In a footnote, Hawthorne explains that Mr. Joseph Moody, who lived in Maine, also wore a veil, though unlike Reverend Hooper, the protagonist of Hawthorne’s story, he did as atonement for accidentally killing one of his friends.
It’s strange that Hawthorne sets the scene for his unsettling and macabre story by commenting, in this footnote at the beginning of the story, who his protagonist is not like. The information that Hooper wore a veil for a different reason than having killed a friend is reassuring, but also sinister — is Hooper different from Moody because he didn’t commit a sin, or because he committed a different sin? This will be one of the key questions of the story.
On a bright Sunday in the town of Milford, everyone is walking to church as usual: happy children, flirtatious young men and women and married couples. As the townspeople take their seats, the town sexton notices the Reverend Mr. Hooper walking to church, and cries out, surprised, that he has something on his face.
Milford is a small, close-knit community dominated by religion. Its residents’ lives center around routines, of which church attendance is one of the most important, but their cheerfulness contrasts markedly with the Puritans’ notorious somberness. Note also how any change in the town’s normal routine is noticed immediately.
The townspeople turn and look at Hooper as he approaches the church. Many cannot recognize him, but the sexton insists that it is Hooper. Another parson was meant to preach that Sunday, but he had to attend to a funeral in his own town.
The townspeople are constantly being watched by one another, consistent with the importance they place on behavior as a signifier of one’s worthiness for heaven. Within seconds of the sexton’s noticing Hooper’s changed appearance, everyone is looking at him. It’s not clear what to do with the information that another parson was meant to be in Milford, but there’s a strong temptation to treat it as a “clue,” as if there’s a specific explanation for why Hooper looks different.
Hooper is a young, unmarried preacher, though he dresses so neatly that it looks as if he has a wife to help him. Yet now he is wearing a veil that hides his entire face, except for his mouth and chin. While the townspeople cannot see Hooper’s face, Hooper can see the townspeople through the material of the veil, though they must look darker to him. He walks among the townspeople and nods at them kindly, but they are too shocked to respond.
The townspeople mutter their disapproval of Hooper’s black veil. The sexton says he doesn’t feel as if Hooper’s face is really behind the veil, and others wonder if Hooper has gone mad. Hooper delivers his sermon, wearing his veil the entire time, almost as if he is trying to hide from God. Several women are so shocked and uncomfortable that they leave.
Hooper is a good preacher, though ordinarily his sermons are mild, not passionate. Today, his sermon, about how humans hide their sins from one another, forgetting that God can see everything, seems unusually dark and powerful. The congregation senses that Hooper knows all of their sins. Even though his voice and gestures are the same, he seems like a stranger; the townspeople cannot tell if it’s because his sermon is darker than usual, or because his appearance is more frightening.
Appearances are so important in Milford that Hooper seems to have changed completely. Even though his appearance distracts his congregation, it gives him some advantages as a preacher. His sermon about sin is unusually impressive, at least partly because his intimidating presence makes the townspeople feel guilty. Hawthorne leaves it unclear how much of the difference is in Hooper’s sermon and how much is in the townspeople’s own minds, impacted by their own fear of the black veil.
At the end of the sermon, Hooper walks among his congregation. Unusually, no one walks alongside him, and Squire Saunders, who often invites him to dinner, “forgets” to extend an invitation. The townspeople leave the church, eager to discuss Hooper’s veil. Some “profane the Sabbath day” by laughing at it; some maintain that Hooper has weak eyes and needs to restore his sight. The town physician says that Hooper may be losing his mind, and adds that he looks ghostly. His wife says that she would never be alone with him, and wonders why he isn’t afraid to be alone with himself. The physician replies that men sometimes are.
Despite the apparent success of his sermon, Hooper’s veil isolates him from the townspeople who were previously friendly with him. Moreover, the veil continues to distract the congregation from religion and morality. Despite dismissing Hooper’s behavior as insane, the physician shows some signs of sympathizing with it, noting that all humans are afraid of themselves and, implicitly, that all humans are sinners. The physicians insight also suggests a further insight, which is that the Hooper may wear the veil to suggest exactly what the physician is noting, that all people are sinners, and that one of the reasons people are afraid of the veil is that they don’t want to face this meaning of the veil.
Hooper gives the afternoon service, which includes a funeral service for a young woman. Hooper’s black veil seems appropriate for the occasion. When he bends over the woman’s coffin, his veil hangs down, so that if the woman were alive she would be able to see his face, but he quickly covers himself again. A superstitious old woman notes that the woman’s corpse seems to shudder slightly when Hooper looks at it.
Edgar Allan Poe thought that the young woman was Hooper’s love, and her death was the true reason why he wore a veil. While this interpretation is plausible (that Hooper begins wearing the veil on the same day that she’s buried suggests that the two events could be linked), the fact that we feel the need to “explain” Hooper’s behavior suggests that, like the townspeople, we’re more comfortable with believing that Hooper has sinned than we are with thinking that the veil might be a symbol or indication that everyone has, that we have. In any event, Hooper demonstrates his commitment to hiding his face, even shielding it from someone who can’t possibly look back.
