According to the nineteenth-century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, we should all be wearing face masks.
In the current moment where politics meets pandemic, the decision about whether or not to wear a face mask is a lightning rod for debates over governmental overreach and freedom of expression—and according to some, a smug way of signaling virtue and vice. As Americans today argue over whether they should be required to put on masks when they go to the hardware store or go out for a jog, Hawthorne’s 1832 tale, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” provides an unsettling commentary on what it means to cover one’s face in public. And it suggests that a more elusive set of meanings about stigma and scandal are wrapped up in this debate.
The plot of Hawthorne’s story is simple enough. One day, without any explanation, the minister of a small town in Puritan New England puts a veil over his face and keeps it there until his dying day. Whether at the pulpit, officiating at a wedding, or simply strolling in public, his black veil remains in place. That’s it: no great revelation or final twist enlightens Parson Hooper’s congregation or Hawthorne’s readers about the reason behind the minister’s decision to wear a face-covering at all times and in all places.
It was fiction—but it wasn’t. Local history inspired Hawthorne’s tale. In the mid-1700s, a Harvard-trained minister named Joseph Moody shrouded his face with a veil after he accidentally killed a friend in a hunting accident. Other explanations for the minister’s singular conduct have also been proposed, all pointing to a variety of sorrows that dogged Moody. Perhaps he was suffering from depression after his wife and daughter died in childbirth. Or, some reasoned, the black cloth became part of his clerical uniform after his cousin Mary Hirst turned down his offer of marriage. A final theory is that the veil was an act of quiet rebellion: the Reverend Moody simply did not like preaching and may have resented his father’s urging that he follow in his footsteps by becoming a member of the clergy as well.
Whatever Moody’s reasons, Hawthorne’s genius was to take the singular incident of an eccentric minister from York, Maine, who died in 1753 and turn it into an enduring commentary about how society responds to shame. “The Minister’s Black Veil” transforms a history of individual disappointment and grief into a wider meditation on the divisiveness of public opinion.
The drama of the story lies in the reactions of the minister’s neighbors to this development. “The terrible thing on Mr. Hooper’s face” rattles their sensibilities. The veiled parson is no longer invited to break bread after the Sunday church service. Women and children gossip about him, while the town’s elders fret that the affair “should grow into a scandal.” The minister becomes the subject of scurrilous speculation: does he wear a face-covering because he might have had a secret dalliance with a young woman?
Yet amid the rumors and the jokes, “not one ventured to put the plain question” to the minister about why he masks his face. The congregation’s concern is wholly for themselves: they fret about the public image of their town and their own discomfort. They wonder: won’t the sight of the black veil make it impossible for life to return to normal? Just as many Americans now wonder: won’t people in masks be an unpleasant reminder of sorrow for shoppers on main street?
The public impact of visible markers of difference would become the subject of Hawthorne’s most famous work, The Scarlet Letter, the story of a young woman forced to wear a fiery badge of shame for her sexual transgressions. And there is nothing like shame to separate the righteous from the fallen, the cautious from the heedless, us from them.
It’s a sensibility that can be weaponized, as the hateful incidents of anti-Asian bias that currently attend the Covid-19 pandemic show. But in the tale of the friendless minister, and even more so in the novel about a disgraced woman, Hawthorne questions such neat oppositions. People in these stories readily affix meaning to the black veil and scarlet letter, but they fail to undertake the more difficult work of examining their own role in, and reasons for, stigmatizing others.
The minister’s insight, however, is that everyone has reason enough to wear a mask or bear a mark of visible stigma. Who does not suffer from some secret shame, the humiliation of having done some injustice or wrong? As the minister looks around, he sees “on every visage a Black Veil!”
Similarly, we might counter the protests of American mask resisters, touting their sense of personal freedom and lack of fear, by asking: which of us is not implicated? Who might not wear a mask in the era of Covid-19? As the minister asks from behind his veil, “What mortal might not do the same?” Do not all Americans bear the stigma of living in a society of great wealth and technological advancements that nevertheless outpaces the world in the number of coronavirus infections and deaths? Who is not ashamed to know that warnings and recommendations from scientists and health officials have been ignored by those we voted into office? “This was preventable” reads the white lettering on a black face mask that is popular on the internet.
Hawthorne’s minister dies forlorn and alone. Behind our masks, we might reach a different conclusion. Our cloth stigma is also a collective accusation against a president and other elected officials who underestimated, and even dismissed, the threat of the virus. But ultimately, any sense of shame is best reserved for ourselves at having allowed, even invited in, so much death for the sake of spring break or a trip to the mall.
Russ Castronovo is Director of the Center for the Humanities and Tom Paine Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.