Concepts of Sin and Evil: a Review
Of the 'Minister's Black Veil'
And 'The Birthmark'





Sin and evil are recognized with greater--but far from complete--clarity in "The Minister's Black Veil" than in the elusive terms, faint nuances and shrouded allusions of "The Birthmark." It seems a certainty that both the veil and the birthmark are meant as symbols of sin in every human.

In the story of the hapless minister, there are direct references to sin and the soaring, often depressing language of the Romantic Period and Hawthorne age that one associates with evil. However, neither Mr. Hooper nor other characters ever reveal in undeniable and convincing style the exact reason for which he dons the sable veil.

He refuses to explain it to his parishioners, to Elizabeth, the lady in his life, or to anyone else. On his death bed, he even refuses to come clean with the minister of Westbury. With a prodigious waste of his rapidly-depleting energy, he sits up and presses his hands tightly to the gruesome fabric to keep it intact.

Although we are never told specifically, the reader is led cleverly along by Hawthorne through the story and inevitably draws the conclusion that some terrible dark deeds are involved. The question is, are they Mr. Hooper's, someone else's, or perhaps collective man's?

Hawthorne skillfully links the veil (or the face and human being behind it) to the compatible duo of sin and evil and sometimes accomplishes it quite dramatically. What could be more astonishing than the very act of springing the veil surprise on his parishioners without explanation? It's done suddenly and mysteriously, intensifying uneasiness on their part and stirring a pervasive sense of the unknown, which can easily be associated with evil in the minds of the villagers and the reader.

As conveyed by Hawthorne, the deed is synonymous, somehow, with darkness, evil forces and sin. Symbolically enough, the veil itself is black. The familiar face of the minister is gone, replaced by that crape veil, and Hawthorne intensifies its significance by making it a double veil of crape, with two folds. Black is black but double-black is even more devastating, or at least he tries to make the reader think so. He tells us it makes the wearer see everything in a darkened aspect. One can almost imagine the cold chill around the heart, even in our sophisticated age, if our local minister suddenly mounted the pulpit and began preaching under such conditions.

There is admirable skill in Hawthorne's facility in implanting the eerie idea of that blackened visage and then developing other incidents to shake the reader and impose a feeling of foreboding as evidence of hidden evil mounts.

It isn't just the display of the veil but the personality involved; having it worn by none other than the spiritual leader of the shocked villagers, a familiar figure who should be the epitome of piety, propriety and candor. Hawthorne immediately follows this up with a solid clue in the minister's sermon that serious sin might be the cause of the hidden face. It's the earliest sign of what Mr. Hooper's motivation might be.

Hawthorne ladles out the depressing rhetoric. He tells us the subject of that first sermon is on the secret sin, "tinged more darkly than usual with the gentle gloom" of Mr. Hooper's temperament. Mr. Hooper talks about those sad mysteries, which we try to hide from those near and dear to us and to conceal them even from our consciousness. But God, he warns, can detect them.

Is it Mr. Hooper's guilty conscience; dark deeds of his own that lead him to hid behind the curtain? Hawthorne doesn't say; he only hints. But there is detectable moralizing here; he is saying, "Watch it, brother! Don't think you are getting away with your hidden sins because Almighty God knows all about it." Through the minister, it seems that Hawthorne is telling us to repent of our sins before it's too late; to do our penance and we may yet be delivered.

The people of the village are fearful and shaken. They avoid Mr. Hooper and his strange behavior in shielding his face. One lady calls it a terrible thing. A man says the minister is ghostlike and the lady declares he may be afraid to be by himself. All adding to Hawthorne's dark paintbrush in building a sense of fear and some kind of doom descending upon the poor minister.

Then Mr. Hooper goes to the wake, bends over the coffin and the veil hangs loose. If the corpse were alive, the young lady would see his face. With his Romantic license, the writer has a superstitious old lady observe that as Mr. Hooper bends, he acts fearful that even the dead (or death?) might observe his face. And something about Mr. Hooper's face makes the corpse shudder slightly. In other words, Mr. Hooper is evidently so horrible that even the dead have a distaste for him, so it must be a terrible stigma indeed. One wonders also whether there is any significance that it is a young lady's corpse which is shuddering. Might his hidden sin, if indeed his sins are the root cause of the veil, have anything to do with women?

