Tuesday Terror! The Minister’s Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Repent, Ye Sinners!

First published in 1832, this isn’t a ghost story or even really a horror story as such. Nathaniel Hawthorne subtitled it “A Parable”, but despite the lack of traditional spookiness, it creates a rather unnerving atmosphere of dread…

Tuesday Terror 2The Minister’s Black Veil
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Reverend Mr Hopper is a young minister, kindly and patient, who has always tried to lead his parishioners into goodness rather than thundering to them about hell and damnation. He is well liked in his parish, often invited to the homes of the respectable parishioners, and engaged to be married to a sweet young woman. But one Sunday, as he approaches the church to give the service, his flock notice something strange. He…

…was dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band, and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday’s garb. There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance. Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil.

Somehow this black veil, which covers his whole face apart from his mouth and chin, makes his parishioners uneasy. He gives no explanation for it and his sermon is much as usual, but the wearing of the veil causes it to sound graver, and his parishioners find themselves paying more attention than usual. He continues to wear the veil at all times, and the people of the town are left to speculate as to the reason. Some think he is hiding his face for shame of some unknown sin. Other think it may be hiding some physical disfigurement. But none of them has the courage to ask him directly why he wears it…

There was a feeling of dread, neither plainly confessed nor carefully concealed, which caused each to shift the responsibility upon another, till at length it was found expedient to send a deputation of the church, in order to deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery, before it should grow into a scandal.

“the children fled from his approach.”
Artist: Elenore Abbott

However, once faced with the veiled minister, the members of the deputation find themselves unable to ask and leave none the wiser. Only one person is unaffected by the strange dread – Elizabeth, the woman he is engaged to marry. She asks him to explain his reasons…

“Elizabeth, I will,” said he, “so far as my vow may suffer me. Know, then, this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever, both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends. No mortal eye will see it withdrawn. This dismal shade must separate me from the world: even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it!”

And this is as much answer as he’s willing to give. When she expresses some not unreasonable dissatisfaction, he sets out to cheer her up…

“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!”

* * * * * * *

I’ll leave you on a cliffhanger – if you want to know whether Elizabeth dumps him, and whether we ever see behind the veil, you’ll have to read the story. Here’s a link – it’s about 5000 words.

As far as I can tell the veil is basically a metaphor for the idea of original sin. By wearing it outwardly, he reminds his parishioners of the sin they carry hidden inside themselves. I’m not religious so the finer points of why we all have to be miserable all the time have passed me by somewhat, but it seemed to me this is exactly the kind of short story John Knox would have loved to curl up with after a hard day’s work preaching hellfire and damnation and lambasting the monstrous regiment of women and suchlike. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t have what you’d think of as a traditionally happy ending (though one hopes poor old Rev Hopper got his rewards in the afterlife – one couldn’t help but feel the veil must have got very grubby after the first thirty years or so. One hopes he didn’t eat a lot of spaghetti bolognese…)

Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman

More seriously, the writing is wonderfully atmospheric and hugely effective at creating a feeling of unease. Why does he suddenly start wearing the veil? Is it because of something he’s done, or something he fears he might do? Is it a sign of madness? Or is there some physical cause – what would the parishioners see if he lifted the veil? They want to know… but they are afraid to know. And so is the reader. As with most allegories, the reader is largely left to do the work – to create the meaning for herself. Even this atheist found it unsettling, thought-provoking and beautifully ambiguous. The porpentine, however, fell asleep halfway through.

An excellent story – recommended. It might not make you hide under the blankets, but it may cause you to lie awake for a bit, pondering on the mysteries of the soul…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

38 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Minister’s Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  1. This is very interesting indeed. There is something quite unnerving about face coverings that suggests something to hide or dishonesty of some kind – in western culture, at least, I realise that in other parts of the world it is viewed quite differently. I feel that I absolutely must read this later on, I need to know what happens! On a happier note, how lovely that the porpentine managed to catch 40 winks for a change. Being fretful all the time must be exhausting.

  2. Yeah I can’t see the Reverend getting away with that flim-flam of an answer so I hope poor Elizabeth found someone whose face she could see especially with the thought of it being covered in food stains – however I can see why this was an unsettling read even if the porcupine nodded off.

    • I kinda felt that the idea of being married to a man who talked like that all the time was bad enough without the food-stained veil! But despite me making fun of it, it’s actually quite an effective story… the popry’s hoping for a bit more excitement next time though…

  3. Well, the porpentine might have decided to take a nap, but I do like the way Hawthorne writes. He weaves a very effective atmosphere, and I’ve always admired that about him. He was especially good, in my opinion, at addressing those larger questions. Glad you found lots to like here.

    • Yes, I really like his writing style. I’ve only read a couple of his short stories – one day I must get around to reading The Scarlet Letter. Although I mae a bit of fun of this, I do think he’s very thought-provoking – I found this more unsettling than I expected.

    • I haven’t even read that, although it’s been on my GAN Quest list for ever. I’ve only read a couple of his short stories, but I like his style very much… must read that book!

  4. Ohhh this sounds perfect for Halloween! Creepy yet not too much of anything else. I’m also unsure as to why we’re supposed to be miserable all the time, according to some scriptures lol

  5. Well, this is an interesting concept. A veil, huh? And he dons it all of a sudden? I’m thinking poor Elizabeth better run for the hills! He’s definitely got something to hide — and can you imagine somebody whispering sweet nothings to you when you can’t see his eyes???

    • Yes, I thought he was expecting a bit much from poor Elizabeth – especially when he wouldn’t tell her why he was wearing it! It’s a good story though – surprisingly unsettling…

    • Ha, I know! Scotland’s form of Protestantism is a particularly joyless one, so I’m a bit bitter… 😉 I’ve only read a couple of his short stories, but I really like his writing. Must read The Scarlet Letter one of these days…

  6. Hmm. As you say, it’s likely to get frightfully grubby over time. And really awkward if he gets a cold and needs to blow his nose. Not to mention, won’t it get out of place during the throes of passion (assuming Elizabeth weds him) And if she does, I’m sure she’ll contrive to have a peep, when he’s sleeping. It’s Beauty and the Beast, isn’t it?

    • Ewww! Yes, the nose blowing would be a real downer. Since it seemed to be suspended from his hat, I did wonder if he’d have to wear it to the nuptial bed too – all very awkward! Elizabeth was so pure, she’d never have peeked! I bet she didn’t have any original sin – missed out on that particular bit of life’s joy…

  7. I feel like Hawthorne has a particularly gloomy view of religious life. (I’ve only read The Scarlet Letter but his religious characters are unforgiving.) Sounds like an interesting read though. If I were Elizabeth, I don’t think I’d stick around!

    • Yes, the townsfolk seemed quite happy, decent people at first, so it seemed a bit of shame that they had to be made miserable for the good of their souls! But his writing is great. I must read The Scarlet Letter – it’s been on my TBR forever.

  8. I love Hawthorne! I think he is one of the best in that category labelled as ‘classic horror’ in my mind, which is very much American and linked to Puritanism and darkness. I will check this short story for my Halloween reading week 😀

    • This is only my second venture into Hawthorne territory but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both. Yes, I agree about that distinctively American feel – I think that’s a major part of the attraction for me. Hope you enjoy this one! 😱

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