Truth and Death in Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil
Sarah Margaret Fuller’s American Literature explores the fledgling identity of the United States of America at a time when the national identity, not to mention the American literary canon, was in its nascent stage.
Fuller depicts a particular quality that a quintessentially American literary work must possess: truth. “Before we can have poets”, Fuller writes, truth “needs to penetrate beneath the springs of action, to stir and remake the soil as by the action of fire…This is the one great means by which alone progress can be essentially furthered. Truth is the nursing mother of genius. No man can be absolutely true to himself, eschewing cant, compromise, servile imitation, and complaisance, without becoming original, for there is in every creature a fountain of life which, if not choked back by stones and other dead rubbish, will create a fresh atmosphere, and bring to life fresh beauty. And it is the same with the nation as with the individual man” (Lauter 1843). What does Fuller mean by this statement? And what does it have to do with literature? In a time when a national literature is under construction, Fuller asserts, “the only safe position is to lead” (Lauter 1844). A staunch commitment to truth, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil, becomes the undoing of its protagonist, Father Hooper.
Yet, adherence to truth, at all costs, in Fuller’s reckoning, is what makes The
Minister’s Black Veil a genuine work of American Literature.
Critical thought, both historical and contemporary, plumbs Hooper’s motivation for donning the veil in the first place. The emphasis seems to be on uncovering the secret. While the consensus appears to be that Father Hooper’s secret is sexual in nature, no one appears clear on the details of Hooper’s sexual transgression.
Richard Fogle contends “Hawthorne holds out the suggestion that the veil is a penance for an actual and serious crime, while at the same time permitting no real grounds for it” (Fogle 36). Paul J. Emmett suggests that Hooper puts on the veil to become a woman. He writes, “we’re never told why Hooper seeks feminization, or even if feminization is part of his motivation…but to deal with Hooper’s motivations for wearing the veil, we must, of course, ask what he wants, and in Hawthorne’s tale, what the minister wants is insinuated the same way as what the minister’s done. Repetitions. With both the young lady and Elizabeth, it’s not exactly that Hooper wants to be female, it’s that he needs to be the lost woman.
He needs to become, to incorporate, to take the place of the very woman whom he has separated himself from” (Emmett 104). Carl Ostrowski defends a somewhat radical thesis. He understands the veil to be a means of camouflaging the ravages of syphilis on Father Hooper’s face. Ostrowski maintains the “diagnosis of Hooper [that he has syphilis] takes on added meaning in light of the problematic relationship between the minister and the young woman whose funeral he presides over, significantly, on the day he first wears the veil” (Ostrowski 203).
Ostrowski goes on to point to the old woman who witnesses Hooper, and “who is immediately discredited by the narrator as a “superstitious old woman” (which only calls greater attention to her observation), [and ]avers that the corpse “had slightly shuddered” at the instant when the clergyman’s face would have been visible to her” (Ostrowski 203). The veil then becomes the symbol of Hooper’s fall from sexual purity, and the syphilis becomes the punishment. Criticism also explores the veil from the standpoint of religion. Timothy Montbriand offers a religious explanation for the veil when he states that “Hooper is struggling with doubts about his own salvation, and the beginning of that struggle is marked by the moment he first dons the veil. Forever after that, he must, necessarily, see the world in a different way, for his preoccupation with his eternal destiny cuts him off from fully participating in the joys of the world around him. The veil represents his isolation; it does not cause it” (Montbriand 1). Still other critics read the veil as a form of psychological separation that Hooper adopts. J.
Miller asserts that “[Hooper’s veil] interrupts a universal process absolutely necessary to all human society, community, family life, and face-to-face “interpersonal” relations – the process whereby we interpret faces as the signs of selfhood. Hooper’s veil leaves no way to read his soul, his thoughts and feeling, from his face, no way to tell whether the person is happy or whether he has a secret sorrow or sin. In fact, there is no way to be sure that the minister, or anyone at all, is behind the veil” (Miller 44). Lastly, Clark Davis says that Hooper’s veil “implies some limitation within the relationship with otherness, a permeable barrier that re-resents a heightened awareness of distance” (Davis 14). For the purposes of this essay, let us look instead on Hooper not as a man, not as a sexual being, but as living symbol of truth, a truth that none want to face: death. All that lives, dies. Father Hooper adopts the veil to personify the truth of human mortality, and this truth relates to every facet of life that any civilization built on religion strives to suppress: the tenuous grasp all of us have on life. Hawthorne’s veiled minister is a simple, brutal symbolic representation of death.
This is why he quickly becomes unbearable for the townspeople to witness. Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil embodies American Literature, by Fuller’s definition, because he creates in Hooper a protagonist that refuses to “bow to the will of the multitude” (Lauter 1844). Father Hooper indeed finds “the ostracism of democracy far more dangerous than the worse censure of a tyranny could be” (Lauter 1844).
In the creation and presentation of the true inevitability of death via Hooper’s veil, Hawthorne fulfills Fuller’s definition of the American writer as in possession of the “noble fearlessness [that] can give wings to the mind, with which to soar beyond the common ken, and learn what may be of use to the crowd below. Writers have nothing to do but to love truth fervently, seek justice according to their ability, and then express what is in the mind; they have nothing to do with consequences. God will take care of those.
The want of such noble courage, such faith in the power of truth and good desire, paralyze mind greatly in this country” (Lauter 1844). Author Ernest Becker wrote, “man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet…this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature” (Becker 26). Yet, as Hawthorne’s protagonist Hooper knows full well, and as Becker delineates, “man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, flesh-gasping body…a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways – the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die” (Becker 26).
