The first chapter in The Scarlet Letter opens with a lengthy description of a rose bush outside the prison door, believed to have “sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson as she entered the prison” – establishing a connection between the fictional Hester Prynne and a real-life woman also punished for defying society. Anne Hutchinson was an Englishwoman who traveled to the North American colonies in the 1630s to practice what she believed was the true form of Christianity and quickly found herself on trial for heresy.
The events of The Scarlet Letter take place a few years after Anne Hutchinson’s trial and banishment, and her presence looms large in the background of the novel. Like Hester, Hutchinson was a strong-willed and unconventional woman who challenged the social norms of her community, but none of the events in her life actually align with the plot Hawthorne describes in his novel.
Anne Hutchinson believed that the Church of England had become corrupt because it preached that a person’s soul could be saved by doing good works instead of by experiencing the grace of God. Shortly after arriving in Boston, Hutchinson began holding post-church meetings at her house where she would deliver her own interpretations of the day’s sermon. She eventually had to open the windows of her house so that the people gathered on the porch could hear her speak. Historians estimate that her meetings drew nearly a third of the population of Boston. As fears about her potential authority and tensions over various theological beliefs increased, Hutchinson was accused of heresy and other crimes. Throughout her trial, she spoke in her own defense, leaving us with one of the era’s few written records of a woman’s speech. Despite her admirable defense of herself and her popular support, she was found guilty of speaking against the ministers and banished from the colony. She tried to find a new community in Rhode Island, a colony founded on the basis of religious freedom by Roger Williams, but was killed in a raid by Native Americans in 1638.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne notes that Hester “might have come down to us in history, hand in hand with Ann Hutchinson, as the foundress of a religious sect,” linking Hester’s independence and bravery with her real-life counterpart. However, despite these comparisons, the experiences of the two women were very different. Hutchinson was accused of intellectual crimes, but even her enemies never made accusations about her personal life. Hester’s rebellion is a private one, marked by actions such as following her heart and having an affair with Dimmesdale, defending her right to maintain custody of Pearl, and eventually planning to leave the community to start over. While Hutchinson manifested her defiance by speaking out, both through her sermons and during her self-defense at her trial, Hester fights for the right to not speak when she chooses to protect the identity of the father of her child. Private acts of rebellion may be less memorable and less documented than public ones, but by writing a novel and reimagining how women in addition to Hutchinson chose to make their mark on Puritan society, Hawthorne enlarges the historical record.