole formal statement says is that the complex of relationships that incorporates the objects/acts on the left (which we’ll take to describe the symbolic situation) is the same as the complex of objects/acts on the right (which we’ll take to describe the symbolized situation). We could thus be more formally specific, while keeping our formulation completely albstract (i.e., all-purpose) by replacing the colons with particular relationship indicators. Note that the double colon, though, always represents the special relationship of equivalence, and that this higher-order equivalence holds not between one entire complex and the other.What makes this higher-order relationship hold between the two complexes is the fact that the particular relationships-- <R1>, <R2>, <R3>, etc.-- show up on the lower order within both complexes.

Complex I

<Rº> i.e., is equivalent to

Complex II

A <R1> B <R2> C <R3> D [etc.]


q <R1> r <R2> s <R3> t [etc.]

Now let’s "fill in the blanks"for the situation involving the black veil in Hawthorne’sstory. We'll leave out the middle column in the schematicdiagram above and just understand it to be expressed, below, bythe systematic juxtaposition of the items in the left- andright-hand columns. To make the information correspondingto row 2 above fit on the screen, we'll lay it out vertically inthe table below. Thus, proceeding downward in each column,each complex can be read as a sentence. And the pair ofcolumns, in their juxtaposition, communicate a more complexsentence of the form "Justas <sentence I>, so <sentence II>."

Rev. Hooper
Everyone in the community
<R1:>dons/wears/puts on <R1:>dons/wears/puts on
a black veil
a façade
of righteousness & and decency
[in the case of all but Rev. H]
a guard simply of non-disclosure
[in the case of Rev. H. himself]
<R2:>in order to hide <R2:>in order to hide
his face
[the particular features of his face]
his sinful nature
[his particular sins]
<R3:> from the gaze / sightof <R3:> from the sight/ knowledge of
everyone else in the community
<R4> and from <R4> and from
when he looks in the mirror
when they "reflect on" themselves

In other words: Rev. Hooper wears a black veil inorder to hide his face [or its particular features] from the gazeof others and from himself (when he looks in the mirror) JUST AS [or: to symbolize the fact that] everyone elsein the community puts on a façade of righteousness and innocencein order to hide his sinfulness from the knowledge of everyoneelse in the community and even from themselves, and JUST AS Rev. Hooperhimself covers from his parishioners the particular sins he knowshe is guilty of, which he shrinks from when he contemplates(i.e., he cannot bear to keep them vividly before himselfconstantly, but must shortly turn away from them).

We can say that, by overtly wearing a visible black veil, Rev. Hooper discloses to his parishioners that he is not disclosing to them his particular (i.e., concrete, individual) sins. In doing this, of course, he does confess the abstract fact that he is sinful. In refusing to understand his gesture, on the other hand, his parishioners are insisting on not confessing that they are not confessing anything. Every time they manage to distract themselves from getting the message, they repeat an enactment of its meaning! That is, they persist in wearing an invisible "veil."

This irony repeats itself throughout the story as a relentless motif, and the relentlessness of it expresses in turn the stubbornness of the peculiar shame attaching to sin, in orthodox Puritan theology. This irony-- that the parishoners exemplify Rev. Hooper's point in the very way in which they (repeatedly) fail or rather refuse (but unconsciously) to understand it in effect-- validates Rev. Hooper's theology as a thematic premise of the story. (Whether Hawthorne himself affirms this theology as a matter of personal faith is a quite different question. What is clear, however, is that, in portraying Rev. Hooper's flock as behaving in this manner, Hawthorne indicates to the reader that we are to "take on" or assume this particular theological tenet as an axiom within our reading of this story as a whole.)

The equivalence we've laid out so far doesn'texhaust the parallels Hawthorne's narrative invites us tonotice. Rather it is the fundamental platform from whichall others take off. And, indeed, it is for the sake ofthese, we may eventually conclude, that the story exists.(That is: the overall theme of the story may be concernednot so much with the facts pointed to in the second column of thetable above as with their further implications -- butimplications that are in turn pointed to by additional literaldetails of the story, i.e., details that, were we to absorb theminto the table, would amount to a continuation, downwards, of thefirst column.)

