In the small Puritan town of Milford, the townspeople walk to church. As they’re settling into their seats, the sexton points out Milford’s young minister, Reverend Hooper, walking thoughtfully toward the church. Hooper is wearing a black veil that covers his entire face except for his mouth and chin. This sight disturbs and perplexes the townspeople, and some think that Hooper has gone insane, but when he delivers his sermon for the day, they are unusually moved. Afterwards, Hooper goes through his usual practice of greeting his congregation, but no one seems to feel comfortable interacting with him.
In the afternoon, there is a funeral service, and Hooper’s veil is appropriate for the occasion. As he bends over the body, which belonged to a young woman, his veil hangs down, so that the woman could see his face if she were alive — Hooper quickly covers his face again. As Hooper leaves the church, two townspeople comment that it seems as if he is walking with the woman’s ghost by his side. In the night, Hooper performs a wedding for a young couple. He catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror, and is so terrified by his own appearance that he spills the ceremonial wine on the carpet and rushes out of the church.
Everyone talks about Hooper’s veil, but no one asks him why he is wearing it. Some believe that Hooper is insane, but most say that he has committed a horrible crime, and is atoning for it by hiding his face. Eventually, a group goes to see him, but they are too intimidated to inquire about his veil. The only person in Milford who isn’t afraid of Hooper is Elizabeth, his fiancée. Elizabeth asks Hooper to show her his face and explain why he has chosen to cover it; she warns him that the townspeople think he has committed a grave sin. Hooper refuses, and says that all humans have sins. He begs Elizabeth to spend her life with him, adding that he is terrified of being alone, and that when they are reunited in the afterlife, his veil will come off. Elizabeth begins to grow afraid of the veil, and breaks off their engagement. From then on, Hooper is completely isolated from the rest of Milford.
Hooper’s veil makes him an extremely impressive preacher. Before he wore it, his sermons were mild and pleasant; afterwards, the townspeople think that his speeches are darker, more powerful (though the narrator of the story suggests the sermons aren’t much different at all). People claim that the sight of Hooper’s black veil converted them to Christianity, and sinners on their deathbeds ask to see Mr. Hooper. Hooper’s reputation for being an impressive preacher stretches across New England.
Years pass, and Hooper grows old and sick. On his deathbed, he is nursed by Elizabeth, who has continued to love him despite never marrying him. A group of clergymen, including the young Reverend Clark, gather around Hooper and praise him for his moral reputation. They beg him to allow them to remove his veil, so that they may see the face of a good man. Hooper shouts that his veil must never be lifted on earth. Confused, Clark asks Hooper what crime has caused Hooper to hide his face. In response, Hooper asks why Milford has been afraid of him for so long, and says that they should be afraid of each other. He can only be condemned, he continues, when all humans are completely honest and open with each other. With his dying words, Hooper says that he looks around and sees a black veil on every face. Shocked and impressed, the clergymen bury Hooper with his face still covered.