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 31: “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

May 31, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Hawthorne’s Short Stories

We started this month with one of the American progenitors of the short story form; it seems appropriate that we should end with one, also. Of Hawthorne’s influence on the development of the short fiction genre, National Book Award–winning critic 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 handy one. This does not meant 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 and 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 the inheritor of the form.

Hawthorne’s stories, like Poe’s, were inward and musing, and were very much a matter of tone and lighting and harmony. Unlike Poe, Hawthorne was a symbolic writer with a resolutely spiritual, not to say religious, fervour underpinning his fictions. In its suspicion of science as a replacement for the divine, in its excoriation of human hubris, in its critique of an attempt by a human to usurp the place of God, “The Birthmark” occupies the same corner of the literary landscape as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Hawthorne’s story centres on the character of Aylmer, a man who “had devoted himself … too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion.” Nevertheless, he has “made experience of a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one”: he has fallen in love with Georgiana, whom he subsequently marries. Having sealed the matrimonial bond, however, Aylmer becomes increasingly obsessed by his wife’s one physical imperfection: a small crimson birthmark on her left cheek, which appears to take on the shape of a tiny human hand. Aylmer succumbs to a state of high agitation with regard to this blemish on his wife’s otherwise spotless face:

With the morning twilight Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife’s face and recognized the symbol of imperfection; and when they sat together at the evening hearth his eyes wandered stealthily to her cheek, and beheld, flickering with the blaze of the wood fire, the spectral hand that wrote mortality where he would fain have worshipped. Georgiana soon learned to shudder at his gaze. It needed but a glance with the peculiar expression that his face often wore to change the roses of her cheek into a deathlike paleness, amid which the crimson hand was brought strongly out, like a bas-relief of ruby on the whitest marble.

Despite her reservations, Georgiana agrees to allow her husband to perform experimental treatments on her to remove the birthmark. As Aylmer’s obsession deepens, Georgiana herself begins to find the blemish repulsive and encourages her husband in his quest to discover a solution that will eradicate it forever.

From the outset, Hawthorne insists on a dichotomy between divine creation and human ingenuity; the quest for human perfection, we come to understand, is not only hubristic but a refutation of the divine laws of nature. Aylmer’s drive to recreate his wife in a way that will conform to his own idea of perfect beauty has an unavoidably modern resonance: it is at once a condemnation of a particularly patriarchal impulse demanding that woman adhere to a masculine standard of attractiveness and a prescient critique of our Botox and silicone addicted pursuit of physical perfection at all costs.

If there was any question as to where Hawthorne’s sympathies lie, it should be put to rest by the scene in which Georgiana makes an incursion into Aylmer’s laboratory:

The first thing that struck her eye was the furnace, that hot and feverish worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of soot clustered above it seemed to have been burning for ages. There was a distilling apparatus in full operation. Around the room were resorts, tubes, cylinders, crucibles, and other apparatus of chemical research. An electrical machine stood ready for immediate use. The atmosphere felt oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science.

The “oppressively close” atmosphere “tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science” is bad enough, but the image of the furnace, “with the intense glow of its fire,” bears with it an unmistakably hellish connotation. It is no accident that the next thing that Georgiana’s eye alights on is her husband, “pale as death” and perched over the furnace “as if it depended upon his utmost watchfulness whether the liquid which it was distilling should be the draught of immortal happiness or misery.” The explicit connection between the scientist and the furnace, burning with its devilish fires, advances Hawthorne’s implication that the unchecked progress of science at the expense of a recognition of divine creation can only lead to catastrophe.

In Hawthorne’s story, catastrophe does indeed ensue. Aylmer achieves his goal and discovers a serum that eradicates Georgiana’s birthmark, but in the process it takes her life:

The fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame. As the last crimson tint of the birthmark – that sole token of human imperfection – faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight.

By attempting to improve over nature, Hawthorne suggests, Aylmer destroyed the one thing he truly loved. There is an explicitly religious aspect to this allegory, but absent the religious undertones it nevertheless remains a potent parable about humanity’s vain pursuit of an elusive perfection, and the terrible toll that such pursuit can end up taking.