31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 1: “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

May 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Hawthorne’s Short Stories

We begin with one of the fathers of the American short story. Hawthorne was not the first 19th century American to traffic in the short-story form – that was Washington Irving – but he was arguably the most experimental and the most influential. Among his literary admirers were Edgar Allan Poe and, especially, Herman Melville. Hawthorne’s own writing was neither as perverse as Poe’s nor as angry as Melville’s, but his particular brand of spiritually minded fable left an indelible mark on American letters.

In the introduction to Hawthorne’s Short Stories, Newton Arvin writes:

In any other period they might well have taken quite a different literary form – fabulous, visionary, legendary, poetic (in the limited sense), and even dramatic – and if they took the form of “short stories,” it was because, at the moment Hawthorne began to write, that mold was a natural and almost a handy one. This does not mean that it was long-established; on the contrary, it was in its primitive or experimental stage, especially in English, and if it was handy, it was only in the sense in which the history play was so for the young Shakespeare. The Italian novella, the French conte, the realistic-moral English tale – these were ancient types, but they were nothing to the purpose of Hawthorne or his contemporaries: they were not “inward,” they were not meditative or musing, they were not a matter of tone and lighting and harmony. It was only latterly that short pieces of prose fiction had begun to take on qualities such as these, and Hawthorne was as much the creator as he was the inheritor of a form.

“Rappaccini’s Daughter” has been referred to as an allegory about the Garden of Eden, and the Biblical garden is indeed referenced in Hawthorne’s tale. But the garden is a fallen one, and the cause of the fall, in the author’s conception, is the devil of science.

The story concerns a young academic named Giovanni Guasconti, who arrives in Padua to pursue his studies, and becomes enamoured with the figure of a woman he spies from his apartment window. The woman, Beatrice, inhabits a garden grown and tended by her father, the botanist Signor Giacomo Rappaccini. One of Hawthorne’s pervading concerns involved the way the rational – read: scientific – worldview encroached upon the transcendent world of God; he descended from Puritan ancestry (his grandfather was a judge at the Salem witch trials) and never entirely divested himself of this inheritance. Early in the story, Giovanni observes Rappaccini tending his garden and muses in explicitly Biblical terms about the way in which the older man’s scientific disposition places him in the position of a latter-day Adam, whose fall from divine grace tainted mankind with the scourge of original sin:

Nothing could exceed the intentness with which this scientific gardener examined every shrub which grew in his path: it seemed as if he was looking into their innermost nature, making observations in regard to their creative essence, and discovering why one leaf grew in this shape and another in that, and wherefore such and such flowers differed among themselves in hue and perfume. Nevertheless, in spite of this deep intelligence on his part, there was no approach to intimacy between himself and these vegetable existences. On the contrary, he avoided their actual touch or the direct inhaling of their odors with a caution that impressed Giovanni most disagreeably; for the man’s demeanor was that of one walking among the most malignant influences, such as savage beasts, or deadly snakes, or evil spirits, which, should he allow them one moment of license, would wreak upon him some terrible fatality. It was strangely frightful to the young man’s imagination to see this air of insecurity in a person cultivating a garden, that most simple and innocent of human toils, and which had been alike the joy and labor of the unfallen parts of the human race. Was this garden, then, the Eden of the present world? And this man, with such a perception of harm in what his own hands caused to grow, – was he the Adam?

The language here is telling: the scientist appears as one walking among “deadly snakes” – a clear reference to the tempter in the Biblical garden – and the notion of tending to plants and flowers is “alike the joy and labor of the unfallen parts of the human race.” The fact that Giovanni imagines Rappaccini as “the Adam” of this particular garden is also telling: although the garden itself evinces a prelapsarian aspect, there is a definite indication in this description that the scientist is a sinful figure.

The inheritor of Rappaccini’s sin – the sin, as we come to understand, of pride in his intellectual rigour – is his daughter: a distaff inversion of the Biblical prophecy about the sins of the father. Rappaccini believes “that all medicinal virtues are comprised within those substances which we term vegetable poisons,” to which end he has cultivated a garden replete with plants of such malignancy that merely coming into physical contact with them will result in death. Rappaccini’s daughter, with whom Giovanni strikes up a friendship that cedes inevitably into romantic attachment, is immune to the malevolent effects of her father’s flora, but her breath and touch are toxic. (Pop culture enthusiasts may recognize echoes of Rappaccini’s daughter in the character of DC Comics’ Batman villain Poison Ivy.)