To take just one example: just as Rev. Hooper is a stranger to hisfellows, so are they, in reality, strangers toeach other, and themselves. Andthis fact we can translate into interesting theologicalterms: every person in this community of communicants is infact self-excommunicated from every other, and precisely becausehe believes, in his heart of hearts (and, for all but Rev. Hooperhimself, this is an unconscious region), that, were he to revealit to his fellows, they would excommunicate him from theirfellowship-- drive him into banishment, as in fact theyhave done with heretics they have found in their midst (baptistsand Quakers most prominently). But this constitutes an evendeeper irony in turn, since in orthodox Puritan theology, theuniversal depravity of man owing to Original Sin is a fundamentalarticle of faith.

The question thus arises: for people whoofficially subscribe to the doctrine of Original Sin, what can beso terrifying about admitting to others that one is secretlysinful, even while one reserves to oneself (i.e., retains insecrecy) the particular nature of the sins one knows oneself tohave committed? Perhaps it has something to do with thefact that these communities have claimed to be a community of theredeemed. Whether one can continue a member of such acommunity would then depend in turn on whether one supposes thatpeople can be both redeemed and sinners or whether redemptionmakes sin impossible.

The behavior of the people of Rev. Hooper'scommunity suggests that they have taken from society--i.e., from each other-- the premise that to be redeemed isinconsistent with being in sin. And since, for them, thecondition of remaining a member of the community with which theirconception of personal identity is inextricably tied is that onebe redeemed, the price of admitting to oneself that one is sinfulmeans that one is not fit to remain in the community. Andsince giving up one's status as a respected member of thecommunity is, for them, more painful than giving up one'sprospect of eternal life and immunity to eternal damnation, it isnecessary to deny that one (any longer) harbors sin. Butsince acknowledging that one is doing this is inconsistent withone's enjoyment of one's identity as member of the community ofthe decent, it is necessary to deny one's consciousness of sineven to oneself.

In contrast, the fact that Rev. Hooper preachesthe sermon he does-- on the first day he adopts the veil,and subsequently by his persistence in his decision to keepwearing it-- suggests that he either rejects the view thatredemption and persistence in sin are consistence or is able tobear the consciousness that he may not, at least yet, beredeemed.

Presumably, for both Rev. Hooper and hisparishioners, Puritan theology is insistent that, withoutconviction of sin, there can be no salvation. (Convictionof sin is necessary, though not sufficient for salvation.) Ifthis tenet of their ancestors is true, though, themembers of this community are in dire spiritual peril. Buteven if it is not, their commitment to social respectability isrevealed as more important to them than their appreciation oftheir eternal welfare. The historical irony that Hawthornesuggests is that the original Puritan communal plan containedwithin it the potential to produce a society constructed on athoroughgoing hypocrisy. His story asks his readers to askthemselves whether this potential has in fact become areality. Of course, his readers are at liberty to answer"No." But they are under the warning that, beinghuman, they are under a strong temptation to hide the truth fromthemselves if indeed the just answer should turn out to be"Yes."

By now we are in a position to note that thestory does not restrict itself to parallels, either. For itis a fundamental fact of the narrative that Rev.Hooper alsostands out as differentfrom everyone else in thecommunity-- that his parishoners regard him as aneccentric, and with malaise and suspicion, and that he himself isunable, with his gesture, to persuade them to draw nearer to himand to each other by at least acknowledging frankly that each issubject to sins that he or she is too embarrassed to reveal toany other. (We've already hinted at this with the OR in the3rd box in the right-hand column of the table weconstructed. The point of using the term "OR" wasto indicate that, for the purposes of left-right correspondencebetween the two complexes, the two things the term connects areequivalent; the point of putting this "OR" in orange wasto indicate that, from the point of view of other considerationsimportant in the story, the two things the term connects are not"the same" but opposed.) In other words, theparallel set forth above ultimately serves to lay the ground forthe foil that develops between Rev. Hooper and the rest.And this foil is every bit as significant, in the story's overalltheme, as the equivalence-- <Rº>, above-- that it presupposes.

And this system of differences, too, extendsfurther than our diagram so far has captured. Take, forexample, the motif of gloom that attaches to the veil.

[More to come. Check back later. LB]


What is the overall message of the Minister's black veil? ›

The main themes are hidden sin and underlying guilt, with Hooper's method of preaching being to wear his sin on his face in a literal way. The townspeople grow uncomfortable with him because they start to become aware of their own sin. Hawthorne keeps the motive of the veil unknown to the reader.

What does the veil in Hawthorne's story represent or symbolize? ›

Made of a fabric typically worn at a funeral, the black veil covers all of Mr. Hooper's face except for his mouth and chin. While people can still see his faint smiles, they fear the veil and what it means. Allegorically, the veil is a symbol of the sin that separates people from God, and from each other.

