Study Guide

Rappaccini's Daughter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Rappaccini's Daughter Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A young man named Giovanni rents a room in an old edifice belonging to a family whose ancestor was listed among the sufferers in Dante’s Inferno. It looks down on a luxuriant inner garden belonging to a neighbor, Dr. Rappaccini. The garden is brilliant with exotic blooms, the most spectacular, a shrub growing by a ruined fountain. It is covered with rich purple blossoms. Dr. Rappaccini often tends the garden, but he is always protected by heavy gloves and sometimes a face mask. His lovely daughter, Beatrice, takes no such precautions, however, and she is the only one who touches the handsome plant with the purple blooms. She tends it as though it were a beloved sister.

Giovanni has a letter of introduction to a Dr. Pietro Baglioni, a professor of medicine at the university, who once knew his father. Dr. Baglioni warns him to keep away from Rappaccini, a brilliant scientist but one inclined to sacrifice anything and anyone to his scientific experiments. He is an expert in poisons and is known to have developed new varieties of herbs more poisonous than those in nature.

Such information lends substance to Giovanni’s lurid imaginings about the garden and the girl. He had once thrown her a bouquet that had seemed to wilt the moment she picked it up. He also fancied that a butterfly that hovered close to her face had died suddenly in midflight.

These forebodings do not prevent him from entering the garden when his landlady,...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Rappaccini's Daughter Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Giovanni Guasconti, a young man from Naples, comes to Padua to study medicine. He rents a gloomy room in a once noble house. The house was built by a defunct family, one of whose members was a character in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; 3 volumes; The Divine Comedy, 1802), where he was portrayed as suffering in the Inferno. Giovanni’s room looks down on a lush garden, centered on a still gurgling fountain and a shrub full of purple flowers. Lisabetta, the old woman who sets up the room, tells the young man that the garden belongs to the eminent scientist Giacomo Rappaccini.

Rappaccini, aging and scholarly, appears in the garden, intently studying the plants as if probing their essences. Wearing gloves to avoid contact, he does not sniff the flowers, reversing the approach people have brought to gardening since Adam and Eve. Approaching the luxuriant central plant, Rappaccini covers his nose and mouth with a mask, but these precautions prove inadequate. He backs off and, in the faltering voice of someone internally ill, calls his daughter Beatrice. She responds in a rich, sunny voice that strikes Giovanni as purple or crimson. As beautiful as a perfect day or a blossom, splendidly garbed like the best of the flowers—to which she seems a sister—Beatrice helps her father. Her magnificence and healthy energy are held together by a wide belt called a virgin zone, commonly worn by maidens. Beatrice especially loves the central plant, which she says rewards her attention with kisses and perfume.

That night, Giovanni dreams of Beatrice and the flowers. Though obviously different, they seem very much the same in the dream, mysteriously dangerous. The dread night fades. Trapped as he is in Padua, Giovanni decides that the garden will serve to maintain his relationship to nature.

Armed with a letter of introduction, Giovanni pays a visit to his father’s old friend Professor Pietro Baglioni at the medical school. When Baglioni hears the name of Giovanni’s neighbor, he asserts that, though Rappaccini is as knowledgeable as any faculty member (with one possible exception), he is reprehensible: Science is more important to him than his patients, whom he uses experimentally. Rappaccini thinks all medicines fall into the realm of poisons produced by plants and that any cures he realizes are accidental products of his experiments. When Giovanni mentions Beatrice, Baglioni avers that, educated by her father, she is most knowledgeable but not worth their attention. He tells Giovanni to finish drinking his Lacryma, and they part.

Chancing on a flower shop on his way home, Giovanni buys a bouquet. Looking down at Beatrice in the garden, he admires her beauty but is horrified when sap from a flower she plucks kills a lizard and again when Beatrice’s breath kills an insect that flutters too close. Attracted, too, Giovanni throws Beatrice the bouquet. She graciously accepts it, but as she rushes off it appears to wilt. Beatrice, like her flowers, is attractive and dangerous.

Giovanni feels both love and horror. By chance, he meets Baglioni, whom he has been trying to avoid. While they are talking, Rappaccini passes. The scientists exchanges uncomfortable greetings, and, when Rappaccini is gone, Baglioni observes that the expression on Rappaccini’s face revealed that Giovanni is the subject of an experiment. Insulted, Giovanni leaves, but Baglioni, valuing Giovanni as the son of an old...

(The entire section is 1414 words.)

Rappaccini's Daughter Overview

Nathaniel Hawthorne first published “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in the literary magazine The American Notebooks in 1844 and included it in his second collection of short stories, Mosses From an Old Manse, two years later. Reviews of Hawthorne’s early short stories were mixed. While Herman Melville compared this collection to the work of Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe complained that “the strain of allegory completely overwhelms” it. Originally titled “Writings of Aubépine: Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Hawthorne’s story might have been based on Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft, who at one time lived near Hawthorne and whom Oliver Wendell Holmes decried as a “quack” for his practice of homeopathic medicine.

Poe was correct in identifying the allegorical structure of the story, but its meanings continue to intrigue readers and critics because of the dense ambiguity arising from its fantastical plot that explores the relationship between good and evil, anxieties about women’s sexuality, and the relationship between nature and science. Indeed, scholars refer to it as Hawthorne’s most complex story. The handsome Giovanni falls in love with the beautiful Beatrice, the daughter of Dr. Rappaccini, a brilliant but ruthless scientist. In experimenting with nature to grow plants both exotic and poisonous, Rappaccini also experiments with the nature of his daughter, transferring their poison to her and in so doing giving her the power to destroy by her mere breath. Desiring a mate for his daughter to make her world “perfect,” Rappaccini ensures that Giovanni becomes infected with the same unnatural but beautiful poisons that give life to her. When Giovanni discovers and informs Beatrice of her nature, she takes the antidote he provides, but in ridding her of poison it rids her of life as well.