The Minister’s Black Veil


Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Minister’s Black Veil: Situational Irony 1 key example

Situational Irony
Explanation and Analysis—Shunning the Virtuous:

A central irony of “The Minister’s Black Veil” is that Reverend Hooper’s veil—which he wears in an attempt to teach his congregation about the way that secrecy, and particularly secret sin, bars them from truly knowing one another and themselves—only serves to further divide him from the people around him. Assuming Reverend Hooper has committed some secret sin of his own and is wearing the black veil to atone for it, the people of Milford quickly start to shun him:

Turning his veiled face from one group to another, he paid due reverence to hoary heads, saluted the middle aged with kind dignity as their friend and spiritual guide, greeted the young with mingled authority and love, and laid his hands on little children's heads to bless them. Such was always his custom on Sabbath day. Strange and bewildered looks repaid him for his courtesy […] He returned, therefore, to the parsonage, and, at the moment of closing the door, was observed to look back upon the people, all of whom had their eyes fixed upon the minister. 

Although the minster’s behavior remains exactly the same as it was before he put on the veil (the narrator makes it clear that he greets his congregation in the same way that “was always his custom on Sabbath day”), the townspeople begin to perceive this behavior differently after he obscures his face. This highlights another significant irony in the story: that the people of Milford are far more concerned with the appearance of sin than they are with sin itself. 

In Puritan New England, where this story takes place, virtuous behavior was paramount. The Puritans believed that one’s actions in life reflected whether they were destined for Heaven or not. They also believed that spiritual truth was more important than outward appearance, which is why they disliked any sort of spectacle, including plays, singing, dancing, and the wearing of bright colors. Ironically, however, the Puritans of Milford are far more concerned with Reverend Hooper’s outward appearance than they are with the spiritual truth he reveals by wearing his black veil. They are so disturbed by his appearance, in fact, that they not only fail to learn the lesson he is trying to teach them, but also shun him for practicing the very virtues they claim to hold dear. This obsession with appearances is underscored at the end of the above passage, when Hawthorne writes that “all of [the congregation] had their eyes fixed upon the minister.” Although Reverend Hooper is often described as looking down or away from others, the people of Milford are constantly staring at one another, revealing their somewhat hypocritical fixation on appearances. This could be read as Hawthorne critiquing Puritanism more broadly, with its emphasis on correct behavior and keeping up the appearance of virtue instead of the reality.

Throughout the story, Hooper’s veil is repeatedly described as being small and flimsy, making it all the more ironic that it has such a huge effect on the people around him. For example, when he is speaking with his fiancée Elizabeth, it is described as “[nothing] but a double fold of crape, hanging down from his forehead to his mouth, and slightly stirring with his breath,” and throughout the story, the narrator rather dismissively refers to it as “that piece of crape.” This language highlights the irony of the townspeople being so disturbed by its appearance; it’s a thin, superficial thing, but it’s enough to make them ostracize their once-beloved minister.