One day, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, Mr. Hooper, a minister in a small village, begins wearing a black veil in front of his eyes. He refuses to remove it despite the shock and horror of his congregation. Most people are afraid to ask Mr. Hooper about the veil, but his beloved, Elizabeth, dares to do just that. Mr. Hooper, however, refuses to explain his new habit, even when Elizabeth says she can no longer be with him.
In fact, the only answers Mr. Hooper gives Elizabeth are as veiled as his face. He says he has taken a vow to wear the veil at all times for the rest of his life and that it is a symbol (although he does not say of what). He remarks that if the veil is a “sign of mourning,” then perhaps he has a dark sorrow for which he is doing penance (although he merely suggests this as a possibility; he does not say it is true). He also says that if the veil is covering a secret sin, then everyone has the same reason to cover their face. Yet he never openly says why he refuses to remove his veil.
As the years go by, Mr. Hooper is both venerated and feared. He is an excellent minister, yet people are terrified of him. Children run in the opposite direction when he approaches, and he remains mostly in solitude throughout his life. However, he never removes his veil.
Even on his deathbed, Mr. Hooper keeps the veil over his face. In his last words, he provides a solid clue for his actions over all these years. “Tremble also at each other,” he commands. People have avoided him, shown him no mercy, and even fled from his presence because of that black veil. He has revealed to them his “inmost heart,” but they cannot see beyond the veil, which he calls “the symbol beneath which I have lived and died.”
The veil, then, appears to be a test and a lesson to others. It shows them how much they judge by appearances alone rather than looking beneath the exterior to the person within. With his very life and a simple black veil, Mr. Hooper has revealed the shallowness of his neighbors, their lack of love, and their inability to see beyond the veil, literally and figuratively.