Nathaniel Hawthorne

Story Playlist 2: The Minister's Black Veil

Nathaniel Hawthorne: “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836) René Magritte, the surrealist painter, once said, “a face is not a face unless it’s facing you.” Some of his best-known paintings feature an anonymous businessman with his back turned to the viewer, or a businessman in a bowler hat whose face is covered with a large green apple, or a young man facing a mirror that reflects the back of his head. These effects are disconcerting. Faces make us feel we know someone—recognizing them, reading emotions and back stories into the contours of a visage. Masks unnerve us. We might assume it hides something horrible, but at least it alienates us from the familiar. To enjoy the creepiness of Halloween is all well and good, but imagine how upsetting it would be if your child’s little friend, who looked so cute in his Friday-the-Thirteenth hockey mask, refused to take it off for the duration of his sleepover at your house…

Magritte created mysterious paintings that begged to be engaged with, the visual riddles within them solved—and yet Magritte offers no solution. Magritte went a step further, and even denied reasonable solutions proposed by art historians. For example: Magritte suffered a formative trauma in his youth. His depressive mother drowned herself, and young Magritte saw her corpse, with a wet, white nightgown pulled over its face. Later in life, Magritte frequently painted a women without faces and figures draped in cloth. It takes neither Sigmund Freud nor Sherlock Holmes to link Magritte’s trauma to this ghostly mother-figure in his paintings. Yet Magritte denied any such interpretation.

Magritte’s paintings draw in the viewer to make us active investigators into the mystery of the painting, but then leave us with an unsolved mystery. Such is the effect of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s much-analyzed short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil.” We do not know if Magritte ever read it, but if he had, he would surely have approved.

“The Minister’s Black Veil” takes place in the late-18th century New England of Hawthorne’s parents’ Puritan generation, and it deals with themes of guilt and innocence and sin, with who is chosen for the afterlife, and with the reactionary and hypocritical actions of the upright citizens of the new United States of America. Hawthorne provides a simple set-up, but one layered with clues to the “solution” of the overt mystery of the story—if only we know how to read between the lines of text.

Mister Hooper, a Puritan minister, is quiet, staid, but well-liked and admired by his congregation. One day, without any explanation, he appears at Sunday prayer wearing a black veil made of double-thick crepe, the sort that a woman might wear at a funeral. It hangs over his forehead and down to his mouth, and it flutters gently as he breathes. In that week’s sermon, he preaches about “secret sin,” but all his congregation can do is wonder at the veil. They immediately find it repulsive, “awful,” disconcerting, though they do not know why. Mister Hooper even smiles, as if nothing is the matter, but no one dares to ask him directly why he wears the veil.

Hooper’s choice of mask is wonderfully creepy. There is a cross-dressing element to it (the mesh black crepe is decidedly feminine), and funereal. When asked, at first playfully then seriously, by his fiancée Elizabeth to remove the veil, he refuses, stating that he must wear it until his death. He offers no explanation and, understandably, Elizabeth leaves him. He pleads with her not to leave him lonely, but he could hardly expect her to stick around.

Hooper confides in no one and offers no explanation beyond the general ministerial concept of bearing a sort of cross for the sins of others, doing so in an overt manner. Indeed, his wearing of the veil makes him a more effective minister, with throngs coming to hear his sermons (both to stare at him and to hear him speak) and those with their own burdens seeing, in his veiled person, someone in whom they can confide.

The question that prompts the reader to read on impulsively: why does the minister wear the veil? It is a question Hawthorne chooses not to answer, though there are clues from which we might cobble together a solution. Certainly the story can be read as an allegory, but Hawthorne is no surrealist; we may seek a rationale for the veil within the context of the story.

Critics have picked apart this story, among them Edgar Allan Poe. A master of detective stories himself, Poe noted, early on, that the minister’s veiling was a mystery for readers to solve. First, we must assume that the wearing of the veil has meaning for Hooper. Hooper’s desperate pleas to Elizabeth not to leave him, despite his refusal to remove the veil, suggests at once the desire for self-punishment (no one is making him wear the veil), and a desire for companionship as he carries his cross.

The next question is, why now? Hooper showed no inclination to odd behavior before he showed up at this Sunday service wearing his black veil. The timing must, therefore, be significant. After his first appearance with the veil, Hooper had to preside over the funeral service of a young woman. As he leaned over the open coffin in prayer, the veil slipped forward. Hawthorne describes Hooper reacting with horror, as if he were afraid to show even the dead body what lay beneath the veil. A superstitious woman at the funeral claims to have seen the corpse in the coffin shudder when Hooper’s face was momentarily revealed to it. Others claim to have seen the ghost of the young woman walking hand-in-hand with Hooper en route to the burial ground.

This provides our best clue as to why Hooper has decided to punish himself. First, a veiled sermon on secret sin, and then the funeral in the afternoon. These two factors lead to a noted correspondence with the story of Reverend Joseph Moody (1718-1753) of York, Maine. According to his own diary, written in code in Latin, Moody accidentally killed a friend when the two were young. Moody’s father required his son to sit through the night beside the friend’s corpse, as a means of atonement. Moody took the idea of atonement to an extreme. From the time of his friend’s funeral, Moody wore at all times a “black handkerchief” over his face, even while preaching in church. He was nicknamed “Handkerchief Moody” for his trouble. It is a safe bet that Moody’s haunting true story inspired Hawthorne’s brilliantly creepy work of fiction.

Taking Moody’s story as a backdrop, we return to Hawthorne’s mystery. Without warning or confiding in anyone, Hooper wears a black veil, preaches about secret sin, then recoils at showing his face above the corpse of a young woman over whose funeral service he must preside. Some say that they saw the ghost of the young woman walking hand-in-hand with Hooper en route to the graveyard.

