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.