“The Minister’s Black Veil” (1832)

Plot Summary

The story begins with the sexton standing in front of the meeting-house, ringing the bell. He is to stop ringing the bell when the Reverend Mr. Hooper comes into sight. However, the congregation is met with an unusual sight: Mr. Hooper is wearing a black semi-transparent veil that obscures all of his face but his mouth and chin from view. This creates a stir among the townspeople, who begin to speculate about his veil and its significance. As he takes the pulpit, Mr. Hooper’s sermon is on secret sin and is “tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper’s temperament”. This topic concerns the congregation who fear for their own secret sins as well as their minister’s new appearance. After the sermon, a funeral is held for a young lady of the town who has died. Mr. Hooper stays for the funeral and continues to wear his now more appropriate veil. It is said that if the veil were to blow away, he might be “fearful of her glance”. Mr. Hooper says a few prayers and the body is carried away. Two of the mourners say that they have had a fancy that “the minister and the maiden’s spirit were walking hand in hand”. That night another occasion arises, this time a joyous one—a wedding. However, Mr. Hooper arrives in his veil again, bringing the atmosphere of the wedding down to gloom.

By the next day, even the local children are talking of the strange change that seems to have come over their minister. Yet, no one is able to ask Mr. Hooper directly about the veil, except for his fiancée Elizabeth. Elizabeth tries to be cheerful and have him take it off. He will not do so, even when they are alone together, nor will he tell her why he wears the veil. Eventually, she gives up and tells him goodbye, breaking off the engagement.

The one positive benefit of the veil is that Mr. Hooper becomes a more efficient clergyman, gaining many converts who feel that they too are behind the black veil with him. Dying sinners call out for him alone. Mr. Hooper lives his life thus, though he is promoted to Father, until his death. According to the text, “All through life the black veil had hung between him and the world: it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love, and kept him in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart; and still it lay upon his face, as if to deepen the gloom of his dark-some chamber, and shade him from the sunshine of eternity”.

Even though Elizabeth broke off their engagement, she never marries and still keeps track of the happenings of Hooper’s life from afar. When she finds out that he is deathly ill she comes to his death bed to be by his side. Elizabeth and the Reverend ask him once again to remove the veil, but he refuses. As he dies, those around him tremble. He tells them in anger not to tremble, not merely for him but for themselves, for they all wear black veils. Father Hooper is buried with the black veil on his face. 1

Notes & Quotes

I’m immediately reminded of Karen Haltunnen’s work on confidence men in 19th century America. Although Hooper is clearly not an actual confidence man, the anxiety and nameless terror that the townspeople suddenly feel towards him feels directly connected to the American anxiety surrounding  the possibility of false and immoral citizens who take advantage of others’ trust in order to socially and financially climb.

I’m also interested in the townspeople’s belief that, by wearing the veil, Hooper gained a sudden ability to “see” the sins of others (180). At the same time, the narrator opens the possibility that “…perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them” (ibid) and Elizabeth asks Hooper whether he must really “darken his eyes forever” by wearing the veil (184). I wonder if the veil is meant to perhaps endow Hooper with a sort of gothic sight. Additionally, the narrator later states that “love or sympathy could never reach him” from beneath the veil (185). Moments later, however, the narrator explains that the veil had one benefit in that it made him a better minister: “Its gloom, indeed, enabled him to sympathize with all dark affections” (ibid). So, although the veil blocks him from “love and sympathy,” it opens him up to “dark affections.” I think this might have to do with the sense of sight and how the dark filter that the veil applies to his sight, as well as how the sight of the veil on his face transmits dark affects to others.

“The Birthmark” (1843)

Plot Summary

Aylmer is a brilliant and recognized scientist and philosopher who has dropped his focus from his career and experiments to marry the beautiful Georgiana (who is physically perfect except for a small red birthmark in the shape of a hand on her cheek).