Add it all up, and we’ve got a potential back story. Hooper did something for which he feels he must punish himself. The act of veiling leaves him, literally and figuratively, alone for the rest of his life, all interactions filtered through wearing a woman’s funereal veil. He tells no one why he wears it, not even his fiancée. He has an unusually strong reaction to the corpse of a young woman he must bury.

What Hawthorne does not overtly state, but what is implied, is that Hooper either had an illicit affair with this deceased young woman, and/or he was complicit in her death. The affair is implied by the vision of Hooper hand-in-hand with her ghost. Hooper was engaged to Elizabeth, and adultery was a serious sin in Puritan New England. But Hooper’s strong reaction at the funeral, and his choice to wear the veil beginning with the day of the funeral, coupled with the inspiration of Handkerchief Moody’s story of manslaughter, suggest that Hooper was also somehow responsible for the woman’s death. We cannot know more than this, and of course this all only suggested. Hawthorne states relatively little, but leaves clues in the silences, in what is not said, that allow us to piece together a plausible solution. And what we cannot know for certain is far more suggestive and enduring than a last line that removes our doubts and conjectures with a neat explanation, tying off the story into a bow.

Examples of this can sometimes frustrate: viewers loved the TV series Twin Peaks and Lost, but neither began with a solution to their myriad mysteries in mind. When the shows had to end, writers struggled to come up with a satisfying solution (it’s hard to write a whodunit when, from the start, you didn’t plan who did it) and, according to many viewers, they failed to satisfy. But such open-ended mysteries prompt discussion of allegorical and symbolic meanings. Hawthorne, far advanced for his time, shows the power of unresolved mystery.

Classics I Hate

When I was in the midst of receiving my doctorate in American literature from the City University of New York Graduate Center, I made my obligatory pilgrimages to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. My first was a doozy. I vividly remember a panel I attended on canonical and non-canonical works, where such well-regarded scholars as the incendiary and the all-too-conservative duked it out over the Western canon and the validity of the "classic." Both trotted out their respective arguments and in the many years since I have come to take stock in the merits of the two sides. There is definitely room in the canon—whatever that is—for new work that need not labor in the shadow of Melville and Emerson or even the critical sensibility that placed them at the top. On the other hand, there is absolutely no way to regard all published works of literary fiction on par with one another in terms of quality or even critical interest. Charles Dickens is better than Stephen King, just like Stephen King is better than John Saul, who is really not much better than anyone. Now we can argue about what we mean by better, but if we take as one aspect of it my second criterion of "critical interest"—worthiness and worthwhile-ness for critical examination—then, yeah, Dickens is better than King. There is more to say about Dickens' work than there is to say about King's, and on multiple fronts, too: historical, economic, linguistic, sociopolitical.

So, in my mind, there are such things as classics, although I don't much love the term and the baggage it carries. Classics presumably point to works of quality that support that much more critical interest than other works. And this raises, in turn, an issue I have become quite fascinated by: classics I hate.

The hated classic finds its antithesis in the guilty pleasure, which in today's world is hardly a source of shame. Hell, my wife is more than happy to talk about her preferences for American Idol—even though she was less vested in this year's selection of Kris Allen—and I can freely admit my penchant for old Kung Fu movies and Firefall's "You Are the Woman" (please don't hit me). There are many who happily boast a passion for various species of bad art. I have friends who love Z-movie vampire flicks. My sister thinks Dumb and Dumber is one of the greatest comedies ever made. I had a boss who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer religiously. There is even circulating a much-talked-about documentary on the "" ever. Need I go on?

However, we tend to be more circumspect about how much we dislike great art. True, it is easy enough to confide among friends our gut feeling that Giacometti's sculptures seem childish or Verdi is a bore. But put us in a room of intellectual peers or, even worse, acknowledged superiors, and suddenly it becomes a more vexing matter. We still may not like Giacometti or Verdi, but try justifying your response without sounding entirely solipsistic ("What can I say? It doesn't do a thing for me"), all of which seems to raise important questions about our response—and those of our peers. What do they know that I don't? Is it a question of unacknowledged personal immaturity? Or is this classic just another example of mass hysterical bad judgment? (It's been known to happen.) Or perhaps questions of taste really are relative and Stephen King can be as good as Charles Dicken—Heaven forfend!

With bad art, I suspect we're allowed to indulge our innate solipsism. Why am I willing to overlook how crappy old Kung Fu movies are? The escapism, formulaic storytelling, acrobatic choreography are all psychological creature comforts of the circus and childish wish fulfillment. But why do I hate The Scarlet Letter? It's dull, dull, dull, and I'll take the The Blithedate Romance over it in a heartbeat. So what the hell am I missing?

This is not an insignificant question. As a former college teacher, I was constantly placed in the position of rebutting student charges of dullness, an eternal source of frustration that seemed little more than the response of the lazy mind. In my struggle to teach students how to appreciate works by Conrad, Austen, Poe, Blake, and innumerable others, this response surfaced again and again as an ever-elusive combatant whom I could never quite grasp and pin down.

So why do I hate The Scarlet Letter? Why is my memory of it hardly a pleasurable one? Why has this novel never moved me in any way whatsoever? These are all questions that deserve a better answer than "I'm sorry but it's just a dull read." After all, I am more than willing to tolerate the lengthy mood settings in Joseph Conrad or the fine needlepoint psychological excursions of Henry James. I know The Scarlet Letter is a classic; I can even sense it! But there is radical disconnect, one that flummoxes any attempt at quick explication.

So for now, I am without answers; someday I hope to offer better ones. Until then, let me turn it over to you: Which classics have you found to be an utter failure in your experience as a reader?