Solitude/Isolation in “The Minister’s Black Veil” and Hawthorne’s Life
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In the Nathaniel Hawthorne tale, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” we see and feel the solitude/isolation of the minister, Reverend Mr. Hooper. Is this solitude not a reflection of the very life of the author?
According to A.N. Kaul in his Introduction to Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, the themes of isolation and alienation were ones which Hawthorne was “deeply preoccupied with” in his writings (2).
At the outset of the tale, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” the sexton is tolling the church bell and simultaneously watching Mr. Hooper’s door, when suddenly he says, ``But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?'' The surprise which the sexton displayed is repeated in the astonishment of the onlookers: “With one accord they started, expressing more wonder. . .” The reason is this: “Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath” is a black veil. The 30 year old, unmarried parson receives a variety of reactions from his congregation:
``I can't really feel as if good Mr. Hooper's face was behind that piece of crape''
``He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face''
``Our parson has gone mad!''
Few could refrain from twisting their heads towards the door. . . .
. . . more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the
Hawthorne, after exposing the surprised people to the sable veil, develops the protagonist through a description of some of his less exotic and curious characteristics:
Mr. Hooper had the reputation of a good preacher, but not an energetic one: he strove to win his people heavenward by mild, persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither by the thunders of the Word. The sermon which he now
delivered was marked by the same characteristics of style and manner as the general series of his pulpit oratory.
However, on this first day of wearing his black veil there is some peculiar difference in Hooper’s sermon:
But there was something, either in the sentiment of the discourse itself, or in the imagination of the auditors, which made it greatly the most powerful effort that they had ever heard from their pastor's lips. It was tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr.
Hooper's temperament. The subject had reference to secret sin. . . .
The psychological impact of the veil is that each parishioner feels that “the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought”; and “with every tremor of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked.” Hawthorne is carefully rounding out the spiritual, emotional dimensions of his main character through his statement of the reaction of his audience on that Sabbath morning. Contrasted with the protagonist are all other characters in the short story. He is isolated from them in most ways rather than being with them. There are rarely comparisons made, but mostly contrasts to Hooper’s veiled, secretive, somber, quiet image:
At the close of the services, the people hurried out with indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement, and conscious of lighter spirits the moment they lost sight of the black veil. Some gathered in little circles,
huddled closely together, with their mouths all whispering in the centre. . . some talked loudly, and profaned the Sabbath day with ostentatious laughter
A full range of natural, expected, realistic personal qualities appear within the pastor after the service is dismissed:
Turning his veiled face from one group to another, he paid due reverence to the 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 the little children's heads to bless them.
Concerning the parson’s black veil, the net result of Mr. Hooper’s strange action is revulsion or aversion by the once-dear members of his church:
Such was always his custom on the Sabbath day. Strange and bewildered looks repaid him for his courtesy. None; as on former occasions, aspired to the honor of walking by their pastor's side. Old Squire Saunders, doubtless by an accidental lapse of memory, neglected to invite Mr. Hooper to his table, where the good clergyman had been wont to bless the food, almost every Sunday since his settlement.
Solitude. Isolation. Solitude is the result for the parson. “Terrible” say some; “ghostlike” say others. “I would not be alone with him for the world. I wonder he is not afraid to be alone
with himself!'' expresses the feeling of others. When the afternoon service is over, and “the bell tolls for the funeral of a young lady,” the veil seems an “appropriate emblem.” As the reverend bends down over the maiden’s corpse in the coffin, his veil comes away from his face; the author, not omniscient in this story, speculates on the motive for what happens next: “Could Mr. Hooper be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil?”
Hawthorne has in “The Minister’s Black Veil” a single-character tale surrounded by mystery and ambiguity because of the lack of clear explanation for the black veil. The heavy symbolism of the veil is reflected in the parson’s prayer at the funeral: “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.” Reverend Hooper himself has become more than a person, but rather a living symbol of secret sin and unknown mystery in the lives of everyone. And symbolic of some ambiguous spiritual dimension. As one of the bystanders comments at the girl’s funeral: “’I had a fancy,' replied she, ‘that the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand.’'' There is a “mystery concealed behind it”; it “seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them.”
That night, as the wedding is about to commence, the couple are hoping that “the strange awe, which had gathered over him throughout the day, would now be dispelled.” But alas, such is not the case; Reverend Hooper continues to wear the veil, which could “portend nothing
but evil to the wedding.” Accidentally the parson, “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.” Isolation and solitude again for the minister.
