A.G. Exemplary? Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and “The Minister’s Black Veil”

The long overdue resumption of this blog feature, in which I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Tonight, I return to my exploration of Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

 

“The Birthmark” (1843) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Aylmer is “a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy.” He fixates on his beautiful and loving wife’s one ostensible flew: the titular blemish that marks her cheek in the shape of a tiny red hand. He seizes on the birthmark as “the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death,” and his uncontrollable repulsion also instills a deep sense of self-loathing in Georgiana. When he labors to remove the birthmark (with the aid of a grotesque assistant who prefigures many an Igor), Aylmer ends up having a devastating effect on his wife’s well-being. The lab-adjacent apartment in which Georgiana is kept during the time of the various procedures suggests a typical Gothic space of female entrapment, and Aylmer is the quintessential mad experimenter, falling within a long line of dangerously overreaching doctors such as Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Moreau. But there is a vagary of setting here (the tale might be set anywhere, in Europe as easily as America), that limits the sense of the American Gothic and thus makes for a curious inclusion (given the existence of so many other more representative works by the author) in this anthology.

 

“The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

By contrast, this story evinces a distinctly American setting: the New England village of Milford. Here the resident parson, Hooper, has taken to wearing the eponymous crape draping, which makes him a figure of dreadful fascination to the community. Is his strange facial covering just an “eccentric whim” or part of some solemn moral lesson to his congregation? For the rest of his earthly life, Hooper (who refuses to lift the veil even in the privacy of his home) is “shrouded in dismal suspicions” and shunned by the superstitious villagers. But he finally turns the tables, so to speak, via his parting barb to those gathered around his deathbed:

“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 showed me 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 live and die. I look around me, and , lo! on every visage a black veil!

With its central image of masking and its thematic concerns with secret sin and ostracism of the perceived-monstrous Other, “The Minister’s Black Veil” is a strong work of American Gothic short fiction, and forms a leading example of Hawthorne’s critical engagement with the legacy of New England Puritanism.

 

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