Digesting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s photograph taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne photo #1 — Sualci Quotes (quotationof.com)

The Minister’s Black Veil is a story that should never be thrown into the realm of oblivion. It intrigues not only the characters — except Mr. Hooper — but also the readers of the story. This said, I’m going to unpack the story in light of psychoanalytic theory, Emile Zola’s criticism, and philosophical approach.

The story as a dream

One technique in approaching a literary piece is treating it as if it were a dream. Now to sustain this, let us imagine Nathaniel Hawthorne is in a deep sleep: He has a dream where a minister appears one day wearing a black veil which sets his congregation astir as well as his peers in the church. His preach changed that it referred to sins, dark secrets, and the iniquities of deeds or thoughts where listeners felt as if “the minister had crept upon them.” People began to be indifferent and soon avoided him. Comments and murmurs filled wherever he went. Nobody confronted him except his plighted wife, which was to no avail. He became a very efficient clergyman, though. Some, in their dying hours, refused to die without his presence. People in far distances were meaning to attend his preaches. Even an election sermon was sought from him. He got a reputation of being called Father Hooper throughout all the churches in New England. At the end, on his deathbed, his fellow minister tried to remove the veil (to finally unmask the mystery). But Father Hooper said they should tremble among themselves because they spoke ill of his person, maligned his character, and avoided him at all cost, treating him with indifference. Those who heard him were struck by their horror. Then Father Hooper died, with his veil unremoved.

Freud has made it abundantly clear that an author’s psyche is reflected in a piece and the goings-on in that story are just his own neuroses acting up. What would happen if one day, a minister wore and never took off a black veil for the rest of his life? This wonder extends and creeps into the mind of Nathaniel Hawthorne that in order to expound it, he unconsciously used his characters to throw varying pieces of perspectives. One character said he “turned himself into something awful,” “the minister has gone mad,” “that the veil looks terrible on his face,” “there’s something amiss in his intellect,” or that he’s “ghostlike.” All of these voices and conjectures are valid and are just coming from one source: Hawthorne. To Freud, these are just Hawthorne’s neuroses that are coming to light, projected in a story. These are deeply seated at the back of Hawthorne’s head. In his unconscious mind, Mr. Hooper is Hawthorne, wanting to send a striking message to the churchgoers and clergymen.

Veil as the object cause of desire

Now, let us zero in further on the central “thing” of the story — the black veil. It is important to point out that the short story was titled “The Minister’s Black Veil” and not “The Minister and His Black Veil” or “The Black Veil and The Minister” or whatever else that we may come up with as a plausible alternative.

Black, in Gothic literature, means evil, darkness, fear, mystery, the unknown, and so on. And veil, in its literal sense, is a barrier, hindrance, cover, or something that forbids. Now the beauty of this lies in the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s Object Cause of Desire. Simply put, we do not desire what we claim to desire, and that we just love the process of desiring. For example, we don’t want a shirt. We just want to look good by wearing the shirt. In the story, the churchgoers and other clergymen were intrigued by the black veil. In their minds, they wanted it to be withdrawn from the minister’s face. But the truth is, they do not want the veil to be removed, but the mystery, fear, or their ignorance that’s been clouding their minds. And that makes Hawthorne’s characters very human. Because observably, that which we do not know, we do not have an access to, we find intriguing, mysterious, or dark, becomes a bottling up fascination that if it’s left unresolved, it becomes an endless wonder. Therefore, the veil is just the material substance that will unlock everything.

Thinking of this, the ending is the crucial part. It would have strengthened Lacan’s Object Cause of Desire if the story ended with Reverend Clark removing the veil and the people were not shocked at all, because it’s just Father Hooper’s normal face. And then they will be disappointed that all those years, it was just nothing — no mystery, the fear was pointless, absolutely nothing. But doing this will corrupt the lesson of the story (which we now turn to).

The moral

So we now jump to the philosophical approach. Do not judge a book by its cover. The people learned their lesson that they have estranged their minister simply because of a petty black veil. We can also read that not a single flaw which the people accused him of at the back of their heads was confirmed to be true. And yet, Father Hooper suffered that “love and sympathy never reached him.”

Zolan lens

Let’s take another route to see this story.

Let us nail the question: “What happens if one day, a minister wore and never took off a black veil for the rest of his life?”

This question brings to life the story of The Minister’s Black Veil. Then the narrator embarks on an experiment which he himself is not all knowing. He is merely writing his observations: what people said about it, how did people react to it, how did the wearing of the black veil impact the life of its wearer and the people around him, and what shall happen in the end? All of these were taken note of one-by-one by the third-person narrator who later presents the result.

I suspect that Hawthorne himself didn’t know where this was going, and in his inward eye filled with rich imagination, he was able to create a masterpiece as if it had undergone a careful, rigorous experiment. With the primary question we had earlier, we were presented with an agreeable conclusion, but not from the very words of the narrator, but from the wearer of the veil himself: people mistreated him as if he were never a human being, and that it revealed who they really are — claiming to be godly but found sinners in the end.

What made the narrator even more credible is that he was not all-knowing in the sense that he didn’t know the ending. In fact, he joined us in our innocence by saying, “Did he seek to hide it from the dread Being whom he was addressing?” This means the narrator expressed the same wonder or intrigue just as that of the characters and readers.

Hawthorne, if we’re going to follow Zola’s notion, did an experiment. And as a literature student, it turned out so well.

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cbryankrister

cbryankrister

When you’ve read it, write about it. An English major. Interested in psychoanalysis, ideology, and literature. Reach me at cbryankrister@gmail.com