The Minister's Black Veil Summary
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Overview

“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 Hooper delivers a sermon one day wearing the veil. 
  • At the funeral of a young girl, parishioners suspect that he is wearing it because of some secret sin committed while the girl was still alive.
  • Reverend Hooper refuses to remove the veil for his fiancée, and will not even remove it at death. He tells Reverend Clark, a colleague from a neighboring town, that he sees a black veil on the face of everyone he meets.

Introduction

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 2,481 words.)