The Minister’s Black Veil

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The Black Veil Symbol Analysis

The Black Veil Symbol Icon

Without a doubt, the most important symbol in “The Minister’s Black Veil” is the black veil itself, but what it symbolizes is more complicated than it seems to either Hooper or the townspeople. To the townspeople, Hooper’s veil is a clear sign that he is trying to atone for a grave sin. Yet Hooper implies that he intends the veil to be a symbol of mankind’s general sinfulness, not any specific wrongdoing. It’s possible that these two interpretations of the veil are one and the same; in other words, the townspeople focus exclusively on Hooper’s sinfulness because, deep down, they recognize their own, and don’t want to acknowledge it.

At the same time, the veil — a thin, flimsy, article of clothing, is a symbol of the superficiality of Puritan society. The townspeople of Milford judge Hooper on his appearance, not his behavior or his character; indeed, it’s implied that Hooper himself doesn’t change at all after he puts on the veil — he only seems gloomier to the townspeople because of the veil covering his face. Finally, Hooper’s veil could symbolize his pride. Although he hides his face from the town, doing so paradoxically makes him more visible to others — in this sense, Hooper could be seen to be arrogantly raising himself above his peers.

The Black Veil Quotes in The Minister’s Black Veil

The The Minister’s Black Veil quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Black Veil. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of The Minister’s Black Veil published in 2011.
The Minister's Black Veil Quotes

There was but one thing remarkable about his appearance. 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. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things.

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, the narrator establishes the basics of the titular black veil. Mr. Hooper, the town preacher, shows up for church one Sunday morning wearing a black veil on his face and offering absolutely no explanation for why he does so.

One important detail to notice here is that the veil prevents other people from seeing Mr. Hooper's face, and yet doesn't entirely prevent Mr. Hooper from seeing other people's faces. In brief, there is a kind of asymmetry in the veil: Hooper continues to see other people more or less the same way he did previously (they just have a "darkened aspect"), but other people see Hooper completely differently than they did before. Hawthorne will continue exploring the symbolic meanings of the black veil for the rest of his story.

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Did he seek to hide [his face] from the dread Being whom he was addressing?

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

At the townspeople look at Mr. Hooper, they notice that he's wearing a veil, and immediately assume the very worst about his character. Because the townspeople live in a very strict Puritan community, they decide that Mr. Hooper, the town preacher, is ashamed of a mysterious sin he's committed, and wants to hide from God.

The townspeople don't seem to consider the obvious fact that Mr. Hooper can't hide from God—putting a piece of cloth on his face isn't going to fool the Almighty, after all. Instead, the townspeople are so superficial and so obsessed with gossip and outward appearances that they immediately decide that Mr. Hooper is a sinner, just so they have something to talk about. Remarkably, a simple piece of cloth completely alters the townspeople's perception of a man they've known for years. These people are shallow and narrow-minded: they never bother to give their preacher the benefit of the doubt.

Such was the effect of this simple piece of crape, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them.

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Hawthorne establishes the back and forth between the townspeople and Mr. Hooper. At the same time that the townspeople are judging Mr. Hooper (assuming he's a sinner, gossiping about his appearance, etc.), Mr. Hooper may be judging the townspeople for their superficiality and narrow-mindedness. In other words, the narrator is suggesting, it's hypocritical for the townspeople to question Mr. Hooper's piety when the townspeople themselves are sinners, too.

One of the difficulties of this quotation is that it divides the "blame" evenly between the townspeople and Mr. Hooper. While it's true that the townspeople are superficial in the worst ways, Mr. Hooper partly seems to be manipulating his congregation as well. In using the veil to distinguish himself from other men, Hooper may be guilty of the sins of arrogance and pride.

The people hurried out with indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement, and conscious of lighter spirits the moment they lost sight of the black veil. Some gathered in little circles, huddled closely together, with their mouths all whispering in the center; some went homeward alone, rapt in silent meditation; some talked loudly, and profaned the Sabbath day with ostentatious laughter.