When the minister gives the funeral prayer, Hawthorne's narrative takes on a perplexing connotation. He says the prayer is full of sorrow yet imbued with celestial hopes and his saddest accents give the impression of heavenly harp music, swept by the fingers of the dead. Is he saying that death offers hope for release from the travails of this earth? If Hawthorne truly believes this, he could be emphasizing that man's life is one contest after another against the temptation of the flesh and the devil. Death will open the door for at least some to a happier, more pure existence.

Death, Mr. Hooper tells the bereaved in his prayer, is the dreadful hour that will snatch the veil from their faces. One could speculate that his veil symbolizes his confession of guilt over sin while he is still on earth. Perhaps he is saying his penance for sin is being carried out through the veil; sack cloth and ashes, Hooper-style, thus his sin will be expiated by the time he dies.

At the wedding, Hawthorne again spoons up dread as evil and the dark forces fan out. The veil casts a pall of gloom over the party, adding a portent of "nothing but evil" to the wedding. Most weddings are joyous affairs; Hawthorne makes it just the opposite.

A cloud seems to roll into the room from under the black crape and dims the candlelight. The bride's fingers grow cold and she has a "death-like" paleness. Hawthorne comes up with a "whisper" that the same maiden who had been buried a few hours before has arisen from her grave to be married. Is he trying to present an analogy between the bride's wedding veil and his black one, indicating that sin lies beneath each, to be revealed at death?

As he starts to sip some wine, he sees his mirrored image. Hawthorne tells us he sees that the black veil "involves his spirit" in the horror with which it overwhelms others. Mr. Hooper shudders so violently that he spills his drink on the carpet, the earth's black veil.

The evil matter that is so much on the minister's mind and on those of his parishioners is reflected again when a delegation is selected to meet with Mr. Hooper and pinpoint his problem. They are unsuccessful, the veil seeming to hang down before the minister's heart, as Hawthorne describes it, as the symbol of a "fearful secret" between him and them.

Mr. Hooper's betrothed, Elizabeth, is the next to try to rid him of the veil but her gallant effort ends in more evil. At first she doesn't find the veil gloomy, as others do. Maybe she and Mr. Hooper have been involved in some common knowledge, unknown to the rest. Take it off, she says. Mr. Hooper staunchly resists, saying it's a type and symbol that he is bound to wear; no mortal eye will see it withdrawn. Not even Elizabeth, he adds, will get behind it.

His beloved links the veil to secret sin and intimates the nature of rumors abounding in the village. Unfortunately she goes no further in explaining or we might have a more substantive clue to what it's all about. Mr. Hooper indicates the reason might be secret sorrow; then again, it might be secret sin. The implication, of course, is it might be something else, too.

An interesting bit of by-play occurs here, that give us a glimmer of insight into what makes Mr. Hooper tick. Elizabeth is depicted as having a stronger character than Mr. Hooper, a rather firm hint that he might have some weakness of an undisclosed nature in his makeup. Hawthorne adds to possibly leading the reader up the garden path by permitting Elizabeth to ponder ways to withdraw her lover from his dark fantasy, which we're told could perhaps even by a symptom of mental illness. She gives up her pondering and in the end, she too is drawn into and overcome by the terrors of that black veil. She departs after one long, shuddering gaze, now obviously affected by the evil and horror it all represents.

We are left to puzzle over a bizarre and jarring smile from Mr. Hooper while he thinks that only a material emblem separates him from happiness. Such a smile, under the circumstances, make one suspect that perhaps he is ready for the funny farm, as Elizabeth faintly suspects.

It could be that Hawthorne is setting up a premise that Mr. Hooper is sacrificing love, marriage and the secular aspects of life for the sake of an esthetic sacrifice in atonement for whatever wrongs he envisages.
The reference to his character and mental illness makes the reader wonder if these contribute in some fashion to his drastic behavior in his dealings with community members. Why would he have to take a daily walk to the burial ground? Was he consciously, or unconsciously, looking forward to the end so he could meet his Maker and remove the penitential veil? Children flee in terror; Hawthorne once again buttressing dread and evil.

In fact, he grows to hate the veil so much himself that he avoids looking into mirrors and bending over water surfaces so he won't be frightened at his own reflection. Evil is emphasized in more soaring rhetoric as Hawthorne tells us of an ambiguity of sin and sorrow rolling from beneath that black veil and enveloping the minister, noting that ghost and friend consorted with him there. Paradoxically he was "still good," with even the wind being generous and cooperative. It refused to blow up his veil and "respected his dreadful secret."

