Puritan communities were extremely small and close-knit. Thus, townspeople acted as each other’s enforcers — if someone misbehaved, everyone else would know about it. Hawthorne makes this dynamic clear in the first paragraph of “The Minister’s Black Veil,” when he describes the way the sexton alerts the entire town to Hooper’s altered appearance. In Hooper’s funeral sermon, he says that God is always watching, but the truth is that the townspeople are always watching and judging their peers.
But although the people of Milford are always watching, they’re superficial in their judgments. Unlike God, they have no way of knowing the status of other people’s souls; they can only see others’ appearances and make interpretations of what’s beneath. Though Hooper’s appearance changes after he wears the veil, everything else about him is the same: he’s still pensive, still in love with his fiancée, Elizabeth, still eager to greet his congregation, etc. On paper, he delivers exactly the same Sunday sermon as usual, but his appearance leads the townspeople to perceive the sermon as much darker and more severe than his usual offering. A simple piece of clothing alters their perception of a man they’ve known for years.
Hooper’s appearance leads the town to imagine elaborate interpretations of why he chooses to wear the veil. Some think he’s losing his eyesight, some think he’s going insane, but most think that he has committed a grave sin and is afraid to show his face. Elizabeth, who’s clever enough to understand how powerful appearances can be in Milford, urges Hooper to remove the veil, lest the townspeople interpret it as a sign of his sinful behavior. Even though the townspeople are too timid to ask Hooper about his veil, or accuse him of wrongdoing, Elizabeth knows that their interpretations are dangerous by themselves. Indeed, the townspeople’s interpretation of Hooper’s appearance leads to his ostracism from Milford: because of the power of appearances and interpretations, he’s isolated almost entirely by the town.
And yet, over the years, while the people of Milford have been interpreting Hooper, Hooper has been interpreting them. 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. Appearances are important in Milford, but Hawthorne shows how they can be counterproductive to true understanding, or true morality.
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation ThemeTracker
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Quotes in The Minister’s Black Veil
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.
Did he seek to hide [his face] from the dread Being whom he was addressing?
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.
The sermon which he now delivered was marked by the same characteristics of style and manner as the general series of his pulpit oratory. But there was something, either in the sentiment of the discourse itself, or in the imagination of the auditors, which made it greatly the most powerful effort that had ever heard from their pastor’s lips. It was tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper’s temperament.
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.
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?
"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."
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.
"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!"