Finally a “feeling of dread” among the good parishioners motivates them to send a “deputation of the church, in order to deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery, before it should grow into a scandal.” This maneuver failing, his “plighted wife” takes it upon herself “to know what the black veil concealed.” At the request of the “plighted wife” to “[f]irst lay-aside your black veil: then tell me why you put it on,'' the parson responds cryptically: ``’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.’'' He explains to Elizabeth that he has taken a vow to wear this “type and symbol” till the end, even “in solitude[my italics],” and “even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it!''
Elizabeth suspects that a “grievous affliction” is hidden by the veil. The minister replies that the veil could be a “sign of mourning.” Elizabeth contends that the veil could be construed as a sign of “secret sin” and should be removed for “the sake of your holy office.” This dialogue, the longest in the entire story, add layers of information regarding the temperament and motivation of the main character. Mr. Hooper responds with the mysterious comment that “if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?'' Elizabeth, suspecting mental disease, cries some tears; and while her eyes are “fixed insensibly” on the veil, “its terrors fell around her.” The minister, sensing that Elizabeth is on the verge of terminating their relationship because of the aura of mystery surrounding the sable veil, makes the plea: “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!'' His isolation and loneliness obviously pain him greatly; however, he refuses to honor her one tiny request to lift “the veil but once, and look me in the face.” Consequently she leaves him; and his isolation is further reduced to include only himself.
The omniscience of the narrator shows forth in the telling of the minister’s reaction: “But, even amid his grief, Mr. Hooper smiled to think that only a material emblem had separated him from happiness, though the horrors, which it shadowed forth, must be drawn darkly between the fondest of lovers.”
Thereafter no one asks the reverend to remove his veil. He observes “that the gentle and timid would turn aside to avoid him,” that “there would always be faces behind the gravestones, peeping at his black veil,” that “the children fled from his approach, breaking up
their merriest sports, while his melancholy figure was yet afar off,” that the “instinctive dread” of people seemed to indicate a “preternatural horror” was in the veil. Perhaps incomprehensible to the reader, he is said to have his “own antipathy to the veil”; it scares him to see his own reflection. Thus there comes from beneath the veil “an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which
enveloped the poor minister.” On numerous occasions he is seen to smile sadly while “gazing through a medium that saddened the whole world.”
The mystery of the main character deepens when the reader sees that this “mysterious emblem” endows an awesome power on its wearer, over “souls that were in agony for sin.” “Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper” though, mysteriously, they “shuddered at the veiled face.” When Reverend Hooper prays before the legislature, the “measures of that year were characterized by all the gloom and piety of our earliest ancestral sway.” Hawthorne endows the veil with so many attributes that it nearly becomes a character in its own right. As Alfred Kazin says in the Introduction to Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne:
As the background and unifying theme of Hawthorne’s stories is the human obsession with guilt, so the central character in all these stories is the inward man, the human soul trying to represent itself. The minister’s black veil hides his face but proclaims to everyone his sense of what things are really about. . . . In story after story the given element, the central and unifying element, is what moves and stirs within us, the mysterious springs of our every action, our “soul”(14).
So Mr. Hooper, embodiment of the inner man (as Kazin might say), “spent a long life,” “shrouded in dismal suspicions,” “unloved,” “feared,” “shunned.” Hawthorne adds layer upon layer of mystery and ambiguity to the development of his main character, even naming him the Catholic title of “Father Hooper” as if he were an ordained priest.
Eventually, “it is now good Father Hooper's turn to rest.” Around his bedridden form in the “death chamber” are a host of two-dimensional characters: the physician, deacons, pious church members, a visiting divine, the nurse (beautifully described by Hawthorne as “no hired handmaiden of death”), Elizabeth, the veil (described as any other character in the tale) which “had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.” During his last hours his isolation and solitude are emphasized.
Even in death the main character is developed quite fluently by Hawthorne: “[T]he death-stricken old man lay quietly in the torpor of mental and bodily exhaustion, with an imperceptible pulse, and breath that grew fainter and fainter. . . .” Within the reader the suspense builds as the climax approaches. When the parson faintly utters the ambiguous words, ``[M]y soul hath a patient weariness until that veil be lifted,'' there is a brief hope within the reader that the veil will come off. But no, Reverend Hooper was only referring to the veil of eternity. The visiting divine expresses the sentiments of all those present when he mutters: ``with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?'' Amazingly, and unrealistically, the author endows his dying character with the strength to respond at length from his deathbed:
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!''
