Psychological Terror in “the Minister’s Black Veil”

I think that, as a general rule, humans love to categorize things. We like to organize things. We like things to fit into our neat, little organized view of reality, whether it’s a can of soup we buy, a movie we watch, or a person we meet. Everything needs to fit into some sort of category and if it doesn’t fit, we create a category for it to fit into. Categories give us certain expectations about the thing we are dealing with. Stories are no exception to this idea.
For example, a romance novel should be romantic, obviously; but we would assume that it also contains some sort of conflict for the hero or heroine to overcome, which eventually leads him or her to their true love, or some sort of happiness at the end. But what effect do these expectations have on our interpretation of a story? Since my goal with this essay is to attempt to categorize the “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, I will need to investigate what characteristics are present, in hopes that these characteristics will lead me to some sort of definitive answer about the genre of this story.
First, we must look at the elements of the story; tone and diction are very important when trying to categorize a story. The tone of the story is somewhat gloomy, and quite isolated. We are drawn into this small town’s world, as they become increasingly terrified of Minister Hooper and his strange veil. And the way the congregation of Hooper’s church see the veil when he first wears it makes it seem as though it was something much more sinister than a “simple piece of crape” (938).

As he preaches about “secret sin, and those mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest” (938), no one can see his face, and thus everyone feels as though Hooper is looking at them, directing his sermon at them: Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was nothing terrible in what Mr.
Hooper said, at least, no violence; and yet, with every tremor of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked. 938 The congregation is so unsettled by this strange addition to the Minister’s visage that they cannot stop thinking about it during his sermon; “[s]o sensible were the audience of some unwonted attribute in their minister, that they longed for a breath of wind to blow aside the veil, almost believing that a stranger’s visage would be discovered, though the form, gesture, and voice were those of Mr. Hooper” (938).
No one is immune to the terror that this black piece of crape invokes. The entire town is on edge and speculative as to what the veil means. And the words used to describe the veil and its effects are definitely indicative of this fear; “terrible thing” (939); “ghostlike” (939); “horrible” (940); “gloom” (940); “dismal shade” (941). This piece of fabric has separated Hooper from his beloved congregation. While they thought him a happy and benevolent man before, they now feel fear and distrust when they see him.
One lady of his congregation remarks, “I would not be alone with him for the world. I wonder that he is not afraid to be alone with himself” (939). But Hooper is not immune to the sinister effects of the veil. At the wedding he officiates later the same day, he sees his reflection, and what he sees terrifies him: At that instant, catching a glimpse of his figure in the looking-glass, the black veil involved his own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others.
His frame shuddered, his lips grew white, he spilt the untasted wine upon the carpet, and rushed forth into the darkness. For the Earth, too, had on her Black Veil. 940 If we take “The Minister’s Black Veil” as a horror story, it leads us to certain conclusions about the nature of the veil and Hooper’s refusal to take it off. If horror is something that centers upon the horrifying or macabre, especially concerning the supernatural, one can see that this story could belong. Hooper never divulges the exact nature of the veil, and we are left to speculate about what it could possibly mean.
Several possibilities present themselves if we think of this story as a horror story; it could be that the veil is covering Hooper’s face to be a constant reminder to his congregation and all who see him of secret sin. It seems that the idea that he could possibly know someone’s secret sin is terrifying to the townspeople. Indeed, this veil does give Hooper “awful power over souls that were in agony for sin” (943). Sinners fear him, because they feel that the black veil is a reference to their own personal secret sins.
And the veil gives him an association with the dead and ghostly qualities; after the girl’s funeral at the beginning of the story, one woman remarks that she thought she saw Hooper walking hand in hand with the ghost of the dead girl. Such things would not have been imagined if he had never donned the veil. But however terrifying the veil is, I think this story lacks any visceral or shocking scenes. The idea of the veil hiding sins, the image of it on Hooper’s face is incredibly creepy, to be sure. But I think horror stories especially rely on the supernatural and the unknown to make them unsettling.
And while this story does use the veil as an unknown, and it is unsettling, I think that the part of the story that really gets to me is the psychological torment and uneasiness that the veil casts not only on the townspeople, but on Hooper himself. Let us take the definition of a psychological story as something that focuses on the mental and emotional aspects of the characters. The terror in this story, then, is largely in the way that this simple piece of fabric gets under everyone’s skin. It isn’t a horrifying object in and of itself, and I think that is what draws me away from thinking of this as a horror story.
This black piece of crape is enough to turn people against Hooper. They avoid him, stop inviting him over for dinner, picture him capable of all sorts of acts that they never would have thought him capable of prior to the veil. And imagine Hooper’s existence. He has vowed to wear the veil until death! No one knows why, although when explaining to Elizabeth why the veil must always be kept on, he says that “I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil” (941).
What sorrows these are, we never find out. This again plays a large role in the psychological aspect of the story: we never know exactly what drove Hooper to end his days with the black veil on his face. Perhaps it is related to the girl that died at the beginning of the story; he first wears the veil the same day as her funeral, and in Perkins footnote to “The Black Veil”, Hawthorne is shown to have made reference in his own footnotes to Joseph Moody, a clergyman in New England who accidentally killed a friend of his in his childhood.
After his friend`s death, Moody wore a black veil until his own death (Perkins and Perkins, 937). Perhaps Hawthorne`s reason for detailing this true story with “The Minister’s Black Veil” is a clue; if we take Hooper’s black veil as a sign of his own personal sin, and he is wearing the veil as a reminder to himself that he is a sinner, and can only be redeemed after death, then all of the effects that the veil has on the townspeople are unintentional. I think that this idea is very plausible.
Hooper was generally thought to be a pushover by his congregation, who thought that it must be a phase that he would get over and take the veil off. But Hooper’s strange dedication to the veil does seem to indicate some sort of personal attachment to the idea of secret sin. Perhaps he did have something to do with the girl’s death, or was in a relationship with her before she died. Either way, the presence of the veil seems to indicate that he feels guilty about something, and feels that it is necessary to always live behind this veil as a result of that guilt.
That it has an effect on other people is secondary; or at best preventative: maybe Hooper is attempting to thwart other’s sins by making public that he has his own. (1487) Works Cited Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil. ” The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. George Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 12th Ed. Vol. 1. Toronto: McGraw Hill, 2009. 937 – 945. Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins. Footnote 1 to “The Minister’s Black Veil”. The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. George Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 12th Ed. Vol. 1. Toronto: McGraw Hill, 2009. 937 – 945.

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