Hawthorne and the Veil of Sin Part 2

Sins real and imagined, inherited and acquired are the limitless fountain of many of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best works.

In my second reflection on his famous parable, The Minister’s Black Veil, I want to begin with a personal tale that took place 156 years after the story’s publication.

It’s a story of a minister’s fall from grace.  It was the minister that presided over my wedding.

In the early 1990’s he was accused and convicted of a sin so heinous and sensational, it became not only the talk of the town, but the centerpiece of an Oprah show.

It is an odd circumstance to know the parties involved and stranger still, not to know the full truth and consequences of the crime. I have a small collection of that minister’s sermons from the 1980’s and they are revealing more by what they are missing.

Many are intellectual tour de forces with keen insights and a delicate mixture of scripture,  philosophy and uncommon sense.  But there is more slickness than empathy, more sparkle in the prose than in having an enlightened conversation with a congregation.

Sadly, the marriage of sin and clergy is nothing new, and yet his mighty fall is yet another testimony to the sheer timelessness of human frailty and darkness.

All of which brings me to Hawthorne’s story, The Minister’s Black Veil.  Like Hawthorne’s most widely anthologized tale, Young Goodman Brown, it is about the omnipresence of sin.

The story is about a reverend named Hooper, who begins wearing a black veil that “seemed to consist of two folds of crepe, which entirely conceals his features, except for the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things.”

The parishioners greet this odd affect with astonishment and fear.  “Such was the effect of this simple piece of crepe, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting house.  Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost a fearful sight to the minister, as his black veil.”

Hooper had a reputation as a good preacher but not an “energetic one” — striving to win his flock  heavenward by mild, persuasive influences, rather than drive them by the Cotton Mather-like thunders of the Word.

But under the veil, the good reverend’s sermon was “tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper’s temperament.  The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest and fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting the Omniscient can detect them.

That evening, the reverend performed a wedding and after the ceremony, he “raised a glass of wine to his lips , wishing happiness to the new-married couple in a strain of mild-pleasantry that ought have brightened the features of the guests, like a cheerful gleam from the hearth.  At that instant, catching a glimpse of his figure in the looking-glass, the black veil involved his 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.”

Hawthorne’s genius is such that the black veil and the supposed sin that it hides remains a mystery throughout the story.  Even approaching death, Hooper refuses to remove the veil or confess to any particular sin.

On his death bed, the reverend gazes upon the grim assemblage standing over him and says, “Why do you tremble at me along?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators,  “Tremble also at each other. Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crepe 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 sin; then deem me a monster, then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die.  I look around me and, on every visage a Black Veil.”

Hawthorne has given us a curious and provocative story — he has literalized a metaphor and created a physical veil — a visceral emblem of hidden sin.  Wearing the veil serves both to isolate Hooper from the world and to make him “a very efficient” clergyman.

Hooper is set apart not by any named sin, but by the physical manifestation of sin — a precursor to his ultimate masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter.  Hawthorne’s Ethan Brand and the aforementioned, Young Goodman Brown also explore this fertile territory.]

A reminiscence by Hawthorne’s wife Sophia (“An Evening with Mrs. Hawthorne.” Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Contemporaries, 1899) reveals how closely readers identified Hawthorne with secret sin.  “… men who committed great crimes or those who memories held tragic secrets would sometimes write him or even come great distances to see him and unburden their souls. This happened after the publication of The Scarlet Letter, which made them regard him as a father-confessor of all hidden sins.”

Would it have made a difference if my minister’s veil weren’t transparent?  If his sins were made readily visible?  Perhaps not to me, but to the victims of his sins and the congregation that gave him their trust.

What veils are we not seeing even in ourselves?