“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” set in Italy, significantly combines the biblical Garden of Eden with Dante’s medieval conception of Hell. Rappaccini’s garden is an inverse of Eden, a heavenly hell. God’s garden is positive, centered by a tree of life. Adam and Eve are expelled because they undertake to know good and evil. A plant of death centers Rappaccini’s garden, the product of his quest to know more than humans should. The snake in this garden is the will to probe forbidden depths, including the human heart and the material world.
Aspiring to be the god of his garden, Rappaccini reverses God’s creation. God created salubrious plants. Rappaccini creates poisonous ones. God created a male first, Adam, and—when the creatures around him proved inadequate—created Adam’s female mate, Eve. Rappaccini creates a female first and—when the plants around her prove insufficient—undertakes to provide her with a male mate. What Rappaccini conceives of as an invaluable haven, safe because it is poisonous, is actually a hell of isolation to which he has condemned his child. He does not seek to rescue her from that hell, attempting instead to bring her happiness by supplying an equally poisonous companion.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s loose allegory is subtle. His characters, their feelings, and their perceptions have human qualities as well as figurative significance. Physically, Beatrice is an inverted Eve in a perverse Eden, a less effectual Beatrice than the one who leads Dante through Paradise, and there is an echo about her of Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599), who—with the help of her stepmother, brothers, and lover—effected the murder of the cruel father...
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