Last year, which was only a few days ago but it becomes it’s inappropriate apparently to treat the end of a year as anything but the end of an era, I purchased the Library of America collection of the short fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Before you begin, no I am not high, though I have suffered some significant head trauma that may or may not be creating delusional fantasies that I am a chicken. Buk-bock. I began halfway through last year to work in the Writing Center of my University and was fortunate enough to be surrounded by, if not English majors themselves, students in the humanities that had some background with literature studies. By the graces that guide conversation we eventually arrived at Hawthorne, a writer who I have despised since high school ( I was forced to read The Scarlet Letter for an AP-English course, and may I recommend you avoid this book until you’ve been blessed with a few of his short stories first). Discussing Hawthorne with some of my friends we discussed a few of his short stories and all agreed that his short story The Minister’s Black Veil, was without doubt one of his best works. This conversation was compounded when another course I had been taken exposed me to another one of his short stories, Young Goodman Brown (another excellent yarn you should read before tackling Letter). While I won’t say I became an overnight acolyte of the man, I felt enough inspiration to go to Amazon and purchase the collection.
Hawthorne was a writer of the Romantic Movement, whose father had been a judge during the Salem Witch Trials. Much of his work tends to center upon puritan life and the psychological darkness capable of American Humanity. In the case of The Ministers Black Veil we arrive at just that. A well respected Priest arrives at church one Sunday wearing a black crape over his face that covers all but his mouth. I know that sounds like the start of a crappy Emo movie on Netflix but stay with me here. The text reads:
The cause of so much amazement may appear sufficiently slight. Mr. Hooper, a gentlemanly person, of about thirty, though still a bachelor, 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 so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things. With this gloomy shade before him, good Mr. Hooper walked onward, at a slow and quiet pace, stooping somewhat, and looking on the ground, as is customary with abstracted men, yet nodding kindly to those of his parishioners who still waited on the meeting-house steps. But so wonder-struck were they that his greeting hardly met with a return.
“I can’t really feel as if good Mr. Hooper’s face was behind that piece of crape,” said the sexton.
“I don’t like it,” muttered an old woman, as she hobbled into the meeting-house.
“He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face.”
“Our parson has gone mad!” cried Goodman Gray, following him across the threshold.
This brief scene starts this brief but wonderful tale and as the story continues the black veil both intrigues and horrifies the Good Reverend Hooper’s congregation. Something as simple as a thin black garb of fabric that obscures the man face inspires such terror into the heart of these people. The plot from this point on is remarkable simple, but Hawthorne’s approach to the text incorporates his usual style of psychological complexity. It’s not that the Revered wears a black veil and goes about life instilling fear in his congregation; it is that his calm behavior and intense secrecy as per the reason of his wearing the veil creates a morbid curiosity that estranges him from the rest of his society. Hawthorne describes several instances of this, Mr. Hooper’s usual sermon is ruined for his parishioners who see the veil and shrink in terror, his performance of a wedding ceremony ruins the glorious day for all anyone can see is the black garb, and finally when his wife confronts the man on his actions she receives only a rejection and so she leaves him. The story ends with Mr. Hooper on his death bed giving his community, and the reader as well, the only explanation he believes he needs. He says:
“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? 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; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”
“So what?” says you. Why should I care about a twelve page story about a priest who covers his face and drives everyone crazy? What relevance does this have to someone living in our current society?
The power of Hawthorne’s story lies in Reverend Hooper’s final speech for he addresses the fact that the only reason, the ONLY reason his friends and family have rejected him is a single piece of cloth that obscures his face. His character as a man has not changed, nor has he participated in any kind of anti-social behavior that would create an understandable distance from him. There is no cause for their behavior apart from curiosity and morbid imagination.
Several years ago when the film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia appeared in theatres it held the box Office number 1 slot for an hour before the film Hostel knocked it out of place. Ask yourself an honest question, which you would honestly prefer to watch, a film with a large talking lion or a film where young men and women are ripped apart with power tools for money. Ask yourself a few more questions if you will. How many Friday the Thirteenth movies are there? What was the name of the victims of every Nightmare on Elm Street movie? What did Butch kill the redneck with during the rape scene of Pulp Fiction? How does Billy Batz die in the film Goodfellas? Who is the Anti-Hero serial killer protagonist of the Halloween series?
These questions are not meant to damn the reader and make them feel guilty they are simply designed to test your own knowledge of the macabre.
Let us take another example. Last year a wonderful sitcom began its fourth season, American Horror Story: Freak Show. I will admit openly I have not seen the first season, I couldn’t care less about the third season, and I did suffer through the second. My wife adores the show however and so, much like Jule’s vegetarianism in Pulp Fiction, I became a fan of show. Despite this piss poor introduction I found anticipation. Observing a trend in the rhetoric of the show I have cause to believe that it is recurring the trend of the Gothic in America, a literary trope that dates back to Mr. Hawthorne and other writers that fell into the Dark Romanticism. The show employs, unashamedly I might add, elements of the supernatural; however the refined tactic of the show is its use of psychological manipulation. At the start of the show one may feel pity for a particular character but by the end you desire nothing more for them to die.
Thus entered Twisty the Clown.
Becoming the mascot for the show during the early promotion, the character is a large, mute, and psychotic killer that begins the season by killing a young woman’s boyfriend and a young boy’s family and locking them both in an abandoned bus so he can entertain them. I suppose I should say SPOILERS ALERT for those who have not yet watched the show. Very well I said it, though people if you’re only watching a show because you want to find out what happens then you might want to re-examine your priorities (You don’t read a story to figure out what happens, you read a story to figure out how it’s told). We discover that while Twisty is a damaged man, he is mentally unstable and working on the premise that he’s a good person who’s been wronged, and he has. Beginning life as mentally retarded he’s duped into thinking he’s molested children by a pair of dwarfs who want him out of the way so they can enjoy that game for themselves. Disgraced the man becomes a hermit, isolated and profoundly lonely. Driven to a suicide attempt, he shoots out the lower half of his face.
It is at this point the question should be asked, what does this have to do with Hawthorne?
Twisty’s character wears a mask over his damaged face that bears a disturbing smile, and once Twisty is killed a young man takes the mask for himself believing he is the heir to the Clown. His morbid curiosity revealing his true nature. The draw of the program is to understand what would lead people to behave in such abominable ways and often there is the desire to equate some dark motive to their actions.
So we return to the Reverend Hooper. The man’s final conclusion is that the men and woman of his community should not fear one man alone, but should fear the collective will that has created his isolation. Hawthorne’s father as I mentioned before was a judge during the Salem Witch Trials, and it should be noted the men refused to recant for his actions during what is one of the most astounding legal debacles in American History. So great was Hawthorne’s shame that the man added a letter to his name so the connection between his father and himself could not be made. Working years later in his writing Hawthorne would not have been able to resist the influence of the Salem Trials in his writing. They were in his blood.
Human curiosity and imagination can work wonders upon the psyche, but as Hawthorne demonstrates in The Minister’s Black Veil, that combination can lead to dark consequences. We that live with men must be sure our judgments are rooted in a person’s actions, rather than appearances.