Alice Walker‘s “The Flowers” is a very short story, less than 600 words, about a ten-year-old African-American girl who makes a life changing discovery while out gathering flowers in the woods.
Summary of “The Flowers”
Myop, a ten-year-old girl, walks around the grounds near her family’s sharecropper cabin. Out in the fresh air she skips from the henhouse to the pigpen to the smokehouse. She carries a short stick which she uses to poke at the chickens and tap the beat of a song on a fence.
She feels good on this warm summer day, and is focused on the experience. Moving away from the cabin, she walks along the fence toward the stream and then to the spring. She heads into the woods which she’s explored lots of times. Today, she takes a new, haphazard path and finds strange blue flowers. At noon, she’s about a mile away from home. She finds herself in a damp, gloomy and silent little cove.
Myop starts heading back for the cabin with the flowers she’s collected. She steps into the eye socket of a skull. She frees her heel and looks. It’s a man’s skeleton with the head next to it. The clothing has rotted away except for some threads. The buckles of his overalls have turned green.
She notices a wild pink rose on the ground and adds it to her bundle. There’s a mound around the rose’s root, the remains of a noose made from a plowline. Overhead, another rotted, nearly invisible piece hangs from an oak branch. Myop puts down her flowers, and the summer is over.
The themes of racism and prejudice start out in the background, but move to the forefront at the story’s end. Myop is African-American, as we’re told she has a “dark brown hand.”
Myop’s family lives in a sharecropper cabin. Sharecropping became common during the Reconstruction era following the American Civil War. While sharecropping is neither racist nor economically exploitative in itself, it was one of the few opportunities available for freed African-American slaves to earn a living. Many sharecroppers became tied to the land as a result. This racially based history of limited opportunity pervades the background and sets the tone for the story.
It’s the story’s powerful ending that brings the theme of racism to the fore. Myop stumbles upon the remains of a man (presumably African-American) who had been lynched decades before. As evidence, we have the position of the skull, the remnants of the rope (plowline) are visible, and the man’s teeth are broken. Myop recognizes this and is able to figure out what happened.
Many lynchings of African-Americans were racially motivated, particularly in the South where this story is set.
Theme: Loss of Innocence
Myop’s name calls to mind the word “myopic”, which means nearsighted or lacking discernment. This emphasizes the smallness of her world and her inexperience—her innocence.
The story’s ending is a coming-of-age moment for Myop as she loses some of the innocence of childhood. Her innocence is established before the climactic moment:
- She’s only ten, so even without any other information we would expect her to have a certain naivete.
- Each day being a “golden surprise that caused excited little tremors” indicates she’s inexperienced.
- We find Myop lost in the moment, which is something kids can often do better than adults, as she taps her stick and enjoys the fresh air.
- She gathers flowers, which could symbolize her innocence: they’re beautiful but short-lived. This seems like something kids would do more than adults.
- She finds a strange new blue flower, indicating her lack of knowledge, even about the area right around her home.
When Myop puts everything together she’s moved to leave her flowers at the site. This is not simply a parallel of what people often do at a grave.
Myop wasn’t going to leave her flowers at first. She picked the rose and added it to her bunch after discovering the remains. It’s only when she understands the significance of the death that she leaves the flowers. Symbolically, she’s leaving her innocence behind.
Irony in “The Flowers”
Here are a few instances of irony in the story:
- “The days had never been as beautiful as these”—this day won’t be beautiful.
- “Each day [is] a golden surprise”—but not this day’s surprise.
- When Myop tries to head “back to the peacefulness of the morning”, she makes her grisly discovery.
How does Walker prepare us for the ending?
Although the ending could feel shocking, as if it comes out of nowhere, the reader is subtly prepped for it.
The first sign that something unusual could happen is that, “Today she made her own path”, rather than taking one of the familiar trails she’s been on with her mother. The mention of snakes also foreshadows the possibility of danger or something sinister.
That Myop finds strange blue flowers also tells us this is a day for new experiences.
Soon after, she finds herself in a strange place that is gloomy, damp and silent. The mood has turned somewhat ominous.
Right after this, Myop starts back home and discovers the skeleton. While it can still surprise a reader, this incident has been reasonably set up.