Reading Group #6 ('The Minister's Black Veil')
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Oh dear! I'm afraid I'm rather unimpressed with this one.
It's not a difficult thing to trigger my suspension of disbelief - I think I'm generally a pretty 'author-friendly' reader - but this story failed to do it. I don't know if I really bought the idea of the minister taking to his veil or not, but things definitely started to unravel for me with his parishioners' reactions to it - I just didn't find them psychologically convincing.
Then, when the end came, I really didn't appreciate being sucker-punched with that moral homily. I actually felt a bit cheated: it's a bit disconcerting to suddenly find myself reading a different kind of tale to what I'd thought. Also, I don't like moral homilies at the best of times so that probably coloured my reaction (if Hawthorne was prone to that kind of thing - and the Wikipedia entry seems to suggest that he was - I don't think he's going to be a favourite of mine). Having said that, I could probably have tolerated the ending if I'd found the main story really convincing.
Having written all that, I'm quite intrigued as to what opposing viewpoints may be posted. I have a suspicion (I'm talking about the attitudes to the veil and whether they are psychologically convincing or not) that there might be something relevant here about subtly-differing attitudes towards religion in the US and the UK, or about the differing histories of religion in the two countries (this is only a vague, felt-rather-than-reasoned thing - I'm really not knowledgeable about this stuff).
Is it possibly a satire? Could he have been satirising the gullibility of the congregations he knew? In this scenario, the minister has simply gone loopy but his parishioners have failed to notice - and all his success and long career are down to the fevered imaginings of his congregation and quite divorced from the man himself - he simply a blank screen onto which they project stuff.
I, too, was underwhelmed. The story is quite didactic, and although most of Hawthorne's darkest fictions have an underlying (generally, religious) moral to them, they are seldom as boring, unconvincing, and preachy as this one. Take 'Young Goodman Brown,' which we'll read soon, and compare it to this one and any similarities are vastly overshadowed by 'Minister's' failings, not only as a narrative, but as a moral argument.
Let's move on. I can't even think of much else to say about this one. The allegory explored here is reaching and any nuance that could be mined from what is, at first blush, a rather genius set-up for a more conventionally 'creepy' story, is watered down and neatly overscored by the kind of high-falutin', Puritanical crap that Hawthorne is usually such a scathing critic of.
Don't let this one put you off Hawthorne, rank. While he DOES explore moralistic themes in almost everything he writes, he usually does so with more drama, and, to be quite fair, more grace.
I'd give it, perhaps, two-and-a-half out of five stars. Despite its failings, it does deal out some good suspense; but its failure to climax this suspense with a real...well, climax...leaves it considerably light, in my oh-so humble opinion.
(The Gothic elements here, for anyone who wonders just why we picked such a lukewarm story, are the explorations of religion as a method of (self-)persecution, secret sins, and related motifs.)
I think you and I are the only ones apt to read this one, rank; I don't fancy after reading out reviews many people are going to want to pick it up! But rush to prove me wrong, folks! :D
In other words: 'Green Tea,' anyone?? I'll start a new thread...
ETA - That was very silly - sorry!
I've got some Trader Joe's generic green tea and some gunpowder from Chinatown.
New thread is up.
(Again: anyone who still wants to comment on this, pleasssse do. I feel I picked a bit of a clunker, but who knows, you might absolutely love 'The Minister's Black Veil'...)
One thing I forgot to mention: when I first read it, on reading the first four or five paragraphs I thought it was going to be humorous; but I've lost that since. I've just read it through again and I now can't really see it. But it's what I had in mind when I made the suggestion in #4 about it possibly being a satire.
But from the comments I've read so far, is the narrative voice from the same setting as the story? If so, wouldn't it seem likely that the narrator's earnestness is ironic?
I do know this story was based on an actual event/person. The real story is a minister killed a friend by accident and wore a black veil for the rest of his life. I'd have to look up it up for more details. But, I would be severlely disciplined by my English professors for daring to talk about outside events as pertinent to any story!
(Here be spoilers, so read accordingly...)
I read the same thing about the actual event/person in my Library of America Hawthorne (I think we share that, incidentally).
I think your comment about the narrator's voice being ironic is half true, half not true: the narrator is narrating what Hawthorne deems a 'Parable,' so there is that didactic tone I referenced earlier, but he is also, possibly, unreliable, in that he never quite states just how much he agrees (and if he does, it's only nominally) with the ideas presented in his narrative. Also, the 'moral' facets of the story mostly occur in the dialogue of the characters themselves, and less so in the narrator's narration. For example, the 'crux' of the story's moral is in the second to last paragraph, in the minister's little speech about us all wearing our own 'black veils.'
I think it's an interesting idea (the subject of the story), but the techniques used here (suspense, suggestions of a more...'fantastic' reason for the wearing of the veil) just seem inappropriate for the telling of what is, in essence, a sort of moral fable; they never quite do justice to what is, at its simplest level, some fantastic writing. Hawthorne is a mixed-bag for me, as I usually either LOVE or greatly dislike his writing, depending---and this story, unfortunately, is the latter. Time may ease my distaste, but I don't think so: I love a great allegory, not just a 'good' one, and this one isn't even that...(at least for me)
But, like rankamateur, I encourage dissention! :)
By the by, it's kind of nice to have a story people may disagree on. That's always a more interesting discussion...at least, generally speaking.
