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.
Sin and Guilt ThemeTracker
Sin and Guilt 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.
“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].
“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.”
"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."
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.
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!"