As the story progresses, Aylmer becomes unnaturally obsessed with the birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek. One night, he dreams of cutting the birthmark out of his wife’s cheek (removing it like scraping the skin from an apple) and then continuing all the way to her heart. He does not remember this dream until Georgiana asks about what his sleep-talking meant. When Aylmer remembers the details of his dream, Georgiana declares that she would risk her life having the birthmark removed from her cheek rather than to continue to endure Aylmer’s horror and distress that comes upon him when he sees her.

The following day, Aylmer deliberates upon and then decides to take Georgiana to the apartments where he keeps a laboratory. He glances at Georgiana casually and normally but can’t help but shudder violently at seeing her imperfection; Aylmer’s reaction causes her to faint. When she awakens, he treats her warmly and comforts her with some of his scientific concoctions but when he attempts to take a portrait of her, the image is blurred save for her birthmark revealing the disgust he has of it.

He experiments some more and describes some of the successes to her but as he questions how she is feeling, Georgiana begins to suspect that Aylmer has been experimenting on her the entire time without her knowledge and consent. Aylmer catches her investigating, and accuses her of spying on him in the laboratory, and potentially damaging his valuable and delicate instruments. They argue briefly but not intensely. Georgiana then agrees to drink a potion Aylmer has concocted for her despite his warning that it might be dangerous to do so and may carry unexpected side effects.

Soon after, he brings her the potion and the potion is proven to be effective, in some respects, by rejuvenating a nearby plant with but a few drops. Upon seeing this and trusting her distressed husband, Georgiana drinks the concocted potion and promptly falls asleep. Aylmer watches the birthmark fade little by little. Once it is nearly gone, Georgiana wakes up and is pleased (like Aylmer) to see the results. However, the potion had side effects, and Georgiana soon tells her husband that she is slowly dying. Once the birthmark fades completely, Georgiana dies with it. 2

Notes & Quotes

I’m interested in how Aylmer represents the mind or intellect, while his assistant Aminadab is all body. Aminadab thinks it is a shame that Aylmer wants to remove Georgiana’s one imperfection- the birthmark upon her face- which is also the one sign that she is mortal and of the earth.

Aylmer’s desire to improve what is natural creates nothing but death and awful abnormality. This could be read through an ecogothic lens as a means to explore an American 19th century writer’s vision of human interference with nature. This definitely represents ecophobia as defined by Simon Estok, in which humans try to maintain and control nature as a means to control their own anxiety surrounding the power of nature.

Finally, Aylmer uses the atmosphere as part of his medical experiments to remove the birthmark from Georgiana’s cheek:

…Georgiana began to conjecture that she was already subjected to certain physical influences, either breathed in with the fragrant air or taken with her food. She fancied likewise, but it might be altogether fancy, that there was a stirring up of her system- a strange, indefinite, sensation creeping through her veins, and tingling, half painfully, half pleasurably, at her heart. (194)

This could be a really interesting passage to examine alongside present-day affect theory. Also,  I think this description of the atmosphere fits well with what I termed Poe’s atmospheres of horror, which work to transmit affective horror not only across Poe’s settings and characters, but also to his readers. Hawthorne’s atmosphere in this story works in a similar way- it focuses on sensations but refuses to define the actual feeling in a single word. It also is described in the language of contagion or infection, believing that the air is possibly full of tiny miasma entering Georgianna’s bloodstream.

“Rappacini’s Daughter” (1844)