What point does Nathaniel Hawthorne make in the Minister's black veil? ›

Hooper's point seems to be that the veil is an outward acknowledgment of this inner concealment: an admission that there can be no true concealment of such sins, because God ('the Omniscient') is always able to 'detect' them.

What is the irony in the Minister's black veil? ›

The irony in "The Minister's Black Veil" is that Rev. Hooper decides to wear the veil in an effort to emphasize "sin" as a part of human nature that binds all people together. However, by wearing the veil Hooper seems "blind" to his own sins.

What is the meaning of black veil? ›

In Roman Catholicism, a black veil is the traditional sign of a professed nun. Some monasteries or communities bestow the black veil at the first profession of vows, but usually it is bestowed with the profession of solemn vows.

What lesson does the Minister's Black Veil teach? ›

People who convert to Christianity explicitly state that it was the sight of Hooper's black veil that made them change their ways. On his deathbed, speaking to the Reverend Clark, Hooper implies that he wore the veil in the first place to teach others a moral lesson: everyone is sinful (“on every visage a Black Veil”).

What is the central idea of the veil? ›

Further Analysis. The overarching theme, or topic, that ''Taking the Veil'' centers around, is Edna's innocence and lack of experience. A number of different literary elements come into play to reinforce this theme, including setting, characterization, and plot.

What are two themes in The Minister's Black Veil? ›

Sin and Guilt

He explains this on his deathbed, saying that everyone wears a “black veil.” But the black veil over his own head could symbolize a specific sin he's committed, or it could be a teaching tool that represents his inherent evilness as a human being.

What was the original purpose of the veil? ›

The History of Wedding Veils

But most experts can agree on one narrative: "You can trace its roots back to Rome, where a bride used to walk down the aisle with a veil over her face in order to disguise herself from any evil spirits who wanted to stand in the way of her happiness," she explains.

What does Elizabeth symbolize in The Minister's Black Veil? ›

Elizabeth, Hooper's fiancee, exhibits the bravery and loyalty that allow her to confront Hooper directly about his reasons for the veil. Hawthorne includes Elizabeth in the story to show how somebody's secret sins can distance that person, even from a lover.

What does the Minister's Black Veil say about sin guilt or human nature? ›

“The Minister's Black Veil” might suggest that the profound focus on sin to the exclusion of so much else is itself dangerous, not only because it makes people treat others poorly, but because it makes people guilty and unhappy with themselves.

Who begged Mr Hooper off the veil? ›

When his fiancée, Elizabeth, asks him to remove the veil, Mr. Hooper insists that the veil must separate him from all other people, including her, and that one day, they all must remove their veils. Elizabeth is concerned about the gossip in town and does not want him to be the center of scandalous rumors.

What are 3 dramatic irony examples? ›

Dramatic irony examples in literature

We know she's an imposter, but some characters do not. In Romeo and Juliet, the title characters commit suicide because they don't know about each other's plans. In Othello, the title character is led to believe his wife cheated on him – but we know she didn't.

What are the 3 types of dramatic irony? ›

Irony is a literary technique that storytellers use to contrast expectations and reality. There are primarily three types of irony: dramatic, situational, and verbal.

What is the dramatic irony at the end of the story? ›

Dramatic irony is a form of irony that is expressed through a work's structure: an audience's awareness of the situation in which a work's characters exist differs substantially from that of the characters', and the words and actions of the characters therefore take on a different—often contradictory—meaning for the ...

What does the black veil symbolize essay? ›

Symbolism In The Veil The veil that the minister wears in "The Ministers Black Veil", by Nathanial Hawthorne represents the emphasis on man's inner reality, and those thoughts and feelings which are not immediately obvious.

What was a positive result of Mr Hooper's black veil? ›

One positive effect of Mr. Hoopers veil was that it made him a very efficient clergyman, and it's gloom enabled him to sympathize with all dark affections What does the writer mean by dark affections.

What is the theme of The Minister's Black Veil in relation to appearances? ›

On his deathbed, he comments on the townspeople's obsession with appearances, saying that everyone in Milford wears a Black Veil. In a sense, this means that the townspeople have focused too much on interpreting his appearance of sinfulness and too little on their own souls and sins.

What was the one good effect the veil have on the minister? ›

Among all its bad influences, the black veil had the one desirable effect, of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman. By the aid of his mysterious emblem–for there was no other apparent cause–he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin.