At the funeral, Hooper delivers a moving sermon in which he expresses his certainty that the young woman is in Heaven, and his hope that everyone in the congregation is living a moral life so that they, too, will one day go there. As Hooper walks away from the church, two townspeople agree that he seems to be walking next to the woman’s spirit.
Hawthorne again suggests that Hooper’s veiled appearance makes him a better preacher. Hooper’s sermon also explains the “stakes” of piety — entrance into Heaven — and suggests a reason why he may be wearing the veil. The two townspeople’s vision could, as Edgar Allan Poe believed, imply that Hooper was romantically involved with the young woman, but it also symbolizes how quickly the town associates one of their own with death and the supernatural, simply because of what he’s wearing.
The same evening as the funeral service, a young, popular, beautiful couple is to be married. The town waits eagerly for the ceremony, and hopes also that Hooper, who is known to enjoy weddings, will stop being gloomy. But when Hooper arrives to marry the couple, he is still wearing the veil, casting a mood of seriousness and foreboding over the ceremony.
The town still hopes that in a joyful moment that joins two people of the town together that Hooper will himself be joyful, remove his veil, and rejoin with the town. When he keeps it on, it suggests that he is sacrificing his own pleasure for the sake of the veil, even if it’s not clear why.
The wedding is as somber as a famous wedding mentioned by the narrator, in which the groom was about to die. The bride, intimidated by Hooper, looks as pale as the corpse that was buried earlier in the day. As Hooper goes through the marriage services, he catches a glimpse of his own appearance in a mirror, and is so frightened by what he sees that he spills ceremonial wine on the carpet, and runs out of the church into the night—as the narrator puts it, the Earth is also wearing a “black veil.”
The second wedding to which Hawthorne alludes is actually from another story he wrote, “The Wedding Knell.” Hooper’s anxiety with his own appearance makes it less clear why he has chosen to wear the veil, though perhaps it signals the deep meaning of the veil for him, or because in seeing himself in the veil he can imagine the years of loneliness ahead of him. The fact that Earth also wears a black veil suggests that Hooper’s choice is more natural, or more universal, than the townspeople believe.
The next day, everyone in Milford talks about Hooper’s veil: children, friends, gossips, etc. No one dares to ask Hooper why he is wearing it, even though it’s well know that Hooper is usually open to advice and questioning. Eventually, the town agrees to send a group of people to inquire about the veil. Yet as the group visits and sits with Hooper, they notice that he is smiling sadly, and feel so uneasy that they do not ask him about the veil.
The townspeople are eager to talk about Hooper, but highly reluctant to talk to him, suggesting that sinful gossip is more entertaining to them than meaningful conversation and personal engagement. Hooper’s sad smile suggests that while he dislikes the distance that is growing between him and his congregation, he knows it’s inevitable.
Hooper’s fiancée, Elizabeth, is the only person in Milford who isn’t afraid of Hooper’s veil. She goes to speak with him, and thinks that there is nothing terrifying about his appearance. When Elizabeth asks him to remove the veil and explain why he has been wearing it, Hooper replies that he has enough to be sorry about to merit a black veil. Elizabeth advises Hooper that the town will think that Hooper has committed a “secret sin,” and encourages him to remove it for the sake of his job. Hooper smiles sadly, and says that all humans have secret sins.
Even if Milford is full of gossips, there are also loyal, honest people, like Elizabeth. But even Elizabeth is more concerned with appearances and the effects of gossip than the abstract belief that everyone has sins. Hooper’s explanation for his wearing the veil is at once noble and arrogant: he is seemingly willing to risk his position as a reverend because of his conviction, but he also seems to be setting himself up as a Christ-like symbol of others’ sins — that smile could suggest pride.
As Elizabeth attempts to reason with Hooper, she begins to feel afraid of his veil for the first time. Hooper begs her not to leave him, and asks her to try to understand him, insisting that he will only wear his veil on earth, that in the hereafter they will be united without the veil between them. He adds that he is afraid to be alone. Elizabeth asks him to lift his veil so that she can look at him, but when he refuses, she breaks off the engagement and leaves him forever. Hooper is greatly saddened, but even as he grieves, he smiles sadly, thinking that it was only a veil that separated him from Elizabeth.
Elizabeth begins to fear Hooper’s veil, perhaps because she is afraid of what it symbolizes — the sin in all human beings. Hooper’s plea for Elizabeth to stay shows the extent of his sacrifice, and give his decision to wear the veil great poignancy. He knows the veil is going to sentence him to a life of loneliness. Hooper also reveals another reason why he wears the veil: he is willing to endure loneliness in his earthly life because he believes in the rewards of Heaven. His smile at Elizabeth’s departure may signal his optimism about the state of his own soul, or it may be a kind of recognition that while to Elizabeth it seemed like the black veil stood between the two of them he knows that this is but an illusion and that, in fact, there is a deeper more fundamental separation that exists between all mortals, even those in love. In this second reading, it becomes almost funny, or even comforting that someone could mistake the black veil as the issue when in fact the real issue is so much more profound and impossible to escape.
