Explicating a symbol:  the case of Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil"

You have to be specific in spelling out the meaning of the symbols you undertake to discuss. Now it is only within the situation as a whole that individual persons, objects, and acts acquire their particular symbolic meanings in their own right. This means that in practice you have to take into account the set of equivalences between the whole symbolic situation and the whole situation that it is symbolic of.  Here’s a scheme that illustrates what is entailed in explicating the meaning of the overall symbolic situation in Hawthorne’s story "The Minister’s Black Veil."  Our aim in constructing it is to display the logical structure that underpins the phenomenon of symbolic representation in general.  We will see that the element of the story that most obviously puts itself forward as symbolic -- the particular object the story's title points to -- can be made sense of only if we treat some larger situation that it is a part of as symbolizing some equivalent situation that contains within it an element corresponding to the veil.  The veil symbolizes this only because this larger situation symbolizes / points to that other situation-as-a-whole.  Put another way:  it is only in virtue of its complex of relations with other elements of the story that the veil can symbolize anything at all.  (In fact, it is by controlling the particular facts of the situation within which any one fact is embedded in a story that authors control the meaning of that fact.)  If we want to know what it stands for, we will have to take careful stock of the particular details that Hawthorne has chosen for constructing its exact context in this tale.

But before we leap into these particulars, let’s take a quick look at the general form of such schemes of parallelism, and then "fill in the blanks" with the appropriate specifics for the particular case at hand.  The general form is simply that of a proportional analogy:

A:B:C:D [etc.] :: a:b:c:d [etc.]

This we read out as "A is to B is to C is to D as "a" is to "b" is to "c" is to "d". Each "is to" represents some specific relationship, and the idea is that the corresponding relationships (as determined by their order in the series) are identical or at least similar. That is, the relationship between A and B is the same as the relationship between "a" and "b" but not necessarily the same as that between B and C (which is the same, however, as that between "b" and "c"). The double colon in the middle of the expression (which we translated as "as") is always the same particular relationship, namely, the relationship of equivalence.

In effect then, what this whole formal statement says is that the complex of relationships that incorporates the objects/acts on the left (which we’ll take to describe the symbolic situation) is the same as the complex of objects/acts on the right (which we’ll take to describe the symbolized situation). We could thus be more formally specific, while keeping our formulation completely albstract (i.e., all-purpose) by replacing the colons with particular relationship indicators.  Note that the double colon, though, always represents the special relationship of equivalence, and that this higher-order equivalence holds not between one entire complex and the other.  What makes this higher-order relationship hold between the two complexes is the fact that the particular relationships -- <R1>, <R2>, <R3>, etc. -- show up on the lower order within both complexes. 

Complex I

<R> i.e., is equivalent to

Complex II

A <R1> B <R2> C <R3> D [etc.]


q <R1> r <R2> s <R3> t [etc.]

Now let’s "fill in the blanks" for the situation involving the black veil in Hawthorne’s story.  We'll leave out the middle column in the schematic diagram above and just understand it to be expressed, below, by the systematic juxtaposition of the items in the left- and right-hand columns.  To make the information corresponding to row 2 above fit on the screen, we'll lay it out vertically in the table below.  Thus, proceeding downward in each column, each complex can be read as a sentence.  And the pair of columns, in their juxtaposition, communicate a more complex sentence of the form "Just as <sentence I>, so <sentence II>."

Rev. Hooper
Everyone in the community
<R1:>  dons / wears / puts on <R1:>  dons / wears / puts on
a black veil
a fašade
of righteousness & and decency
[in the case of all but Rev. H]
a guard simply of non-disclosure
[in the case of Rev. H. himself]
<R2:>  in order to hide <R2:>  in order to hide
his face
[the particular features of his face]
his sinful nature
[his particular sins]
<R3:>  from the gaze / sight of <R3:>  from the sight / knowledge of
everyone else in the community
<R4>  and from <R4>  and from
when he looks in the mirror
when they "reflect on" themselves

In other words:  Rev. Hooper wears a black veil in order to hide his face [or its particular features] from the gaze of others and from himself (when he looks in the mirror) JUST AS [or: to symbolize the fact that] everyone else in the community puts on a fašade of righteousness and innocence in order to hide his sinfulness from the knowledge of everyone else in the community and even from themselves, and JUST AS Rev. Hooper himself covers from his parishioners the particular sins he knows he is guilty of, which he shrinks from when he contemplates (i.e., he cannot bear to keep them vividly before himself constantly, but must shortly turn away from them).

We can say that, by overtly wearing a visible black veil, Rev. Hooper discloses to his parishioners that he is not disclosing to them his particular (i.e., concrete, individual) sins.  In doing this, of course, he does confess the abstract fact that he is sinful.  In refusing to understand his gesture, on the other hand, his parishioners are insisting on not confessing that they are not confessing anything.  Every time they manage to distract themselves from getting the message, they repeat an enactment of its meaning!  That is, they persist in wearing an invisible "veil." 

