close-up portrait of a figure dressed in black wearing a black veil

The Minister's Black Veil

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Minister's Black Veil Summary

The Minister’s Black Veil” is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which the Puritan reverend of a small New England town begins wearing a black veil. 

  • Reverend Mr. Hooper arrives at church one Sunday wearing a black veil. His parishioners react with fear and confusion, not understanding its significance.
  • Reverend Hooper refuses to remove the veil for his fiancée and, after a long and distinguished life, will not even remove it at death. He tells those assembled at his deathbed that he sees a black veil on the face of everyone he meets.

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One Sunday morning in Milford, the village’s sexton rings the meeting-house bell, summoning the villagers to church. When the parishioners have arrived, the sexton look expectantly towards the home of Reverend Mr. Hooper. When he emerges, the sexton ceases ringing the bell and cries out, asking what Mr. Hooper is wearing on his face. As Mr. Hooper approaches the meeting-house, the parishioners collectively ponder his strange appearance. One man questions whether it is really the reverend, and the sexton affirms that it must be.

Mr. Hooper is crisply dressed in his clerical attire, but the cause of the commotion is a black veil he has placed over his face: two folds of crape fabric hanging down to just above his mouth. Mr. Hooper proceeds into the meeting-house, greeting his parishioners as he goes, but they do not reply in turn, and some express their disbelief or distaste. As Mr. Hooper moves down the aisle of the church, the congregants in their pews all turn to stare at him, creating a bustling atmosphere at odds with the usual solemnity of the occasion. He ascends to the pulpit and begins the service, but as he reads the psalms and scriptures, he does not remove his veil. The parishioners are scared, and several leave the building.

Mr. Hooper’s sermon on this occasion conforms to his usual mild, measured style of preaching, but it differs in its dark power. He discusses the secrets all people conceal from their loved ones and even themselves. The congregation tremble, feeling that Mr. Hooper has seen into their souls and detected their worst thoughts and actions. They wish the veil might fall from his face, proving that this preacher is a stranger rather than the reverend they know.

After the service, the congregation leave the church with all manner of reactions to the veil. Some whisper together; others walk home alone; others chat loudly and laughingly; others shake their heads knowingly; and others guess that the reverend simply strained his eyes by lamplight. When Mr. Hooper emerges to greet his parishioners with his usual warmth, they react with bewilderment, keeping their distance. He returns to his home, an enigmatic smile upon his mouth. One parishioner and her husband discuss Mr. Hooper, noting that this simple veil has given him an overwhelmingly ghostly and forbidding appearance.

At the afternoon church service, Mr. Hooper oversees the funeral of a young woman. As he leans over her opened casket, his face becomes temporarily revealed from below, theoretically allowing the deceased woman to see it. At this precise moment, one old woman observes the corpse trembling slightly. Mr. Hooper then delivers a funeral prayer; his heavenly meditations give his somber remarks an almost musical beauty. He expresses his hope that all humans will be prepared for the hour of their deaths, the moment that will “snatch the veil from their faces.” During the procession after the funeral, two parishioners remark that they had a brief premonition that Mr. Hooper, positioned at the rear, was walking hand in hand with the deceased young woman.

That evening, Mr. Hooper attends a wedding between two villagers. Although his arrival is anticipated eagerly, his presence immediately brings an atmosphere of utter gloom, causing the bride to turn pale. After the ceremony, Mr. Hooper hoists a glass of wine to deliver a pleasant toast, but he catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror and reacts to the sight of his own veiled face with the same horror as his parishioners. He drops his glass and flees into the night.

The following day, the town is abuzz about Mr. Hooper, who is the subject of tavern talk, rumors, and the playful babble of schoolchildren. At first, villagers feel unable to confront Mr. Hooper, despite his usually being receptive to the judgments of others. Finally, a group of parishioners visits Mr. Hooper to address the mystery of the veil. He greets them warmly and waits silently for them to begin, but they cannot speak, feeling that the veil is a barrier, a “symbol of a fearful secret between him and them.” They leave in failure.

There is only one person in Milford who can speak to Mr. Hooper about the veil: his fiancée, Elizabeth. Visiting him one day, she tells him that the veil has no effect on her—that it is simply a piece of fabric—and asks him to remove it and explain himself. He smiles his enigmatic smile and cryptically responds that there will come a time when everyone must remove their veil. When she persists, he explains that the veil is a symbol that he must wear for the rest of his life, one which represents the sorrows or sins that any mortal might bear. Elizabeth counters that people will suspect him of a specific and grievous sin, one which could lead to scandal. When he remains steadfast, Elizabeth begins to cry, and suddenly the full terror of the veil impresses itself on her, and Mr. Hooper asks her whether she finally feels its effect. She rushes from the room, and he begs her not to desert him in his terror. When she demands again that he remove the veil, he refuses, and she leaves.

Mr. Hooper receives no more questions about the matter, though the villagers still react to him with bewilderment, dismissal, avoidance, or even hostility. Noting that Mr. Hooper is afraid to look at his own face, the villagers spread rumors that he is haunted by a sinful secret, though the “ambiguity of sin or sorrow” remains. One effect of the veil is that it makes him a more powerful preacher, and many feel a sense of kinship with his darkened state. Dying sinners and strangers seek him out, and he is even called to deliver the election sermon for the governor.

After a long and dignified life, Mr. Hooper prepares to die. Members of his parish gather around his deathbed, and Reverend Mr. Clark arrives from Westbury to pray for him. Also present is Elizabeth, now old, who has sustained her affection for Mr. Hooper over the years. On his deathbed, Mr. Hooper still wears the black veil assiduously, even as he stirs and struggles.

With Mr. Hooper’s strength waning, Mr. Clark asks him whether he will  lift “the veil that shuts in time from eternity,” and Mr. Hooper affirms that he waits patiently for this metaphorical veil to be lifted when he dies. Mr. Clark then asks if he might remove the black veil on his face so that it will not darken the glory of his life as it comes to a close. With shocking vigor, Mr. Hooper clasps the veil to his face and cries, “Never!” Mr. Clark asks him what crime he is bringing with him to his judgment. Mr. Hooper rises to a sitting position and addresses the assembled parishioners, telling them that the veil symbolizes an awful mystery in which everyone is complicit. Just as each person withholds the secrets within their heart, Mr. Hooper sees a black veil on each face he looks upon. He finally dies, his enigmatic smile on his lips. He is buried in his black veil, under which his face has turned to dust after many years.

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