In “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Hawthorne presents another variation on his favorite theme: that humankind is universally afflicted with the so-called seven deadly sins (pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth). Like all Hawthorne’s short stories, it displays the author’s vivid imagination. It also shows exceptional artistry. Whereas in “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne tears off people’s masks and exposes their real faces, in “The Minister’s Black Veil” he hides the face of a single character and thereby creates the impression that the exposed faces of all the other characters are actually masked.
“The Minister’s Black Veil” lacks the relieving humor of stories such as “Wakefield,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” Consequently, the single effect it produces by its overall mood is unremittingly grim and unpleasant. It is hard to sympathize with any man who would choose to wear a black veil all of his life, even to bed, and it is certainly easy to understand why his horrified fiancé would decide to reject him. The story is interesting mainly because the minister is an obvious precursor of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s most famous work, the novel The Scarlet Letter.
A church sexton is ringing a bell, summoning people of the village to church. He customarily stops ringing when he sees Reverend Mr. Hooper leave his house, but this Sabbath morning the sexton is astonished at the sight of the minister. A thirty-year-old bachelor, Parson Hooper is wearing a black veil made of two folds of crape that conceal all features except his mouth and chin. He can see through the veil, but it darkens everything he sees.
The people murmur about Hooper’s dreadfully changed appearance, questioning if it is truly his face behind the veil or if he has lost his sanity. When Hooper walks to the pulpit, all eyes fixate on the black veil. His sermon topic concerns the secret sins that people hide from their closest associations, even from their own consciousness, forgetting that God is omniscient. The melancholy black veil makes his sermon seem more powerful, much more so than his normally mild, calm preaching style.
Isolation is immediate. No one walks by the reverend’s side; even old Squire Saunders, who generally invites Hooper to his table each Sunday, fails to do so today. The pastor smiles sadly at the thought that two small pieces of material produce such negative reactions. One woman, thinking the veil has transformed him into a ghost, tells her husband she would not be alone with Hooper for any price; she surmises he is probably afraid to be alone.
In the afternoon, a funeral for a young woman initiates the rumor that Hooper is wearing the veil because of his own secret sin, one he had committed with the young woman. A superstitious old woman attending the funeral thinks the corpse shudders when the minister is near. Another woman imagines the minister and the spirit of the young woman walking together, holding hands in the funeral procession and, thus, linked in secret sin. At a wedding this evening, the minister’s veil, which had fit in well with the funeral’s mourning, casts an evil pall over the festivities.
In the ensuing days, the veil’s influence becomes evident. One mischievous child mimics the pastor, covering his face with an old black handkerchief, frightening both himself and his playmates. People who had previously advised the pastor try to persuade him to take off the veil, but in the presence of the intimidating veil, their words cease.
One person, however, is brave enough to speak with the pastor—his fiancé, Elizabeth. She had asked him to remove the veil earlier, but he had answered that he must wear it until eternity, when all people will remove their veils. She now asks him to explain his motives and his mysterious veiled words. She inquires if some deep sorrow or grief causes him to darken his eyes forever. She begs him to take off the black veil, thereby removing the rumors of scandal that are circulating about his ministry.
After periods of pleading, silence, and then crying, Elizabeth experiences for herself the terror of the black veil and begins to tremble. In desperation, Hooper pleads with her not to leave him, telling her that the veil is mortal; in eternity there will be no veil on his face, or separation between their souls. After he shares how lonely he feels behind the black veil, Elizabeth asks him to lift it just once. When he refuses, she leaves. Even in his sorrow, the sad smile again appears as he wonders how a small physical symbol could separate two who love each other.
From this day forward, no one attempts to have Hooper remove the veil. Because most people shrink away and avoid him out of fear, he cannot walk the streets or take his habitual walk to the cemetery. His own antipathy to the veil is so intense that he avoids mirrors or other reflecting surfaces. He becomes completely isolated. Still known as a gentle and loving man, he is not loved in return, only feared. During times of joy, he is not welcome.
At times when sinners are dying, they still cry for Hooper, refusing to yield in death until he comes to them. The veil has a deep influence on tormented souls, who feel the pastor can better sympathize with them. As the years pass, Hooper’s long life, blameless and above reproach, earns for him a new title—Father Hooper. He outlives many of his parishioners, many of whom are now buried in the graveyard.
Father Hooper is dying. Surrounding him are deacons; a zealous young reverend named Clark, who is from a neighboring village; and his nurse, who is none other than Hooper’s own beloved Elizabeth, who has never married.
When the Reverend Clark asks Father Hooper if he is ready to lift the veil that separates time from eternity, he agrees, with faint words. Then the young minister asks to remove the black veil so Hooper’s reputation as a godly man will have no shadow on its memory. The dying minister follows with a sudden surge of energy. Moving his hands from under the blankets and pressing the veil to his face, he says it will never be removed while he is on this earth. In horror, Clark questions what unconfessed crime Hooper is taking with him into eternity to face judgment.
With the death rattle in his throat and the black veil on his face, Reverend Hooper smiles that same faint, sad smile. He then tells the people encircling his bed that this black veil, which has caused terror in men, women, and children, is not present on his face alone. He sees every face wearing a black veil.
Hooper’s corpse is brought to its grave. Many years pass, and grass covers his grave and moss covers the stone. A dreadful thought remains: his face turned to dust under the black veil.