In The Minister’s Black Veil, Hooper sets about to rouse his parishioners from their collective delusion concerning their own mortality. The trigger for Hooper to adopt this role is the “funeral of a young lady,” which has affected him deeply, for reasons unknown (Lauter 2431). When Hooper arrives at the home of the deceased woman, he wears the veil. The “relatives and friends were assembled in the house, and the more distant acquaintances stood about the door, speaking of the good qualities of the deceased, when their talk was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Hooper, still covered with his black veil. It was now an appropriate emblem” (Lauter 2431).
The irony of Hawthorne’s passage is not lost. In the eyes of the townspeople, Hooper’s funereal shroud only maintains its appropriateness in the context of the young woman’s death. “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…A person who watched the interview between the dead and living, scrupled not to affirm, that, at the instant when the clergyman’s features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the countenance retained the composure of death” (Lauter 2431). Critics attribute this passage to Father Hooper’s relationship with the dead woman. Instead, let us reads this passage as the details of Father Hooper’s communion with death.
Once Hooper leaves the dead woman, he passes “into the chamber of the mourners, and thence to the head of the staircase, to make the funeral prayer. It was a tender and heart-dissolving prayer, full of sorrow, yet so imbued with celestial hopes, that the music of a heavenly harp, swept by the fingers of the dead, seemed faintly to be heard among the saddest accents of the minister. The people trembled, though they but darkly understood him when he prayed that they, and himself, and all of mortal race, might be ready, as he trusted this young maiden had been, for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces” (Lauter 2431). We see Hooper press his face close to death, and in so doing, he provides a visual representation of the story’s theme: life and death are always side-by-side.
When Hawthorne notes the reaction of the townspeople to Hooper’s prayer, we see that they have understood his meaning. However, they choose to ignore it. Hooper’s congregation reserves a time and a place for death: the funeral. Only in a death context can death exist, in their minds. Outside of the funeral, only life exists: weddings, engagements, church sermons, and gossip. However, through the experience of losing the young woman, Hooper has become intimately acquainted with the reality of life. He now understands that death and life co-exist; they are partners in experience, and separation through social ritual defies that reality. There is no way to separate the two.
The veil then becomes a visual depiction of this truth. Later, when Hooper arrives at a wedding wearing the shroud, the townspeople no longer approve. “When Mr. Hooper came, the first thing that their eyes rested on was the same horrible black veil, which had added deeper gloom to the funeral, and could portend nothing but evil to the wedding. Such was its immediate effect on the guests that a cloud seemed to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape, and dimmed the light of the candles. The bridal pair stood up before the minister. But the bride’s cold fingers quivered in the tremulous hand of the bridegroom, and her deathlike paleness caused a whisper that the maiden who had been buried a few hours before was come from her grave to be married” (Lauter 2431).
In actuality, the funereal shroud is always appropriate, even during a wedding, since death can happen at any time. Death, in fact, always remains as close to us as our own lives. Freud alludes to this in a passage from Reflections on War and Death that asks, “Is it not for us to confess that in our civilized attitude towards death we are once more living psychologically beyond our means, and must reform and give truth its due? Would it not be better to give death the place in actuality and in our thoughts which properly belongs to it, and to yield a little more prominence to that unconscious attitude towards death which we have hitherto so carefully suppressed?” (Freud 34). Father Hooper attempts to share the wisdom of this idea with his parishioners, to free them from their denial of death. As a result, he makes himself a pariah. When Hooper attempts to share his understanding with the woman whom he believes loves him, he learns the limits of their relationship in a heart wrenching and poignant exchange. Elizabeth does see the truth, as evidenced herein: “her eyes were fixed insensibly on the black veil, when, like a sudden twilight in the air, its terrors fell around her. She arose, and stood trembling before him.
“And do you feel it then, at last?” said he mournfully. She made no reply, but covered her eyes with her hand, and turned to leave the room” (Lauter 2431). Elizabeth chooses delusion over truth, even though Hooper implores her to recognize the veracity of the veil, and the truth of their mortality, when he begs, “”Have patience with me, Elizabeth!” cried he, passionately. “Do not desert me, though this veil must be between us here on earth.
Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls! It is but a mortal veil – it is not for eternity! O! You know not how lonely I am, and how frightened, to be alone behind my black veil. Do not leave me in this miserable obscurity forever!” (Lauter 2431). Elizabeth, when she asks Hooper to remove the veil, shows that even though she understands the symbol that Hooper’s veil represents, she prefers to remain in denial. This marks the end of their love affair, and sets Hooper on his lonely course as the sole voice of truth in a landscape of lies. Sarah Margaret Fuller believed that a truly American Literature denoted fearlessness, and that its purpose was to create an environment wherein “talent shall be left at leisure to turn its energies upon the higher department of man’s existence” (Lauter 1843). Truly American writers, in her mind, did not shrink from speaking and writing the truth, despite that the fact that it is “not half so dangerous to a man to be immured in a dungeon alone with God and his own clear conscience, as to walk the streets fearing the scrutiny of a thousand eyes, ready to veil, with anxious care, whatever may not suit the many-headed monster in its momentary mood” (Lauter 1844).
Hawthorne knew that the appetite for truth, particularly in regards to the close relationship between death and life, was nonexistent in his time. In actuality, it has not grown much since. Yet, Hawthorne created a protagonist, Father Hooper, who sacrificed his personal happiness, suffered public censure, social ostracization, and the loss of a woman he loved, all in an effort to bring his congregation to the light of truth – that life and death exist side by side, and that the simple acknowledgment of death as part of life brings a sense of unparalleled freedom. Unfortunately, but not surprising, Father Hooper failed to impart his message, and so endured the rest of his days as a curiosity, until, on his death bed, his last words struck at the heart of the townspeople and the reality that they all face as mortal beings: “I look around me and lo! On every visage a Black Veil!” (Lauter 2431).
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