Although the setting of the story, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was founded on Christian ideals and was meant to be a "city on a hill," a shining light to guide others to God and salvation, Hawthorne's narrator makes the point from the beginning of the first chapter that this "utopia of human virtue and happiness" contains a prison. In other words, Hawthorne is reminding us that there are no real utopias among human civilization. We know that the prison was built almost as soon as the colony was settled, for the narrator writes,
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. . . .
We also learn that the prison is "the black flower of civilized society."
If there is any hope of redemption, the opening chapter suggests it is in nature, not civilization. Civilization is blighted from its start, yet nature cannot be quelled by a prison. We learn that,
. . . on one side of the [prions] portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom. . . .
Civilization, with its law, prisons, and death sentences, may be cruel, but nature offers the prisoner an alternative:
The deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.
The wild rose, which the narrator plucks and offers to the reader,
. . . symbolize[s] some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track. . . .
As the story unfolds, we learn that sweet blossom is Hester, who has enough of nature residing in her to provide a touch of moral purity to her society. From the start, Hawthorne pits civilization (history) against nature.