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

The townspeople emerge from church, eager to talk about Mr. Hooper's black veil. In doing so, the townspeople betray their narrow-minded ideas of good and evil, and their equally immature preoccupations on gossip and superficial appearances.

The fact that the townspeople feel "lighter" as soon as the black veil is out of sight should tell us that the townspeople are surprisingly narrow-minded when it comes to defining good and evil. The townspeople assume that Mr. Hooper must be a sinner because he's wearing a simple piece of clothing, never stopping to think that there are plenty of sinners who never signal their evil in any outward way. The townspeople live in an extremely small, close-knit community, in which people are always on the lookout for signs of unusual behavior. In this community, where appearances are everything, a black veil is practically proof of sin.

The irony of the townspeople's gossip is crystal clear: even though they're talking about Mr. Hooper's own sinfulness, they are being sinful themselves in the process, "profaning the Sabbath day." In general, the townspeople forget about their own sins in their haste to condemn Hooper.

The clergyman stepped into the room where the corpse was laid, and bent over the coffin, to take a last farewell of his deceased parishioner. As he stooped, the veil hung straight down from his forehead, so that, if her eyelids had not been closed forever, the dead maiden might have seen his face. Could Mr. Hooper be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil?

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper, The young woman
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Mr. Hooper attends the funeral of a young woman who has died very recently. He bends over her dead body, so that his veil hangs down. Even though the young woman of course can't look back at his exposed face, Hooper quickly covers himself again. Some critics, including Edgar Allan Poe, believe that this scene is the "key" to understanding the entire story. According to Poe, Hooper committed adultery with the young woman, and is wearing the veil to punish himself for his sexual sinning.

Poe's interpretation is only one point of view in the general debate over Hooper's behavior. In the simplest terms, the question is: is Hooper wearing a veil because of a specific sin he committed, or is he acting out of a more general belief in man's sinful nature? Hawthorne doesn't answer this question either way, but his choice to include this scene between Hooper and the young woman might provide evidence for the former point of view. The very fact that Hooper starts wearing a veil the day after a young woman dies suggests that the two events are somehow linked. But perhaps Hawthorne is testing us: just like the townspeople themselves, we the readers would rather "gossip" about Hooper's specific actions than see the broader symbolic purpose of his veil.

“There is an hour to come,” said he, “when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crape till then.”

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper (speaker), Elizabeth
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Hooper's young fiancee, Elizabeth, begs him to remove his veil so that they can be happily married, without the gossip of the townspeople distracting them from happiness. Hooper explains that he'll keep his veil on, because life is short: compared with an eternity in Heaven, a couple decades with a veil is nothing.

The scene illustrates the strange combination of arrogance and humility in Hooper's personality. Elizabeth wants Hooper to remove his veil so that they can have a happy life together. Hooper refuses to give in to Elizabeth's desires because he's more focused on his afterlife in Heaven than he is than his life on Earth. To a Puritan, Hooper's refusal might seem like a paragon of Christian virtue (the Puritans were told that they should focus on Heaven, not Earth). And yet Hooper's continued fidelity to his veil draws more attention to him in the community. So while it's possible to read Hooper's behavior as humble and pious, it's also possible to interpret it as hubris disguised as modesty: Hooper is raising himself above other men with this outward show of humility.

"But what if the world will not believe that it is the type of an innocent sorrow?" urged Elizabeth. "Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin. For the sake of your holy office do away this scandal."

Related Characters: Elizabeth (speaker), Reverend Hooper
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Elizabeth, Hooper's fiancee, tries one last time to convince her lover to remove his veil. Here, she gives one simple reason why Hooper should show his face again: otherwise the townspeople will assume that Hooper is a sinner. In essence, Elizabeth is urging Hooper to give into the small-mindedness of the community; she doesn't want to spend the rest of her life being judged by her peers for marrying a supposed "sinner."

The fact that Elizabeth would cite the townspeople's gossip as a reason for Hooper to remove his veil suggests that she's not much more open-minded than the townspeople themselves. Even if Elizabeth loves Hooper sincerely, she's not confident enough in her love and her faith to marry him: she cares more about the opinions of her neighbors.

