One day, Parson Hooper, the reverend of Milford, arrives at mass on the Sabbath with a black veil covering his eyes. The townspeople immediately begin to gossip; some say that he has gone mad, while others believe he is covering a shameful sin. The Minister, however, acknowledges neither his own strange appearance nor the shocked and curious whispering of the townspeople. An energetic preacher, Hooper delivers a sermon that was as powerful as the rest – but, due to his veil, the people felt a certain sadness and mysteriousness in his words. Following the sermon, the townspeople continued to gossip about the mystery of the veil. Mr. Hooper continued to act as always, greeting the children and saluting his neighbors. But, he was met with bewildered looks as the crowd avoided him. As he turned, a sad smile crept from underneath his veil.
The minister appears again at two important ceremonies. First, he attends a funeral, where the people continue to fearfully gossip that the dead woman shuddered under the minister’s gaze. That evening, he attends a wedding, and casts a dark horror over the lively event. Mr. Hooper makes a toast to the couple, but in doing so, catches his own reflection in the glass, a sight so frightful that he spilled the wine and left immediately.
His lover, Elizabeth, attempts to uncover the mystery that none had yet been able to solve. In response to her questions, though, Hooper only maintains that the veil is a symbol that he is bound to wear day and night, and that no mortal shall ever see it withdrawn. Even Elizabeth, he says, cannot see his face. She inquires as to whether the veil is to demonstrate sorrow or sin. He replies that “if I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough, and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?” He asks Elizabeth not to desert him, and tells her that he is lonely behind the veil. She asks him to lift the veil just once, but he refuses. At her departure, Hooper smiles sadly again.
For the rest of his life, Hooper was conscious of the fear his veil instilled in the townspeople. It hurt him when children ran from him, and when rumors surfaced of a terrible crime he was hiding. He as “irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicious; kind and loving, though unloved and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summon to their aid in mortal anguish.”
At Hooper’s deathbed, Reverend Clark prays that Hooper allow the veil to be lifted. But Hooper resists with surprising strength. Still bearing his sad smile, Hooper accuses the rest of the crowd, asking why they tremble at him alone. All the townspeople have avoided him and show him no pity, he says. They are all hypocrites, as they all wear “black veils” and shield their eyes from God when they confide in others. Hopper dies and is buried with his black veil, his eyes forever covered.
Though some may wonder why Hooper chooses to wear the veil, the reason is not a central point of the story. In fact, it is the ambiguity that makes the reaction of the townspeople all the more telling of their inherent sin and hypocritical nature. While speculating as to what horrific crime the minister must have committed, they overlook their own crimes, both large and small. The minister becomes someone who is readily called in times of need, but completely avoided in times of happiness. They shun him, only because of a simple veil – and in doing so, demonstrate how shallow and unappreciative their faith truly is.
There are a number of ways to interpret the relationship between the townspeople and the minister. In one case, as described above, the people fear what they do not understand, and attribute any strange behaviors to madness or a certain evil. At no point in the story do the people attempt to consider the symbolic significance of the veil, rather they gossip about what actions caused Hooper's apparent shame. The townspeople are driven by curiosity and superstition rather than humanity.
The minister already inwardly bears the community’s sin by listening to their confessions. It is possible that the minister chose to make the greatest sacrifice he could, by bearing the sins of the community in a visible way. In doing so, the community should have understood and appreciated his constant support and strength of faith. On the contrary, they gossiped about his sin as if it were greater than their own, and as if in seeing his outward expression of sin, they could overlook their internal crimes. In the end, the minister points out how all the townspeople have treated him poorly, neglecting their own sin and focusing on his. But, it seems that they never truly understood, or repented, their actions, as the story closes with the frightful thought that the minister’s face still lay behind the veil even in death.
Other interpretations believe the veil acted as a mirror, making all the townspeople more aware of their own sins. The more aware they became of their own sinful nature, the more uncomfortable they were, and thus being around the minister and seeing his veil troubled them deeply, even during happy times. Finally, other critics have claimed that the minister had committed a grave offense, such as adultery with the girl whose funeral he attended, and this was the reason that he could not tell Elizabeth what his crime had been.