If I accept Stibitz' argument, it will leave me feeling a little foolish as his 'second level' broadly concurs with what I'd been thinking about the minister's actions - but it hadn't dawned on me that Hawthorne might have intended me to think that!
Stibitz' interpretation does make a more satisfying sense of the story. At the same time, his 'second level' just seems a little too obscure - in my defence, here, he gives a long list of critics - including Poe - who didn't see it. Then again, given his time and location, Hawthorne was certainly writing for an audience more used to pondering on 'sin' in its various aspects than an irreligious type like me and so, presumably, more likely to pick up on the 'second level'. Stibitz also insists, right at the start, on the need to see this story in the context of Hawthorne's other work; so I'm possibly suffering for not having read more of his stuff.
Incidentally, repeated readings have done nothing to lessen my inability to believe in the various reactions to his veil (can you lessen an inability?) That's the elephant in the room for me.
A quick reread leaves me still little impressed, though I can't say I HATE the story. It's just not my thing, I suppose...
If you're going to give me religion, give me personal experience, not Sunday school stories. Give me blood. Give me drama. SHOW ME WHY a moral is necessary in a story---and Hawthorne can certainly do that. This form, perhaps, is more 'not my thing' than the subject matter; 'parable' is its own veil, and I'm not an ardent admirer.
That's pretty much my feeling, though I do feel I've been a little remiss in not mentioning that I found it very well-written - I found it no hardship to do multiple readings of it (though I'm still trying to work out 'Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms').
Some initial thoughts:
1. St. Thomas More and his hair shirt were never far from my mind. The Puritan approach was adorable. Padre Pio also had a similar situation with people flocking to see his stigmata and not necessarily to attend Mass, but once they received the Sacrament of Reconciliation from him, their hearts were changed and their actions became inspired. Different to the impact of Mother (Saint) Theresa, but just as life changing. Also, St.Terese of Lisieux and her 'little way' gave great power to the seemingly mediocre or overlooked person or thing.
2. I did not take it as allegory or tongue in cheek. It was a magnified view of the fear behind prejudice. It still happens, with every person who turns their face away from a woman 'curtained' for religious reasons.
3. I might have expected a different ending but with Elizabeth there, I felt satisfied that he kept his promise to her right to the end. It also made me remember the wife's devotion to her ill husband in Tenant of Wildfell Hall. He was drunk and abusive but she did not abandon him on his deathbed.
4. Things I considered during the course of the narrative; leprosy, some kind of skin rash related to stress like shingles or similar, a possible skeletal or deathlike appearance but then you could still see the lips and chin, it was not an imposter since his voice and manner remained consistent, penance for vanity by restricting his ability to give or receive praise. He, for the church goers, was the face of God so he hid it from them to manifest more of a sense of mystery.
5. The concept of sin does not at all make me uncomfortable. An Examination of Conscience at the close of every day is a way to tally the bad alongside the good in order to do better in the morning, like a private version of vespers. It's serious but celebratory. It's like checking the weather. I'm not being flippant, I simply mean it's a natural reflex.
I thought parts were humourous but in a sad way, not in a smirk way. Like the old biddy who had to leave the church to stave off a fainting spell, the children hiding behind tombstones to peek at him during his evening walks, etc.
I will return to this post after completing Young Goodman Brown. The parable aspect is still a curious choice to me for Hawthorne. He blistered the writing of Harriet Beecher Stowe when she outsold him (Uncle Tom's Cabin published May 1852, same year as Blithedale) and yet was fully supportive of his buddy Melville, so obviously he had issues. I'll find that NYU gothic online clip too about Hawthorne, and the reason for his surname alteration as distance from his past.
That might be why this feels like an uncomfortable read for many. My second approach was with an audiobook version. I just let it wash over me with my eyes closed to see if the flood of ideas and images altered. Nearly the same gentle ramble. It felt like he intended the reader to step into one of the characters to face their own reaction to his gesture of self-mortification. The difference with my RC upbringing is that it's supposed to be done quietly, personally, to avoid the mother of all sin, pride. Almsgiving is better than weekly collection. But weekly collection is better than an annual grand gesture of public donation for a tax write off. The widow's mite and all that.
Hawthorne could have shaved off ten minutes of a 35min audiobook but that would ruin the impact of the slow burn. Critical for his point to shine through. The veil was a constant jarring public statement which he did not reveal to any of the many who went to their grave before he did. To Hawthorne it was the critical image; morose, ghostly, formal, black not white or see-through which would have lessened the 'threat'.