"Have patience with me, Elizabeth!" cried he, passionately. "Do not desert me though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls. It is but a mortal veil; it is not for eternity. Oh, you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened to be alone behind my black veil!

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper (speaker), Elizabeth
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Mr. Hooper begs Elizabeth to marry him, even after he insists that he has no intention of taking off his black veil. In clear, plain terms, Hooper is laying out Elizabeth's choice for her. She can either abandon him, giving into the pressure of the Puritan community in which they both live (and perhaps to her own sense of fear and uneasiness regarding her fiance's appearance). Or she can spend the rest of her mortal life married to Hooper—after which they'll surely be rewarded for their loyalty and piety with a place in Heaven.

The passage is also provides some of the most convincing evidence that Hooper is sincerely trying to teach a moral lesson by wearing his veil, rather than arrogantly raising himself above his fellow men. In the past, Hooper has behaved calmly and peacefully around his peers. Here, however, Hooper admits the truth: he's afraid of the difficult path that lies ahead of him, and wants a wife to support him while he wears the veil. Of course, the passage could also suggest, more generally, that Hooper is afraid of his own sinful nature (afraid of being alone beneath his veil), and wants to marry Elizabeth in order to cement his place as a righteous, pious man. (This interpretation could support Poe's hypothesis that Hooper was romantically involved with the young woman who died—Hooper sinned with the woman, and now wants to marry Elizabeth to "move on.")

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. 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.

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Hawthorne explains how Hooper's veil acts as a teaching tool for the Puritan community. When he wears the black veil, Hooper becomes a more powerful preacher: the veil becomes a visual aid, enhancing his descriptions of sin and damnation. The veil is so powerful, indeed, that sinners sometimes choose to convert to Christianity simply to avoid the awful fate that the veil symbolizes.

The converts Hawthorne mentions here have learned an important lesson from Hooper, thanks to the veil. And yet they're still missing the point. The sight of the black veil reminds the converts of their own sinfulness, and compels them to be better Christians. But the converts also seemingly continue to assume that Hooper himself is a sinner, simply because of the clothing he chooses to wear. In other words, even when the townspeople recognize that the veil is a symbol of their own sins, they still can't help but think of the veil as a mark of Hooper's guilt—and so he remains isolated even from those whose souls he has "saved."

In this manner Mr. Hooper spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish.

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Hawthorne fast-forwards through Hooper's later years. For many decades, we learn, Hooper continues to wear the veil, attracting a lot of attention for doing so. The townspeople never get used to the sight of Hooper's black veil: even though he appears to be a completely moral, pious person, the townspeople are so enamored with unusual appearances and superficial signs that they continue to regard the veil as frightening or somehow abnormal.

Why do the townspeople continue to treat the veil as a sign of evil—wouldn't they get used to it after a few years? One reason why the townspeople continue to fear the veil, Hawthorne suggests, is that they really do regard it as a reminder of their own sinful nature—even if they would never admit this in public. The fact that the townspeople summon Hooper to their deathbeds, where they have every reason to be honest with themselves, suggests that they understand Hooper's point better than they seem to. The townspeople behave hypocritically. When they're healthy and happy, they treat the black veil as a sign of Hooper's sinister nature and pretend that the veil has no relevance to their own lives. It's only when the townspeople are on the brink of death that they're forced to admit the truth and confess their own sinful nature.

"Why do you tremble at me alone?" cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. "Tremble also at each other. Have men avoided me and women shown no pity and children screamed and fled only for my black veil? What but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crape so awful? 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!"

