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Idealogy in Hawthorne’s <I>The Minister’s Black Veil</I> Idealogy in Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil

Bennett and Royle in their textbook, Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, define ideology as representing “… ‘the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’” (161). The ideology of self, of personal identity, is represented by a person’s perception of what is acceptable in their society. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, The Minister’s Black Veil, the minister appears before his community with a black veil covering his face. He gives no explanation for this apparel and the community becomes agitated that their minister refuses to remove it. The readers challenge is to discover why the minister wears the veil and why he won’t take it off. Hawthorne challenges the readers ideology of self with his choice of words, by showing how ideology is redefined by each subject, and by using as his form the technique of the parable. .

The parishioners expectations are shattered by the appearance of their beloved minister wearing a black veil over his face.

Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents, or mimicked in graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on weekdays (Hawthorne 1)

These expectations are portrayed by the way the story begins. Hawthorne uses words that suggest happiness; “bright” “merrily” “pretty” “fancied” and “sunshine”. But this ‘happiness’ vanishes with the appearance of the minister. The expectations of what is socially acceptable are challenged by the appearance of the black veil.

“But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?” cried the sexton in astonishment. All within hearing immediately turned about, and beheld the semblance of Mr. Hooper, pacing slowly his meditative way toward the meetinghouse. With one accord they started, expressing more wonder than if some strange minister were coming to dust the cushions of Mr. Hooper’s pulpit. “Are you sure it is our parson?” inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton. (Hawthorne 2-4)

Accepted ideology is an ideology that is in itself not real, it is illusory and mutable. When the illusion is challenged, the ideology of self is challenged. By using words that depict the illusory ideology of the parishioners, and perhaps also mirror the illusory ideology of the reader, Hawthorne reinforces the idea that “Ideology is constituted by images and fantasies” (Bennett & Royle 160). The sentences, “He has changed himself into something awful…” (Hawthorne 8) and “The black veil…throws its influence over his whole person, and makes him ghostlike” (Hawthorne 13) reinforce the illusory aspects of an established ideology. Bennett and Royle say, “To become human, to identify oneself as a subject, then, is an effect of ideology” (162). The parishioners cannot locate the minister beneath his veil as a subject—they can only locate the veil as subject. “The black veil, though it covers only our pastor’s face, throws its influence over his whole person, and makes him ghostlike…” (Hawthorne 14). The minister, the previously known subject, has become ‘ghostlike’, has vanished to another realm and the parishioners expectations and illusory ideology is upset. This reaffirms Bennett and Royle’s contention that “…ideology makes our reality in constituting us as subjects” (Bennett & Royle 162).

Bennett and Royle take the position that “…subjects—people—make their own ideology at the same time as ideology makes them subjects” (Bennett & Royle 162). If ideology is “a manner of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture” (Miriam Webster Online) then the ideology of the parishioners is redefined as the parishioners redefine the ideology. Father Hooper cries out, “…Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil?” (Hawthorne 54). The people see the veil concealing the man and therefore can no longer see the man. They cannot see the man because they themselves are veiled—they cannot see what they cannot see. It would follow that “… ‘ideology’ goes to the heart of personal identity, of how we conceive ourselves as subjects in the world and all that this involves” (Bennett & Royle 162). The veil contradicts society’s expectations of acceptability and order, thus creating a rupture in their ideology of what constitutes the ‘self’. “…each of these obvious, self-evident or commonsensical points disguises a very specific concept of the self, an ideology” (Bennett & Royle 166).

Through the form of the parable, Hawthorne poses a challenge to the reader that is echoed throughout the text. The very wording of the title challenges the readers expectations. The figure of the Minister suggests a sense of peace and spirituality. With the word “Black”, this lull is immediately shattered. The word connotes a sense of disaster and gloom. The word ‘Veil’, which literally means to ‘cover up’ and ‘obscure from view’, furthers the image of darkness. So the reader enters the story with a sense of foreboding, a sense of knowing that their personal ideologies are about to be challenged. The foreboding continues throughout the story, punctuated with dark words -“duskily” “deathlike paleness” “carefully concealed” “gloom” “mystery” and “obscurity”. In addition, the image of the veil serves to strengthen the readers ideology of what a parable should be. A parable is “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle” (Miriam-Webster Online). The reader is told that the story is, “A Parable”, and thus led to expect that this story will teach them something.

The reader enters the story as a participant because now the reader has become a part of the story by accepting the ideology of expectation that “A Parable” demands of them. If one’s expectation is that something useful and applicable will emerge from the parable, then that very expectation is shaken if the reader is unable to understand the parable. The reader is in constant danger throughout the reading of having his ideology of self shattered by the very real possibility that he won’t ‘get it’.

The ending is the greatest challenge to the ideology of the reader as a participant. Bennett and Royle state that “Literary texts, and particularly the ends of literary texts, open onto the future. And as Derrida has observed: ‘The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger’” (258). The very last passage illustrates the “absolute danger”:

While his auditors shrank from one another, in mutual affright, Father Hooper fell back upon his pillow, a veiled corpse, with a faint smile lingering on the lips. Still veiled, they laid him in his coffin, and a veiled corpse they bore him to the grave. The grass of many years has sprung up and withered on that grave, the burial stone is moss-grown, and good Mr. Hooper’s face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it moldered beneath the Black Veil! (The Minister’s Black Veil paragraphs 55-56)

The reader is now fully pulled into the story itself. The future is uncertain and fearful. If ones accepted ideology is that something useful and applicable will emerge from the parable then that very ideology is shaken if the reader is unable to understand the parable. A parable is used to explain something that is unexplainable and cannot be explained if the reader does not understand it. The reader is in constant danger throughout the reading of having his ideology of self shattered by the very real possibility that he won’t ‘get it’. The entire story is as obscure and shaky as ideology itself. Hawthorne’s choice of words throughout the story set up the reader for a continual bombardment of his/her ideology of self and societal expectations.

Works Cited

Bennett, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 2nd Edition. New York: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Minister’s Black Veil”. Crown College. Accessed 27 Aug 2003. veilhawt.htm>

Miriam Webster Dictionary. Accessed 27 Aug 2003.

K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2003, 2006

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