Not once was I bored. I was often off-balance as he swung from one scene to another, from pulpit to funeral to wedding feast. I kept expecting violence to emerge until I realized that was inside the mind of each onlooker. This is what made Hooper sad. Even his wife initially was more concerned with scandal, but his fortitude convinced her of his actual intention. The man at the deathbed wanted to see the triumphant ecstasy on the face of a true penitent, why? to tell others he'd been there to see it! Hooper knew it had nothing to do with him which is why he reproached that selfish git so harshly right at the end. He needed to preserve the purity of his intent. Without the wife nursing her husband, that veil might have been torn off anyway. I was pleased they buried him that way. Nothing about him or his concept was insane. He sat up because he was incensed.
The whole story was not a slap. It was a recurring pinch. Patience is a virtue.
At no time did I think he was guilty of some immense crime or personal mortal sin. I felt that would have mirrored The Scarlet Letter too closely and therefore been a cop out, but I don't know which was written first.
Another clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine, who died about eighty years since, made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper. In his case, however, the symbol had a different import. In early life he had accidentally killed a beloved friend, and from that day till the hour of his own death he hid his face from men.
For this reason, I did not once think Hooper was guilty of any severe previous behavior.
Some images that really stuck with me, and his majestic wording;
++ “How strange,” said a lady, “that a simple black veil, such as any woman might wear on her bonnet, should become such a terrible thing on Mr. Hooper’s face!”
++ A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them behind his awful veil and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was nothing terrible in what Mr. Hooper said — at least, no violence; and yet with every tremor of his melancholy voice the hearers quaked. An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe.
++ “I had a fancy,” replied she, “that the minister and the maiden’s spirit were walking hand in hand.”
++ 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.
++ Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper and would not yield their breath till he appeared, though ever, as he stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face so near their own. Such were the terrors of the black veil
++ There was the nurse — no hired handmaiden of Death, but one whose calm affection had endured thus long in secrecy, in solitude, amid the chill of age, and would not perish even at the dying-hour. Who but Elizabeth!
++ he sat shivering with the arms of Death around him
++ 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 his sin...
Another factor was this:
He died at sea in 1808 of yellow fever when his son Nathaniel Hawthorne, the writer, was only four years old, and Nathaniel was raised secluded from the world by his mother.
He died in 1864.
He also highlights the Corinthians 13:12 quote 'now we see through a glass darkly' (at 8m35s) to describe the hidden meaning behind the parable of the black veil. A bit of harmless Blind Man's Bluff. He points out the excessive intentional use of adjectives. The important difference between two distinct concepts, of the 'type' and the symbol. Old Testament foreshadowing... Moses, Samson, Noah, David, prophets … then (John the Baptist), are types to/of Jesus Christ, for delivery from bondage (by sin). It is not important what the cloth looks like, it's what it points to, so stop being hung up on the visible and pay attention to the invisible. Mirror image significance, the body 'shuts in time from eternity' so the lifting of the veil is the metaphor for death, the soul's release from physical life on earth to eternal life, patient weariness, venerable, etc.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDGYSpPi0DE (this was posted a year later, over an hour long)
I also noticed, third time through, that Hawthorne expresses many points in threes. I don't think that's an accident. ie. friend / lover / God
The final scene loops back to the initial sermon given with the veil, about secret sin. He does not deliver that first sermon any differently (no fire and brimstone), but there's a shift in perception, as filtered through the black veil. At the end, he sees dark, judgemental people, who are projecting their own secret sins onto him unfairly. They hide their innermost selves from each other and also from their own view, but cannot mask it from God, like they might be hoping. He encourages painful excavation to get to the pure place of redemption. No obstruction, full disclosure.
Unsure what is meant by that final statement about being disciplined by English profs for using outside influences... how on earth else can you make comparisons without doing so? How can you make it your own without restating someone else's concept, if you avoid external anecdotes or reasoning? Must be some university training dictum lost on me. Seems sad to narrow the blinders that much, to exclude a vast wealth of experience from the human condition. Patch Adams pops to mind as one who would have fought strenuously against that sort of confinement in medicine.
I finished Young Goodman Brown, but still have these lined up, by Hawthorne, in a Kobo/ebook collection;
Ethan Brand, The Gorgon's Head, The Gray Champion, The Great Stone Face, The Miraculous Pitcher, My Kinsman Major Molineux, The Snow Image, Three Golden Apples, Wakefield
It was quite true in some periods and universities. I'm currently, very slowly, working my way through Peter Barry's Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, which is a survey of the various fashions in literary theory over the years, and I can promise you that the ideas some of the top academics get into their heads should make any rational person want to kick them. Literary theory quite often doesn't seem to have much truck with intellectual rigour or plain common sense.
In flipping through old Depp movies that I have not yet seen (ie. From Hell), I couldn't resist revisiting trailers from Sleepy Hollow (1999) and noticed this clip;
"enough have died already, it's time to confess our sins"
I wonder if The Legend of Sleepy Hollow of 1820 was an influence on Hawthorne (TMBV first published in 1832). A different type of black veil...
It was also helpful to read about the Longfellow/Poe overlap, that Poe had good and bad to say about Hawthorne, but only bad to say about Longfellow. Longfellow was devoted to Hawthorne because of their school association, and later established friendship.