What is the symbolic significance of the veil? ›

The veil is the symbol of the pre-enlightened state, hidden knowledge, secrecy, illusion, and ignorance. It conceals, but is often intended as protection rather than deception; it might also be a mark of modesty and virtue in many cultures, often worn by women and girls to display their lack of vanity.

What is the problem with the veil of ignorance? ›

Because people behind the Veil of Ignorance do not know who they will be in this new society, any choice they make in structuring that society could either harm them or benefit them. If they decide men will be superior, for example, they must face the risk that they will be women.

What is an example of the veil of ignorance? ›

So, for example, the veil of ignorance would lead people to refuse slavery, because even though slavery is very convenient for slave-owners, for slaves, not so much, and since behind the veil of ignorance one would not know whether they would be a slave or a slave-owner, they would refuse slavery.

What does the veil symbolize to Mr Hooper? ›

Hooper wears a black veil in order to hide his face [or its particular features] from the gaze of others and from himself (when he looks in the mirror) JUST AS [or: to symbolize the fact that] everyone else in the community puts on a fa ade of righteousness and innocence in order to hide his sinfulness from the ...

Why did the minister hide behind the veil? ›

"The minister is hiding his face because he is afraid that what he is hiding will show to the people of the church and his fiancée. Mr. Hooper is wearing the veil because he committed a sin; and is hiding it from the town and his church First of all, Mr.

What makes The Minister's Black Veil an example? ›

“The Minister's Black Veil” is a perfect example of a parable, because Mr. Hooper explains a perfect lesson of the human's soul (source 1). Another level of example to why this is a parable is because it has to do with the secret sin and how you can't hide it from greater powers.

Is the veil based on a true story? ›

Heavily based on the true story about the Jonestown massacre, in which more than 900 members of a community committed suicide. Lily Rabe was the only choice to play Sarah Hope because of her work in American Horror Story (2011) and The Whispers (2015).

What effect did the veil have on the wedding? ›

It dates back to ancient Rome when they would wrap the brides from head to toe in a veil to hide her away from “spirits that might want to thwart her happiness.” People also saw that delivering a bride in a veil represented her being a “modest and untouched maiden.” Under different patriarchal societies, people used ...

What does Elizabeth confess to her husband? ›

As John struggles with whether to falsely confess to witchcraft in Act 4, Elizabeth makes a confession of her own, telling him that she knows she is at least a little to blame for his affair with Abigail, which has brought ruin on them both.

Who is Elizabeth How does Mr Hooper treat her? ›

Elizabeth is Hooper's fiancée at the beginning of the story. After he begins wearing his veil, she is the only person in Milford who isn't immediately afraid of him. When Hooper refuses to show his face and explain himself, she begins to fear him, and shortly thereafter she breaks off the engagement.

What is the topic of the first sermon Mr Hooper gives when wearing the veil? ›

What is the subject of Mr. Hooper's sermon on the first day he wears the black veil? The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest.

What do you think the minister has been trying to tell the people through his symbolic gesture of the veil? ›

The minister believes that it was right to focus on one's own sins and atone for them while the rest of society avoids their own sins.

What does a white veil symbolize in the Bible? ›

Wearing a veil (also known as a headcovering) is seen as a sign of humility before God, as well as a reminder of the bridal relationship between Christ and the church. This practice is based on 1 Corinthians 11:4–15 in the Christian Bible, where St.

Why does the veil have such a powerful effect on people? ›

Besides fear, why does the veil have such a powerful effect on the people? They are forced to comtemplate the mystery of the veil. What is the significance of the fact that even nature (wind) respects Hooper's veil? Nature respects what the veil is hiding.

What is the lesson to be learned from Hooper and the veil? ›

Answer and Explanation: The moral of "The Minister's Black Veil" is that secret sins separates people from those around them. In the story, Minister Hooper begins to wear a dark veil that covers his face. The veil represents secret sin and causes people to avoid him.

What does Mr Hooper avoid? ›

Hooper comes to hate his own veil, so much so that he avoids looking in the mirror. Rumors say that Hooper wears the veil because he is guilty of a great crime, and even that the wind avoids him so as not to blow the veil off his face.

Who nursed Hooper on his deathbed? ›

At his death-bed, only Elizabeth, his old fiance was there, but as his nurse, not his wife. Hooper's life after he started wearing the veil was so lonely and isolated he had no-one to comfort him at his death-bed. The veil is the most prominent symbol in the parable of The Minister's Black Veil.