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper (speaker), Reverend Clark
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 22-23
Explanation and Analysis:

In this final passage from the story, Hooper gives an explanation for his behavior that explains everything and nothing. On his deathbed, Hooper offers one final "sermon": (the presence of "pale spectators" is supposed to remind us of the opening scene of the story, in which Hooper preaches in the church). When asked why he's chosen to wear a black veil for his entire life, Hooper responds by claiming that everyone around him wears a black veil, too. In other words, Hooper believes that all human beings shelter secret sins—the only difference is that Hooper has externalized his own sins, while most people hide their sins from others. Furthermore, Hooper rejects the way his fellow townspeople have ignored him over the years—the fact that he's wearing a veil should make no difference, he claims. Because everyone "wears a veil"—i.e., because everyone is a sinner—Hooper is no more terrifying than any of his peers; indeed, he may be better than his peers, since he's at least being honest and upfront about his sinful nature. In ignoring Hooper, the townspeople are ignoring their own hidden sins, arrogantly behaving as if they have nothing to hide when, in fact, they do.

The problem with Hooper's explanation is that, arguably, he's dodging the question. Hooper was asked why he suddenly decided to wear the veil (could it have been his affair with the young woman?). So in a way, Hooper is concealing his sinfulness: he's disguising the specific sin he committed under the guise of teaching a "moral lesson" to the townspeople. Furthermore, Hooper's behavior in this climactic scene seems arrogant and grandiose—he seems to enjoy intimidating his peers, raising himself above others in order to strike fear and guilt into their hearts.

In the end, there's no "right" interpretation of the story: perhaps Hooper is hypocritical; perhaps the townspeople are; perhaps everyone is. But of course, how you choose to interpret the story is meant to speak towards your personality and your attitude toward good and evil. 

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The Black Veil Symbol Timeline in The Minister’s Black Veil

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Black Veil appears in The Minister’s Black Veil. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Minister's Black Veil
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
...a footnote, Hawthorne explains that Mr. Joseph Moody, who lived in Maine, also wore a veil, though unlike Reverend Hooper, the protagonist of Hawthorne’s story, he did as atonement for accidentally... (full context)
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Teaching by Example Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
...as if he has a wife to help him. Yet now he is wearing a veil that hides his entire face, except for his mouth and chin. While the townspeople cannot... (full context)
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
The townspeople mutter their disapproval of Hooper’s black veil. The sexton says he doesn’t feel as if Hooper’s face is really behind the veil,... (full context)
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
...dinner, “forgets” to extend an invitation. The townspeople leave the church, eager to discuss Hooper’s veil. Some “profane the Sabbath day” by laughing at it; some maintain that Hooper has weak... (full context)
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
...gives the afternoon service, which includes a funeral service for a young woman. Hooper’s black veil seems appropriate for the occasion. When he bends over the woman’s coffin, his veil hangs... (full context)
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
...being gloomy. But when Hooper arrives to marry the couple, he is still wearing the veil, casting a mood of seriousness and foreboding over the ceremony. (full context)
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
...church into the night—as the narrator puts it, the Earth is also wearing a “black veil.” (full context)
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
The next day, everyone in Milford talks about Hooper’s veil: children, friends, gossips, etc. No one dares to ask Hooper why he is wearing it,... (full context)
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
Teaching by Example Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
Hooper’s fiancée, Elizabeth, is the only person in Milford who isn’t afraid of Hooper’s veil. She goes to speak with him, and thinks that there is nothing terrifying about his... (full context)
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
As Elizabeth attempts to reason with Hooper, she begins to feel afraid of his veil for the first time. Hooper begs her not to leave him, and asks her to... (full context)
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
After Elizabeth leaves Hooper, no one tries to remove or understand his veil. Some say that Hooper is mad or eccentric, while most people are simply afraid of... (full context)
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
Teaching by Example Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
Although it isolates Hooper from Milford, the veil makes him an excellent reverend. Because the townspeople are afraid of Hooper, they focus on... (full context)
Isolation Theme Icon
...takes care of him. Hooper’s mind is confused, but he continues to insist that his veil not be removed. Elizabeth faithfully follows his orders. (full context)
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
Teaching by Example Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
Reverend Clark approaches Hooper on his deathbed and requests that he allow his veil to be lifted so that the other clergymen may see the face of a pious... (full context)