We have Mr. Hooper's empathy with sinners, who shudder at that veiled visage and die, but not before they have been brought to celestial light. And when it comes time for Mr. Hooper to apparently pass into the next life and face his Creator without a veil, Elizabeth is there as a nurse, averting her face from the evil, horrible veil.

Now we surmise that Mr. Hooper is looking forward to removing it in the hereafter, but he valiantly wards off an effort by the minister of Westbury to persuade him to doff it beforehand. The minister says, in effect, that Mr. Hooper is 99 percent pure but there is that rotten one percent and how about getting it off your chest. He even wants to take the veil off personally but Mr. Hooper says "Nix!" So the angered young minister calls Mr. Hooper a "dark old man" and demands to know the "horrible crime upon your soul," Hawthorne again lacing the story with sin and evil. However, Mr. Hooper gets his way and exits from this world, veil and all. But not before he gets off a final reference to the "Black Veil" on every visage and speaks of every man loathsomely treasuring the secret of his sin.

It looks as if Mr. Hooper is referring again to the sin and darkness locked within the heart of every man, but with individuals maintaining the hypocritical pretense of being sinless through their personal veils, their facades. Off he goes to the grave, with a lingering smile upon his lips. Perhaps he is now secretly happy that in heaven his veil is off while those behind will have a lot of explaining to do to Almighty God about the shields they mounted to mask their iniquity.

Another story that is slanted toward similar material, "The Birthmark," deals not so much with direct manifestations of sin and evil but rather generates their dark effects with greater subtlety.

Briefly, at first, all is well. Aylmer forgoes, at least temporarily, his scientific pursuits, wins the gorgeous Georgiana and weds her. Broad hints are floated concerning the beliefs of some scientists that they could perhaps make new worlds by laying hands on the secret of creative force. The reader is persuaded that Aylmer is too devoted to science to ever allow it to be his "second passion."

Not long into the chronicling, the issue of the central theme--the birthmark--is raised. We are not disturbed over it at this point because its real significance has not yet emerged. But the ruby hand of its configuration--and its description as a "crimson stain upon the snow"--soon give us an uneasy feeling that there is more here than meets the eye or intellect.

Ladies believe the birthmark renders Georgiana's face hideous and eventually Aylmer is regarding the defect as intolerable, a stain of a fatal flaw of humanity. The implication here might be sin, at least symbolically, but further that nature's works are temporary and finite and that perfection can only be attained by toil and pain. Hawthorne stresses a picture of the crimson hand as expressing mortality's degradation of the highest and purest in union with the lowest brutes.

Furthermore, Hawthorne tries to convince the reader that the birthmark is an object of horror and fright to Aylmer because it symbolizes his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay and death. The author seizes upon the simple birthmark device and by expanding upon it through imagination, brilliant writing and personal editorializing even uses it, in the end, as a moral lesson, though obscure in nature.

The horror of it all is presaged in Aylmer's "terrible" dream of the "odious hand" that his wife mysteriously knows all about; Aylmer saying, "It is in her heart, now we must have it out!" Aylmer remarks that the stain may go as deep as life itself and he refers to unclasping the "grip of this little hand" which was laid upon him before he came into this world." It's possible that he might be drawing a parallel between "stain" and sin and that it was somehow part of him before birth, a rather extreme thought of Puritan ilk.

Aylmer sets himself up for the coup de grace, boasting that he will be correcting what nature left imperfect in her fairest work, obviously the creation of Georgiana. Hawthorne warns in one of his asides that nature "permits us, indeed to mark, but seldom to mend," a flagging of the melodramatic climax. It is obvious that the writer is pulling out the stops to give us a Romantic tale of evil, gloom, dread and doom.

Georgiana is cold and tremulous as soon as she enters the lab. He cannot restrain a strong shudder and she faints. Then the lab assistant, Aminabad, appears center stage; a man of "low" stature, bulky with shaggy hair. He has a smoky aspect and is strong, suggesting he represents man's physical nature, in contrast with the scientist's more spiritual type.

Aminabad glances at the offending birthmark on the unconscious Georgiana and we encounter an indication of a link between the birthmark and sin when the earthy one whispers, "If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark." Earlier we had been told of others who would have been willing to kiss the crimson hand, red, of course being the color we associate with hellfire and Satan.

Then we have the magical tricks by Aylmer, involving airy figures, bodiless ideas and forms of dancing and "unsubstantial" beauty (all a bit hard to visualize). It almost seems that Aylmer has some influence over the spiritual world, a trait that we might tend to suspect in a demon-oriented figure. Yet we learn that he is confident enough in his scientific skills to feel he could draw a circle around her, within which no "evil" might intrude.

