The Minister’s Black Veil

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Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
Teaching by Example Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Minister’s Black Veil, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon

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.

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Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Quotes in The Minister’s Black Veil

Below you will find the important quotes in The Minister’s Black Veil related to the theme of Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation.
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 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.

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper
Page Number: 12-13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this ambiguous passage, Hawthorne leaves it up to readers to decide what is real and what is happening in the townspeople's minds. Mr. Hooper delivers a sermon that the townspeople find to be markedly different from his usual Sunday offering. The sermon is dark, serious, and intimidating—or at least it seems so to the townspeople. But as Hawthorne makes clear, whatever difference the townspeople think they're hearing may be a product of their "imagination," rather than any actual difference in Mr. Hooper's speaking style or content.

The ambiguity in this section points to the broader ambiguity of the story itself. We don't know who has truly "changed"—Mr. Hooper, or the townspeople. In other words, Hawthorne leaves it unclear whether Mr. Hooper has committed a sin and is punishing himself for it, or whether Mr. Hooper is exactly the same person he's always been—albeit with a black veil on his face—and the townspeople are only treating him differently because of their prejudices and insecurities about their own sinfulness.

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.

"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.

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.