In Puritan times, as Hawthorne describes it, the church was a building called a meeting house and the Sabbath a cheerful time because of giving praise to God and because of visiting with members of the community later on. Thus, in Hawthorne's story, the atmosphere is a pleasant and even happy one, especially for the young men and women, as well as the children who look forward to seeing each other and conversing or playing afterwards.
Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents or mimicked a graver gait....Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on weekdays....
However, when the Reverend Hooper heads toward the meetinghouse, the congregation is startled and in great puzzlement. After their initial amazement, the sexton declares that he cannot believe that it is Mr. Hooper who is really behind the piece of black crepe, and an older woman mutters:
"I don't like it.... He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face."
Goodman Gray goes so far as to exclaim, "Our parson has gone mad!" And, rather than the usual quiet calm atmosphere of the congregation when the minister mounts the pulpit, there is an atmosphere of agitation and the sound of rustling gowns and shuffling feet. Then, as the minister speaks to the members of his church, as the veil shakes with his breath, the members of congregation wonder if he attempts to hide from the Fearful and Supreme Being he invokes.
Not a fire and brimstone preacher, Mr. Hooper uses "mild, persuasive methods." In his sermon of this Sunday, he uses the usual methods, but something makes this sermon seem "tinged...more darkly than usual" because the veil gives emphasis to his topic of secret sin. For, somehow the members of the congregation feel as though the minister has somehow discovered their "hoarded iniquity of deed or thoughts" and they become more and more uncomfortable. So, after the service, they hurry out in a sort of confusion; some shake their heads in wonder, while others become vociferous and mocking.
Uncomfortable with Mr. Hooper's appearance, no one invites him to dinner, and they all return home. At a funeral a rumor starts that Mr. Hooper hides his own secret sin. In the weeks that follow, he is not asked to officiate at weddings, nor is he invited because the one he attended wearing his veil became invoked in Mr. Hooper himself when he caught his image in a mirror.
His frame shuddered--his lips grew white--he split the untasted wine upon the carpet--and rushed forth into the darkness.
After these occurrences, a deputation of the church is sent to speak with the minister; however, they find themselves threatened by the veil's presence and return "abashed to their constituents." So, finally, Mr. Hooper's fiancee goes to the minister, imploring him to lift the veil and allow her to see his face. Mr. Hooper refuses, so she leaves him and cancels their engagement, leaving the minister completely alone since he has become alienated from everyone else. Only when he is dying do sinners cry for him, and does Mr. Hooper have contact with others. These tormented souls find that he alone can truly sympathize with them.
At last, the poor minister gives up his spirit. As he lies dying, another minister is called to attend him. But when the Reverend Mr. Clark attempts to lift the veil, Mr. Hooper stays his hand.
"Why do you tremble at me alone?....Tremble also at each other!.... Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil?....I look around me and lo! on every visage a Black Veil!"
The atmosphere after his entrance accords with Mr. Hooper's symbolic gesture that has reminded the others that they, too, have their own black veils.