There’s a long-standing tradition in Christianity of “teaching by example”: passing on moral lessons to others by making oneself an illustration. (One famous Christian who taught by example was Saint Augustine, who used his own life story, recorded in the Confessions, to show that Christian salvation is available to all human beings, no matter how sinful they are.) One of the key questions in “The Minister’s Black Veil” is whether or not the “teaching methods” used by Hooper, a Christian minister, are successful.
At the beginning of the story, Hooper is a young, inexperienced preacher who pleases his congregation with “mild, persuasive influences” but doesn’t impassion them to be good. When he begins to wear the veil, he gives the same sermons and delivers them in the same tone of voice, but because of his veil, his sermon is unusually sobering and effective for the congregation. As he grows older, Hooper’s sermons grow increasingly “severe and gloomy” (or seem to in the minds of his congregation), and as a result, the townspeople concentrate on Christian values and the afterlife. People who convert to Christianity explicitly state that it was the sight of Hooper’s black veil that made them change their ways. On his deathbed, speaking to the Reverend Clark, Hooper implies that he wore the veil in the first place to teach others a moral lesson: everyone is sinful (“on every visage a Black Veil”).
Yet, it’s unclear whether the townspeople ever understand Hooper’s lesson. While it’s certainly true that they take his sermons more seriously, and even convert to Christianity because of the veil, it would seem that they don’t recognize the full extent of their own sinfulness. Indeed, Hooper has to explain himself on his deathbed because none of the townspeople who have lived with him for decades can understand why he has worn the veil. Hooper has taught the townspeople a lesson, but it’s not clear exactly what lesson he’s taught; meanwhile, the townspeople seem not to realize they’ve been taught anything. So Hawthorne questions Hooper’s approach to teaching by example. Since people misinterpret moral lessons, it may be the case that morality can’t really be “taught” at all.
Teaching by Example ThemeTracker
Teaching by Example Quotes in The Minister’s Black Veil
“Truly do I,” replied the lady; “and I would not be alone with [Hooper] for the world. I wonder he is not afraid to be alone with himself!”
Men are sometimes so,” said her husband [the physician].
"Have patience with me, Elizabeth!" cried he, passionately. "Do not desert me though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls. It is but a mortal veil; it is not for eternity. Oh, you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened to be alone behind my black veil!