In The Scarlet Letter, what is the "black flower" of civilized society?

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When the narrator describes the town, he says,

Certain it is that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front [....].  Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-pern, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison.

Thus, he describes the prison's appearance, quite unfavorably, as well as the space of land between the street and the jail.  This grassy area has been taken over by ugly plants that seem to match the unpleasant appearance of the prison.  The narrator suggests that these gross weeds have found something agreeable, something with which they can get along, in rooting themselves in the same soil as this prison.  He calls the prison the "black flower of civilized society," implying that it is our shame, a black mark on us.  Perhaps this is because a truly civilized society would have no need to imprison anyone: maybe crimes wouldn't be committed in the first place, or, if they were, then a civilized society would have more civilized ways of rehabilitating those who break its laws.  The existence of the prison implies that a society is, perhaps, not as civilized as it purports to be, even––and maybe, especially––the Puritans, who felt they were so righteous and yet made early plans for dealing with law-breakers.

poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nathaniel Hawthorne refers to the prison as "the black flower of civilized society" in the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter. This structure is a representation of the punitive nature of human beings. Although the Puritans have sought out a new home in the New World, one of the first actions they take is to erect a building meant to imprison others; this seems to suggest that despite their moral and religious convictions, the Puritans are convinced that someone will eventually sin and, thus, warrant arrest.

Thus, blackness represents that sin--the blemish of society which is necessary for a form of incarceration to exist. It is also significant that Hawthorne chose to refer to the prison as a flower and not a weed; this implies that the prisons were "planted" and wanted rather than just "popping up."

ms-mcgregor eNotes educator| Certified Educator
In Chapter One of "The Scarlet Letter", Hawthorne describes the prison as the "black flower" of civilized society. He ironically points out that the Puritans felt they had a utopian society, yet one of the first things they had to built was a prison to hold those who broke the law.He then compares this "black flower" of society to the rose bush that grew outside the prison door. The rose bush might have sprung up when the "sainted" Anne Huchinson, a believer in freedom of religion, was put in the prison. In any case, the rose bush is offered as a contrast to the "black flower" and used as a symbol of something beautiful that exists in this dark, society.
shadii | Student



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The Scarlet Letter

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