The Minister’s Black Veil

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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.
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon

Hooper believes that everyone lives in a state of sin, inherited from Adam and Eve. 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. The townspeople assume that Hooper has committed a specific crime, and because their Puritan community recognizes the danger of sin, they’re horrified that Hooper seems to be showing his sin to the public. Ironically, even though Puritans believe that sin must be defeated at all costs, they would rather sweep it under the rug than talk about it and potentially cure it. It’s also possible that the townspeople of Milford do understand what Hooper’s veil means; in other words, it reminds them of their own secret sins, and they ostracize Hooper as a defense mechanism to avoid coming to terms with their own guilt.

Of course, the townspeople could be correct in saying that Hooper has committed a specific crime; in the end, we don’t know why he veils his face. Hawthorne himself says that Hooper is “unlike” Joseph Moody of York, Maine, who veils his face as punishment for accidentally killing his friend, but it’s unclear if this means that Hooper is innocent of specific wrongdoing or that he committed a different crime. In the same way Hooper cuts himself off from the town, Hawthorne cuts readers off from understanding him fully, using third person narration to distance us from Hooper’s thoughts and feelings. As a result, the story seems to suggest that it’s impossible to know to a certainty if another person is innocent or guilty of a specific crime. This might suggest that people shouldn’t obsess over others’ sins, but respect others and allow them to work through their own guilt.

It’s clear that Hawthorne believes that the townspeople are wrong to gossip about other people’s sins; what’s less apparent is whether or not Hooper is right to obsess. By wearing the veil, Hooper brings misery to himself, but also to Elizabeth, his fiancée, and the townspeople, who are newly frightened by his sermons. “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.

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Sin and Guilt ThemeTracker

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Sin and Guilt 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 Sin and Guilt.
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.

“Truly do I,” replied the lady; “and I would not be alone with [Hooper] for the world. I wonder he is not afraid to be alone with himself!”
Men are sometimes so,” said her husband [the physician].

Related Characters: The physician (speaker), Reverend Hooper
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the physician finally shows signs of understanding the deeper meaning of the black veil. As far as the majority of the town is concerned, Mr. Hooper's veil has exactly one meaning: he's a sinner. But for the physician, the veil has a darker, more general significance. The veil reminds him that all men—i.e., not just Hooper—are afraid to be alone with themselves. In other words, all human beings have secrets to hide, and at times the weight of their sins is too much to bear.

The physician's interpretation of the veil suggests that perhaps Hooper decided to wear a veil in order to remind the townspeople of their own sinful nature: Hooper tries to be an example, externalizing his sin in order to remind his peers of their own sin. If this is Hooper's aim, then he mostly fails. Most of the townspeople (except the physician) miss the point of the veil altogether. Or perhaps they're so frightened of the veil because, deep down, they are reminded of their own sinfulness.

“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.

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.