These extended last words of the reverend do little to alleviate the isolation and solitude of the minister, but rather strengthen it.
The isolation of Reverend Mr. Hooper is reflected in the isolation of the tale’s author. Hawthorne’s isolation is probably due to his lifelong shyness among people. This reluctance to freely socialize may have been a result of a foot injury: “an injury to his foot at the age of nine reduced his physical activity for almost two years” (Martin 16). Wagenknecht says in Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Man, His Tales and Romances that this accident “reduced him for over two years to a state of invalidism that probably contributed toward developing his taste for reading” (2). Or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s shyness was perhaps due to the death of his father when he was but four years old. Regarding the impact of this death upon Hawthorne, Edmund Fuller and B. Jo Kinnick in “Stories Derived from New England Living,” say:
When the news came of his father’s death, Hawthorne’s mother withdrew into her upstairs bedroom, coming out only rarely during the remaining forty years of her life. The boy and his two sisters lived in almost complete isolation from her and from each other (29).
The Norton Anthology: American Literature states that as a college student at Bowdoin College “shyness caused him to try to evade the obligatory public declamations” (547). It continues:
Hawthorne’s years between 1825 and 1837 have fascinated his biographers and critics. Hawthorne himself took pains to propagate the notion that he had lived as a hermit who left his upstairs room only for nighttime walks and hardly communicated even with his mother and sisters (547).
Henry James, a contemporary of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who knew him socially, had lots to say about Hawthorne’s isolation and shyness in his book Hawthorne:
Hawthorne's career had few vicissitudes or variations; it was passed for the most part in a small and homogeneous society, in a provincial, rural community; it had few perceptible points of contact with what is called the world, with public events, with the manners of his time, even with the life of his neighbors (1).
. . . this region to be of a "weird and woodsy" character; and Hawthorne, later in life, spoke of it to a friend as the place where "I first got my cursed habits of solitude." . . . But for a boy with a relish for solitude there were many natural resources, and we can understand that Hawthorne should in after years have spoken very tenderly of this episode: "I lived in Maine like a bird of the air, so perfect was the freedom I enjoyed." During the long summer days he roamed, gun in hand, through the great woods and during the moonlight nights of winter, says his biographer, quoting another informant, "he would skate until midnight, all alone. . . . " (14)
. . . Mr. Lathrop quotes a phrase to this effect from one of his letters, late in life. "I am disposed to thank God for the gloom and chill of my early life, in the hope that my share of adversity came then, when I bore it alone .
And the same writer alludes to a touching passage in the English Note-Books, which I shall quote entire:--. . . This dream, recurring all through these twenty or thirty years, must be one of the effects of that heavy seclusion in which I shut myself up for twelve years after leaving college, when everybody moved onward and left me behind. . . " (20-21)
The allusion here is to a state of solitude which was the young man's positive choice at the time--or into which he drifted at least under the pressure of his natural shyness and reserve. He was not expansive, he was not addicted to experiments and adventures of intercourse, he was not, personally, in a word, what is called sociable (21)
Not long before Hawthorne fell in love with Sophia Peabody, there was an incident which agitated Hawthorne very noticeably because of his isolated background:
. . . and the two Miss Peabodys desiring to see more of the charming writer, caused him to be invited to a species of conversazione at the house of one of their friends, at which they themselves took care to be punctual. Several other ladies, however, were as punctual as they, and Hawthorne presently arriving, and seeing a bevy of admirers where he had expected but three or four, fell into a state of agitation, which is vividly described by his biographer. He "stood perfectly motionless, but with the look of a sylvan creature on the point of fleeing away .... He was stricken with dismay; his face lost colour and took on a warm paleness .... his agitation was very great; he stood by a table and, taking up some small object that lay upon it, he found his hand trembling so that he was obliged to lay it down." It was desirable, certainly, that something should occur to break the spell of a diffidence that might justly be called morbid (53ff.)
A side-by-side comparison of the short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” with the biography of its author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, indicates irrefutably that there is a reflection of the author’s personal isolation and solitude in his short story.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.
Fuller, Edmund and B. Jo Kinnick. “Stories Derived from New England Living.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Minister’s Black Veil.” Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=HawMini.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1
James, Henry. Hawthorne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.
Kaul, A.N. “Introduction.” In Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Kazin, Alfred. Introduction. Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Fawcett Premier, 1966.
Lang, H.J.. “How Ambiguous Is Hawthorne.” In Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Martin, Terence. Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Twayne Publishers Inc., 1965.
“Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature, edited by Baym et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Man, His Tales and Romances. New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1989.