What is the most common irony? ›

The three most common kinds you'll find in literature classrooms are verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony. Verbal irony occurs whenever a speaker or narrator tells us something that differs from what they mean, what they intend, or what the situation requires.

How do you explain irony? ›

The definition of irony as a literary device is a situation in which there is a contrast between expectation and reality. For example, the difference between what something appears to mean versus its literal meaning. Irony is associated with both tragedy and humor.

How do you identify irony? ›

See if the statement made by the character conflicts with the setting intentionally or unintentionally. If the character is using a mocking tone, this is verbal irony and indicates sarcasm. If the character states this seriously without an ironic or sarcastic intent, then this is situational irony.

What type of irony is sarcasm? ›

Verbal irony: Verbal irony is when a character says something that is different from what they really mean or how they really feel. If the intent of the irony is to mock, it is known as sarcasm.

What's the difference between irony and dramatic irony? ›

Verbal irony (i.e., using words in a non-literal way) Situational irony (i.e., a difference between the expected and actual outcomes of a situation or action) Dramatic irony (i.e., an audience knowing something the characters don't)

What is the source of irony in the story? ›

It is most often used when the author causes a character to speak or act erroneously, out of ignorance of some portion of the truth of which the audience is aware. In tragic irony, the audience knows the character is making a mistake, even as the character is making it.

Which elements show the ending of the story? ›

The end of a story is called the resolution or denouement.

What is meant by tragic irony? ›

tragic irony in British English

noun. the use of dramatic irony in a tragedy (originally, in Greek tragedy), so that the audience is aware that a character's words or actions will bring about a tragic or fatal result, while the character is not. Collins English Dictionary.

What is the purpose of dramatic irony in the story? ›

Writers use dramatic irony as a tool to create and sustain the audience's interest. It generates curiosity. It also creates tension in that the audience is encouraged to fear the moment when characters learn the truth that the viewer already knows and how he or she will deal with it.

What is the main theme of the Minister's Black Veil quizlet? ›

What is the theme of The Minister's Black Veil? The theme is the need to acknowledge sin. Wearing a veil is Rev. Hooper's way of calling attention to the fact that humans keep their shameful thoughts and sinful behavior a secret.

What is Reverend Hooper's last message? ›

On his deathbed, Reverend Hooper says, "I look around me, and, lo! On every visage a Black Veil!" Explain the statement.

What message might be conveyed by the veiled minister at the wedding? ›

What message might be conveyed by the veiled minister at the wedding? Weddings are joyful, hopeful occasions. Sin and death are present even in the midst of joy. Secrets between people can destroy trust and love.

Why did Hooper wear the black veil? ›

Hooper wears a black veil in order to hide his face [or its particular features] from the gaze of others and from himself (when he looks in the mirror) JUST AS [or: to symbolize the fact that] everyone else in the community puts on a fa ade of righteousness and innocence in order to hide his sinfulness from the ...

Why does Elizabeth not marry Mr Hooper? ›

Elizabeth is concerned about the gossip in town and does not want him to be the center of scandalous rumors. Mr. Hooper, exclaiming how lonely he is behind his veil, begs her to remain with him. However, when he reiterates that he can never remove the veil, Elizabeth leaves him.

Does Mr Hooper ever remove the veil? ›

Much like Moses, Reverend Hooper, a male religious leader, wears a veil, however, one major disparity remains between the two figures. As Britt notes, while Moses removes his veil during revelation and keeps the veil on when “off-duty,” Reverend Hooper never takes off his veil for the remainder of his life (230).

What could have been the ministers reason to hide behind the veil? ›

"The minister is hiding his face because he is afraid that what he is hiding will show to the people of the church and his fiancée. Mr. Hooper is wearing the veil because he committed a sin; and is hiding it from the town and his church First of all, Mr.

What is the importance of the veil? ›

Wearing a veil (also known as a headcovering) is seen as a sign of humility before God, as well as a reminder of the bridal relationship between Christ and the church.

What Is the veil a metaphor for? ›

Du Bois explored the notion of the veil from a societal perspective, using the metaphor of being “born with a veil” to describe black life in America, particularly the plight of the black American experience and the challenges facing African American culture.

What did the veil symbolize? ›

Eventually, wedding veils became symbols of a bride's chastity and modesty, and many cultures still use them for that reason. "When white wedding dresses were worn to symbolize chastity, the white veil followed suit," says Stark. "In many religions, it is a symbol of reverence for women to cover their heads."

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