Contact with Beatrice – described by one character in the story as “poisonous as she is beautiful” – infects Giovanni: his breath becomes similarly toxic, and he rails against the “accursed” woman who has brought him to such a fate. This is Hawthorne in full Puritan mode: the temptations of lust and the blatant voyeurism in which Giovanni engages while spying on Beatrice from his window seal his earthly fate; although Rappaccini greets Giovanni’s affliction with delight (“My daughter … thou art no longer lonely in the world”), the affair must perforce remain unconsummated and Beatrice must die. Whether she dies as a result of tempting her young swain – in the manner of Eve in the Biblical garden – or whether she is more of a sacrificial lamb, perishing for the sin of her father and rescuing her beloved from a similar fate, is a matter of individual interpretation.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 1: “William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe

May 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Selected Tales

Poe did not invent the short story, but he arguably perfected it. Although he thought of himself primarily as a poet, it is for his tales of terror and the macabre that he will be forever remembered. Never before in American letters had a writer so thoroughly and obsessively plumbed the depths of the subconscious to reveal the creeping terrors that lurk under the liminal surface of everyday life. While Poe anticipated both H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, he also prefigured the theories of one particularly influential thinker: Poe wrestled with the notion of an unconstrained id years before Freud ever put pen to paper.

“William Wilson,” first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in October 1839 (47 years before Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), is an examination of the doppelgänger motif that has been recapitulated in American fiction by writers as diverse as Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood) and Stephen King (The Dark Half). But unlike O’Connor’s novel, in which Solace Layfield represents a comic replication of protagonist Hazel Motes, and King’s, in which Thad Beaumont’s pseudonym comes to life as a malevolent killing machine, the shadowy figure who trails the eponymous protagonist of Poe’s story is a symbolic manifestation of that character’s conscience. This is apparent before the story even opens; the epigraph from Chamberlayne refers to conscience as “That spectre in my path.”

Wilson, a self-confessed “object for the scorn – for the horror – for the detestation of [his] race,” is bedevilled by a whispery figure bearing his own countenance and sharing both his name and his birthday – January 19, 1813. Although at school Wilson and his reflection are “the most inseparable of companions,” Wilson is nevertheless troubled by the resemblance between the two, and plagued by an ineffable feeling of unease whenever his double is around. We are told that Wilson’s “feeling of vexation … grew stronger with every circumstance tending to show resemblance, moral or physical, between” the two of them. A card cheat and general ne’er-do-well, Wilson is tracked from Eton to Oxford, then to Paris, Rome, Naples, and Egypt. He flees, but he flees in vain: “My evil destiny pursued me as if in exultation, and proved, indeed, that the exercise of its mysterious dominion had only begun.” Wilson’s identification of his doppelgänger as his “evil destiny” is ironic, of course, since Wilson himself is the venal cheat and liar; it is his double who unmasks his duplicity at Oxford after he fleeces the guileless Lord Glendinning in a rigged card game, resulting in “a hurried journey from Oxford to the continent, in a perfect agony of horror and shame.”

Indeed, the other William Wilson is unflinchingly moral, mocking the narrator’s ego and bringing to light the narrator’s cruelties and misdeeds. If we remained in any doubt about the relationship between the two figures, Poe makes it explicit at the story’s close, when Wilson stabs his alter ego, shouting “scoundrel! impostor!” Having dealt what he expects is the killing blow against his antagonist, he eyes catch sight of a “large mirror” and sees his “own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood.” The story’s final words – spoken by Wilson, or his doppelgänger, or some combination of the two – give the game away: “In me didst thou exist – and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.” Wilson’s final act, then, is not an act of murder, but of suicide, for the two figures are ultimately inseparable: they are indeed the same person. The cry of “impostor!” is ultimately revealed as a wishful fantasy on the part of a man “addicted to the wildest caprices” and distinguished by “evil propensities.”

“William Wilson” is an examination of ontology and identity, but it questions the notion of self-knowledge, suggesting that complete understanding is illusory, or at least evades grasp until it is too late. Significantly, the narrator’s name is not William Wilson; this is a pseudonym that he adopts at the beginning of his narrative, which finds him near death as a result of his self-inflicted wound. The moniker in which he drapes himself is noteworthy: this figure, who “grew self-willed” and “was left to the guidance of [his] own will,” embodies in his chosen name the very characteristic he attributes to himself. He becomes “Will’s Son,” which is clearly ironic, given that this man of will is unable to outrun the moral conscience that dogs him throughout the story.

The themes that Poe was exploring continue to inhabit the imaginations of writers to this day, and as Philip van Doren Stern points out in his introduction to The Portable Poe, the 19th century Bostonian was among the most modern of early American writers:

He is the most often read of all his contemporaries, but this is no accident, for this neurotic and unhappy artist is strangely modern, oddly in keeping with our own neurotic and unhappy age. He knew what the death wish was long before Freud defined it. He was in love with violence half a century before Hemingway was born; he knew how to create suspense before the psycho-thriller was thought of; he used the theme of the double self before the term “split personality” was invented. And, most important of all, he was endlessly concerned with inner conflict – the major theme of present-day literature.

“William Wilson” is about inner conflict made manifest. In its awareness that a divided psyche cannot exist perpetually without one side destroying the other, it prefigures another iconic American anti-hero, the owner of a Gothic house overlooking a motel with “12 cabins, 12 vacancies.” William Wilson, like many of Poe’s tormented protagonists, is haunted to the grave by his divided – and divisive – self.