The Minister’s Black Veil

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Teaching by Example Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Puritanism and Piety Theme Icon
Appearance, Perception, and Interpretation Theme Icon
Sin and Guilt Theme Icon
Teaching by Example Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Minister’s Black Veil, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Teaching by Example Theme Icon

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.

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Teaching by Example ThemeTracker

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Teaching by Example Quotes in The Minister’s Black Veil

Below you will find the important quotes in The Minister’s Black Veil related to the theme of Teaching by Example.
The Minister's Black Veil Quotes

“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].

Related Characters: The physician (speaker), Reverend Hooper
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the physician finally shows signs of understanding the deeper meaning of the black veil. As far as the majority of the town is concerned, Mr. Hooper's veil has exactly one meaning: he's a sinner. But for the physician, the veil has a darker, more general significance. The veil reminds him that all men—i.e., not just Hooper—are afraid to be alone with themselves. In other words, all human beings have secrets to hide, and at times the weight of their sins is too much to bear.

The physician's interpretation of the veil suggests that perhaps Hooper decided to wear a veil in order to remind the townspeople of their own sinful nature: Hooper tries to be an example, externalizing his sin in order to remind his peers of their own sin. If this is Hooper's aim, then he mostly fails. Most of the townspeople (except the physician) miss the point of the veil altogether. Or perhaps they're so frightened of the veil because, deep down, they are reminded of their own sinfulness.


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"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!

Related Characters: Reverend Hooper (speaker), Elizabeth
Related Symbols: The Black Veil
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Mr. Hooper begs Elizabeth to marry him, even after he insists that he has no intention of taking off his black veil. In clear, plain terms, Hooper is laying out Elizabeth's choice for her. She can either abandon him, giving into the pressure of the Puritan community in which they both live (and perhaps to her own sense of fear and uneasiness regarding her fiance's appearance). Or she can spend the rest of her mortal life married to Hooper—after which they'll surely be rewarded for their loyalty and piety with a place in Heaven.

The passage is also provides some of the most convincing evidence that Hooper is sincerely trying to teach a moral lesson by wearing his veil, rather than arrogantly raising himself above his fellow men. In the past, Hooper has behaved calmly and peacefully around his peers. Here, however, Hooper admits the truth: he's afraid of the difficult path that lies ahead of him, and wants a wife to support him while he wears the veil. Of course, the passage could also suggest, more generally, that Hooper is afraid of his own sinful nature (afraid of being alone beneath his veil), and wants to marry Elizabeth in order to cement his place as a righteous, pious man. (This interpretation could support Poe's hypothesis that Hooper was romantically involved with the young woman who died—Hooper sinned with the woman, and now wants to marry Elizabeth to "move on.")