How does Hawthorne characterize Reverend John Wilson?Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Just as he uses true historical figures as characters in his story "Young Goodman Brown," Nathaniel Hawthorne writes into his narrative of "The Scarlet Letter" the "stern divine" John Wilson, a minister who came to America in 1630.  A strong figure of Puritan intolerance he appears in Chapter III in the first scaffold scene. However, Hawthorne describes him in such a way as to suggest his Puritanical ineffectiveness and punitive nature:

withal a man of kind and genial attribute [that] was...a matter of shame than self-congratulation with him....There he stood, with a border of grizzled locks beneath his skull-cap; while his gray eyes, accustomed to the shaded light of his study , were winking, like those of Hester's infant, in the unadulterated sunshine.  He looked like the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes of sermons; and no more right than of those portraits would have to step forth, as he now did and meddle with a question of human guilt, passion, and anguish.

Alluding to the judges of the witchcraft trials, Hawthorne suggests the Puritanical sanctimony in the Reverend Wilson who admits that he overrides the concern of Mr. Dimmesdale that it is a wrongdoing to question her in "such broad daylight, and in the presence of so great a multitude." But, Mr. Wilson, continues, he has explained to Dimmesdale that the wrongdoing is in the "commission of the sin, and not in the showing of it forth."  He, then, bids the Reverend Dimmesdale to step forward and question Hester.  But, despite his pleas, Hester refuses.  Mr. Wilson cries "more harshly than before,"

Woman, transgress not beyond the limits of Heaven's mercy!

The Reverend Mr. Wilson appears again at the mansion of Governor Bellingham and questions Hester about her right to raise the little girl.  When he asks Pearl who "made thee," Pearl astonishes him by replying that she was plucked from the wild rose bush by the prison.  After this response, the Reverend Wilson feels the child should be taken from Hester, believing the mother wishes to "make a mountain bank of this child."

When Roger Chillingworth suggests that they guess the father of the child, the "good Mr. Wilson" suggests that it would be "sinful" to pursue the matter; better to "pray and fast upon it."  Mr. Wilson does not appear again until the second scaffold scene in Chapter XII, and then he does perceive Mr. Dimmesdale through the darkness even though Dimmesdale barely restrains himself from speaking:

The venerable Father Wilson continued to step slowly onward, looking carefully at the muddy parthway before his feet.

And, finally, in the third scaffold scene, "the venerable John Wison,...stepped forward hastily to offer his support" to Reverend Dimmesdale, but the young minister "repelled the old man's arm."

Symbolic of Puritanism and its ineffectiveness in assuaging the soul, the Reverend Mr. Wilson is part of the tableaux that present the punitive character of Puritanism and its ineffectiveness.


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