What evidence hints at or suggests Mr. Hooper's reason for wearing the black veil? What effect does the ambiguity or uncertainty surrounding the veil add to the overall meaning of the story?
Because Hawthorne's theme is secret sin, it is likely that he deliberately chooses to not reveal Mr. Hooper's reason(s) for wearing the black veil. The author has, however, borrowed the idea of this veil from a real-life story.
Students who read "The Minister's Black Veil" in a textbook may see the note that Hawthorne wrote and added to his story about a Mr. Joseph Moody in New England:
Who made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper. In this case, however, the symbol had a different import. In early life he had accidentally killed a beloved friend and from that day until the hour of his death, he hid his face from men with a linen cloth. [Elements of Literature. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 2000.]
The Reverend Moody hid his shame from everyone to humble himself and prevent himself from being judgmental. Reverend Mr. Hooper's donning of the black veil might suggest the idea that people can view others by filtering their perceptions of friends and strangers through their personal knowledge of sin.
On the other hand, Reverend Hooper may desire that his congregation look inward to their own souls. When the minister gives his sermon,
Each member of the congregation. . . felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought.
The ambiguity surrounding the veil causes the congregation to also consider their own sins. When his fiancée questions Mr. Hooper about his reasons for wearing the veil, he suggests two possibilities:
"If it be a sign of mourning," replied Mr. Hooper, "I perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil."
"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?"
By wearing the veil and creating ambiguity, the Reverend Mr. Hooper hopes that his congregation may become more understanding of others. He also hopes that they become aware that their judgments of others may be influenced by their own guilt and knowledge of sin. He also hopes that they will examine their own consciences.
While there is some implication within the story that Mr. Hooper's decision to start wearing the black veil had something to do with the death of a female member of his congregation, we never learn for sure exactly why Mr. Hooper chose to wear it. Ultimately, this uncertainty helps to emphasize one of the story's primary themes: that human beings are inescapably alone and isolated from one another. On the day that Mr. Hooper starts wearing the veil, he presides over a funeral for a young a female member of his congregation. When Mr. Hooper leans over to view the body, he accidentally lets his veil slip and comes face to face with the deceased. Later on, several members of the congregation claim that they saw the spirits of the woman and the pastor walking hand in hand during the funeral procession. Together these two incidents imply some kind of significant connection between Mr. Hooper and the young lady. This possibility also feeds into the suggestion, voiced by many throughout the story, that Mr. Hooper wears the veil as a result of some secret sin or indiscretion. While it is repeatedly suggested that there is some connection between the pastor and the young lady, these suspicions are never confirmed and Mr. Hooper's choice remains a mystery. This mystery makes it hard for the reader to fully understand Mr. Hooper's thoughts and actions or to truly identify with him. This inscrutability emphasizes the loneliness and solitude of the pastor and, by extension, drives home the point that we can never truly know and understand one another.