Here Aylmer is dealing in the abstract; he is about to challenge God and nature in trying to prove he can improve the beauty of the most perfect woman, yet ironically he is seized with the idea of keeping evil away from her. Aylmer, we know, in jousting with God and nature this way, is bound to come to no good because Hawthorne is not one to let his characters get away with such shenanigans. At any rate, the whole situation gets a trifle mind-boggling here unless Hawthorne seeks to keep good influences away from his wife so he and the brutish Aminabad can get on with their birthmark removal task.

The scientist is perfectly willing to risk the dangerous experiment to remove it, yet his melancholy scientific journal is studded with fauxs pas. And little incidents he walks into so confidently do little to improve his record, such as the lovely flower he allows, even encourages Georgiana to touch. It wilts with a blight and turns coal-black, "as if by the agency of fire," implying hell fire.

Georgiana, in a rather counter-human nature kind of quirk, has less dependence on his judgement than previously but worships him more than before and prays that she might satisfy his highest and deepest conception. She knocks her degree of moral attainment and says she is fit to die, but her sins, if any, go unexplained.

Aylmer wants no talk of death but shortly after she imbibes it becomes obvious they should have discussed that eventuality more carefully. She is flushed and suffers irregular breath and body tremors. Aylmer gazes at the tiny hand, shudders and then kisses it. Like the wilted flower, one would think he, too, would suffer some hideous ailment. Given the impetus of his great desire to remove it and the circumstances outlined by Hawthorne, his action would be akin to a man kissing a cobra.

Now the crimson mark is fading and so is Georgiana. Aminabad lets go with a hoarse chuckle and Aylmer blurts, "Matter and spirit--earth and heaven--have both done their part in this." The reader is left to puzzle over this. Is he referring to himself as spirit and heaven and his aide as matter and earth? Is he looking forward to the death of sin? Has heaven helped kill sin? Hard questions, and answers are elusive.
At any rate, Aylmer sees his wife now without blemish but he has forgotten the dream of her heart's demise.

"It is successful. You are perfect," he tells her. But she knows better. She tells him he has rejected the best that the earth can offer; that she is dying. As the sole token of imperfection vanished, the birthmark, Georgiana's soul is released toward heaven.

The hoarse, chuckling laugh of Aminabad, who admired the birthmark so, is heard again. There would seem to be little logic to such an outburst from the fiend-like character, who observes a soul moving toward heaven, unless he has another soul in his grasp now, that of Aylmer.

Hawthorne sums it up moralistically and philosophically: Aylmer made a big mistake; he had the perfect future in his grip and if he had clung to it he would he had "celestial" happiness.

Whether he is saying Aylmer lost heaven and Georgiana gained it is problematical. Hawthorne does somewhat vaguely paint sin and evil in pastel tones. The science versus morality struggle is more evident. He does deal rather harshly with those of his characters who take upon themselves the authority and reckless assumption of nature and God's role instead of confining themselves to their strictly human responsibilities. A very similar fate, for example, met some of the main characters in "Ethan Brand" and "Rappucini's Daughter."

It is well nigh impossible to delineate exactly where Hawthorne merges sin and evil into the better side of human nature in his psychological stakeouts. Likewise, where corruption wins or loses and purity triumphs in his sketches does not come into plain sight; you can't tell whether death is considered a victory or a setback.

There is an undercurrent of moralistic thrust to most of Hawthorne's work. His style, however, at least in a modern connotation, baffles the reader. By shading his prose in such subtle fashion, Hawthorne fails to satisfactorily sketch psychological aspects and human relationships as well as moral purposes he has in mind and thereby leaves the reader in the dark.

In retrospect, sin and evil in the birthmark story are interwoven in terms as wispy as the shadowy cast of Aminabad, seldom right there where you can reach out and touch them in any concrete form. They are discussed more openly in "The Minister's Veil," where a dark piece of fabric impresses as some kind of direct link. Even then, everything in the reader screams at Hawthorne to explain the exact nature of the sin and the necessity for wearing the veil right into the grave.

This he never deigns to do, adding to the frustrations of the literary scholar, student and reader in trying to analyze and comprehend the writings of Romantic Period writers such as Hawthorne. Evidently they chose to keep us guessing, or conceive our own endings to their macabre tales.