After Elizabeth leaves Hooper, no one tries to remove or understand his veil. Some say that Hooper is mad or eccentric, while most people are simply afraid of him. Hooper is pained that the townspeople avoid him, and gives up his customary walks to the graveyard because he is conscious that he frightens others. Hooper comes to hate his own veil, so much so that he avoids looking in the mirror. Rumors say that Hooper wears the veil because he is guilty of a great crime, and even that the wind avoids him so as not to blow the veil off his face. Through the years, Hooper always smiles sadly.
Hooper endures great suffering for the sake of his veil Like Christ, his pain illustrates the cruelty of other people. The townspeople continue to judge Hooper by his appearance, insist that he must be guilty of a crime, and even invent superstitions about him, as if he’s a ghostly figure. Hooper continues to believe in the necessity of his choice, perhaps because of his belief that he will be rewarded for his suffering in Heaven or the need for him to communicate his message to the community.
Although it isolates Hooper from Milford, the veil makes him an excellent reverend. Because the townspeople are afraid of Hooper, they focus on religion. Converts to Christianity say that before they discovered faith, they were behind Hooper’s veil, and sinners request Hooper’s presence on their deathbeds. One year, a new governor is elected, and Hooper is asked to deliver a sermon. He makes such an impression that the government’s laws that year are gloomy and severe. Hooper goes through life behaving with irreproachable morals, but even so he is always shrouded in a reputation of having committed some sin. He is always kind and loving, but always vaguely feared. He becomes famous throughout New England, and earns the respectful title of Father Hooper.
Hawthorne paints an insightful and contradictory picture of early American Puritanism. Hooper becomes a successful Puritan priest in part because Puritanism is based on the fear of sin and damnation. Thus, Hooper’s frightening appearance is a useful teaching tool, showing the people of Milford what awaits them if they sin. By showing Hooper’s influence on the New England government’s legislation, he suggests the lasting influence that the Puritans had on the United States. At the same time, Hawthorne questions and critiques Puritanism: for a community to be so easily swayed by an article of clothing is proof of its overreliance on routines and appearances.
Hooper grows old and close to death; the physician says that he can do nothing to save him. Although he has no family, many clergymen come to visit him on his deathbed, including the young Reverend Clark. Elizabeth, who has continued to love Hooper even after leaving him, now takes care of him. Hooper’s mind is confused, but he continues to insist that his veil not be removed. Elizabeth faithfully follows his orders.
The story is coming “full circle” — the people who knew Hooper when he was a young priest, such as Elizabeth and the physician, have returned to his side, and there’s even a young priest whose presence symbolizes the everlasting nature of Christianity and its doctrines, and the passing down of knowledge and experience within the church. While most of the people of Milford ostracize Hooper, some, such as Elizabeth, continue to love him. Elizabeth does not understand why Hooper wears the veil, but her feelings for him reach beyond superficial appearances.
Reverend Clark approaches Hooper on his deathbed and requests that he allow his veil to be lifted so that the other clergymen may see the face of a pious man. Hooper insists that the veil never be lifted on earth. Clark asks Hooper what crime he committed that he wore the veil for so long. In reply, Hooper struggles to sit upright in his deathbed, smiles sadly, and asks why the townspeople have avoided him simply because he has worn a veil. Why have they trembled to see him, but not to see each other? With his dying words, he cries that he can only be considered a monster when friends reveal their “inmost hearts” to their friends, when lovers do the same to their beloveds, and when people don’t try in vain to hide their sins from God. He looks around, he says, and sees a black veil on everyone’s face! As the people around him lean back, away from each other, in fright at these words, Hooper dies with a faint smile once again on his lips. Hooper is buried and grass grows over his grave, but the thought remains awful that his face, surely dust, is still covered by the black veil.
For the first time since Elizabeth leaves him, Hooper is asked why he wears the veil, except this time, the question is even more pointed — “How did you sin?” Hooper gives a similar answer to the one he gave Elizabeth, except that he phrases it much more pointedly, criticizing the superficiality and hypocrisy of the townspeople who have made his life miserable for years because they’d rather judge him than judge themselves. It could be argued that Hooper doesn’t really answer Clark’s question at all, but simply says that it’s the wrong question; in other words, he doesn’t say if there’s a specific sin that caused him to put on the veil one day — instead, he says that people should focus on their own sins. While this isn’t tremendously satisfying if one thinks of “The Minister’s Black Veil” as a mystery without a solution, perhaps Hawthorne wants the readers, like the townspeople of Milford, to follow Hooper’s lesson and appreciate the story for the “parable” it is.