This irony repeats itself throughout the story as a relentless motif, and the relentlessness of it expresses in turn the stubbornness of the peculiar shame attaching to sin, in orthodox Puritan theology.  This irony -- that the parishoners exemplify Rev. Hooper's point in the very way in which they (repeatedly) fail or rather refuse (but unconsciously) to understand it in effect -- validates Rev. Hooper's theology as a thematic premise of the story.  (Whether Hawthorne himself affirms this theology as a matter of personal faith is a quite different question.  What is clear, however, is that, in portraying Rev. Hooper's flock as behaving in this manner, Hawthorne indicates to the reader that we are to "take on" or assume this particular theological tenet as an axiom within our reading of this story as a whole.)

The equivalence we've laid out so far doesn't exhaust the parallels Hawthorne's narrative invites us to notice.  Rather it is the fundamental platform from which all others take off.  And, indeed, it is for the sake of these, we may eventually conclude, that the story exists.  (That is:  the overall theme of the story may be concerned not so much with the facts pointed to in the second column of the table above as with their further implications -- but implications that are in turn pointed to by additional literal details of the story, i.e., details that, were we to absorb them into the table, would amount to a continuation, downwards, of the first column.)

To take just one example:  just as Rev. Hooper is a stranger to his fellows, so are they, in reality, strangers to each other, and themselves.  And this fact we can translate into interesting theological terms:  every person in this community of communicants is in fact self-excommunicated from every other, and precisely because he believes, in his heart of hearts (and, for all but Rev. Hooper himself, this is an unconscious region), that, were he to reveal it to his fellows, they would excommunicate him from their fellowship -- drive him into banishment, as in fact they have done with heretics they have found in their midst (baptists and Quakers most prominently).  But this constitutes an even deeper irony in turn, since in orthodox Puritan theology, the universal depravity of man owing to Original Sin is a fundamental article of faith. 

The question thus arises:  for people who officially subscribe to the doctrine of Original Sin, what can be so terrifying about admitting to others that one is secretly sinful, even while one reserves to oneself (i.e., retains in secrecy) the particular nature of the sins one knows oneself to have committed?  Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that these communities have claimed to be a community of the redeemed.  Whether one can continue a member of such a community would then depend in turn on whether one supposes that people can be both redeemed and sinners or whether redemption makes sin impossible. 

The behavior of the people of Rev. Hooper's community suggests that they have taken from society -- i.e., from each other -- the premise that to be redeemed is inconsistent with being in sin.  And since, for them, the condition of remaining a member of the community with which their conception of personal identity is inextricably tied is that one be redeemed, the price of admitting to oneself that one is sinful means that one is not fit to remain in the community.  And since giving up one's status as a respected member of the community is, for them, more painful than giving up one's prospect of eternal life and immunity to eternal damnation, it is necessary to deny that one (any longer) harbors sin.  But since acknowledging that one is doing this is inconsistent with one's enjoyment of one's identity as member of the community of the decent, it is necessary to deny one's consciousness of sin even to oneself.

In contrast, the fact that Rev. Hooper preaches the sermon he does -- on the first day he adopts the veil, and subsequently by his persistence in his decision to keep wearing it -- suggests that he either rejects the view that redemption and persistence in sin are consistence or is able to bear the consciousness that he may not, at least yet, be redeemed. 

Presumably, for both Rev. Hooper and his parishioners, Puritan theology is insistent that, without conviction of sin, there can be no salvation.  (Conviction of sin is necessary, though not sufficient for salvation.)  If this tenet of their ancestors is true, though, the members of this community are in dire spiritual peril.  But even if it is not, their commitment to social respectability is revealed as more important to them than their appreciation of their eternal welfare.  The historical irony that Hawthorne suggests is that the original Puritan communal plan contained within it the potential to produce a society constructed on a thoroughgoing hypocrisy.  His story asks his readers to ask themselves whether this potential has in fact become a reality.  Of course, his readers are at liberty to answer "No."  But they are under the warning that, being human, they are under a strong temptation to hide the truth from themselves if indeed the just answer should turn out to be "Yes."

By now we are in a position to note that the story does not restrict itself to parallels, either.  For it is a fundamental fact of the narrative that Rev. Hooper also stands out as different from everyone else in the community -- that his parishoners regard him as an eccentric, and with malaise and suspicion, and that he himself is unable, with his gesture, to persuade them to draw nearer to him and to each other by at least acknowledging frankly that each is subject to sins that he or she is too embarrassed to reveal to any other.  (We've already hinted at this with the OR in the 3rd box in the right-hand column of the table we constructed.  The point of using the term "OR" was to indicate that, for the purposes of left-right correspondence between the two complexes, the two things the term connects are equivalent; the point of putting this "OR" in orange was to indicate that, from the point of view of other considerations important in the story, the two things the term connects are not "the same" but opposed.)  In other words, the parallel set forth above ultimately serves to lay the ground for the foil that develops between Rev. Hooper and the rest.  And this foil is every bit as significant, in the story's overall theme, as the equivalence -- <R>, above -- that it presupposes. 

And this system of differences, too, extends further than our diagram so far has captured.  Take, for example, the motif of gloom that attaches to the veil. 

[More to come. Check back later. LB]