Plot Summary

The story is set in Padua, Italy, in a distant and unspecified past. From his quarters, Giovanni Guasconti, a young student of letters, at the University of Padua, looks at Beatrice, the beautiful daughter of Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini, a scientist who works in isolation. Beatrice is confined to the lush and locked gardens, which are filled with poisonous plants grown by her father. Giovanni notices Beatrice’s strangely intimate relationship with the plants as well as the withering of fresh flowers and the death of an insect when exposed to her skin or breath. Having fallen in love, Giovanni enters the garden and meets with Beatrice a number of times, while ignoring his mentor, Professor Pietro Baglioni, who warns him that Rappaccini is devious and that he and his work should be avoided. Giovanni discovers that Beatrice, having been raised in the presence of poison, is poisonous herself. Beatrice urges Giovanni to look past her poisonous exterior and see her pure and innocent essence, creating great feelings of doubt in Giovanni. He begins to suffer the consequences of his encounters with the plants – and with Beatrice – when he discovers that he himself has become poisonous; after another meeting with Baglioni, Giovanni brings a powerful antidote to Beatrice so that they can be together, but the antidote kills Beatrice rather than cure her of her poisonous nature. 3

Notes & Quotes

This story has a lot of similarities to “The Birthmark.” In both, the atmosphere and its affective impacts on the porous characters is vital, and both feature a scientist who desires to tinker with and change nature. It’s important that this story centers on Rappaccini’s garden, which works as a gothic version of Eden. Also, the garden is a setting in which humanity can master and control nature. This reminds me of Ambrose Bierce’s ecogothic stories, which sometimes point to agriculture as unnatural human impact on the earth as opposed to hunting.

Again, the atmosphere and its effects are described through the language of contagion. Giovanni’s body is poisoned by his too close interaction with Beatrice and the plants of Rappaccini’s garden.

“Young Goodman Brown” (1846)

Plot Summary

The story begins at dusk in Salem Village, Massachusetts as young Goodman Brown leaves Faith, his wife of three months, for some unknown errand in the forest. Faith pleads with her husband to stay with her, but he insists that the journey must be completed that night. In the forest he meets an older man, dressed in a similar manner and bearing a physical resemblance to himself. The man carries a black serpent-shaped staff. Deeper in the woods, the two encounter Goody Cloyse, an older woman, whom Young Goodman had known as a boy and who had taught him his catechism. Cloyse complains about the need to walk; the older man throws his staff on the ground for the woman and quickly leaves with Brown.

Other townspeople inhabit the woods that night, traveling in the same direction as Goodman Brown. When he hears his wife’s voice in the trees, he calls out but is not answered. He then runs angrily through the forest, distraught that his beautiful Faith is lost somewhere in the dark, sinful forest. He soon stumbles upon a clearing at midnight where all the townspeople assembled. At the ceremony, which is carried out at a flame-lit altar of rocks, the newest acolytes are brought forth—Goodman Brown and Faith. They are the only two of the townspeople not yet initiated. Goodman Brown calls to heaven and Faith to resist and instantly the scene vanishes. Arriving back at his home in Salem the next morning, Goodman Brown is uncertain whether the previous night’s events were real or a dream, but he is deeply shaken, and his belief he lives in a Christian community is distorted. He loses his faith in his wife, along with all of humanity. He lives his life an embittered and suspicious cynic, wary of everyone around him. The story concludes: “And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave… they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.” 4

Notes & Quotes

I’ve already written about “Young Goodman Brown” in a separate blog post, titled “Young Goodman Brown: Failed Eco-Detective.” 

To add to my thoughts in the previous blog post, I wanted to think about one particular moment of the story, when the narrator states that,

In truth, all through the haunted forest there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. On he flew among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man. Thus sped the demoniac on his course… (174-5)

First, this once again reminds me of Haltunnen’s work on the confidence man in 19th century America. He wears the shape of a good man, but actually has “the fiend” raging within him, unseen to those outside. This happens near the middle of the story, just before he sees the pagan circle. It’s somewhat surprising that Brown changes so quickly within the story, but he reminds me a lot of adventurer figures and American ecogothic figures who are “reborn” into something more violent and masculine as a result of their time spent in the wilderness. Edgar Huntly immediately comes to mind here.

  1. This plot summary is directly copied from Wikipedia.
  2. This plot summary also comes from Wikipedia.
  3. This plot summary comes from Wikipedia.
  4. This plot summary comes from Wikipedia.

Select Nathaniel Hawthorne Short Stories by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.