Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This story is obviously replete with literary symbols, some of them pointing in seemingly opposite directions. Although the function of Beatrice suggests Eve, often blamed for Adam’s fall, her name recalls that other Beatrice who rescued Dante from sin and escorted him into Heaven.
If one looks at the story from the viewpoint of Freudian psychology, one might suspect that the “original sin” of this virginal Eve is simply her inborn sexuality and the “original sin” (though not the final sin) of Giovanni is plain lust. One might even imagine that the lethal, purple plant so close to the fountain of life might signify, in dream language, the female sexual parts that he must not touch. Nowhere is that inelegant word “lust” used, yet the description of his obsession seems to convey it:She had at least instilled a fierce and subtle poison into his system. It was not love, although her rich beauty was a madness to him; nor horror, even while he fancied her spirit to be imbued with the same baleful essence that seemed to pervade her physical frame; but a wild offspring of both love and horror that had each parent in it and burned like one and shivered like the other.
Seldom has the forbidden term “lust” been evoked in such rich and gothic prose.
The deliberate mention of Dante at the beginning, the viewpoint of Giovanni from his balcony looking down as into a pit, the poisonous vapors presumably arising from it, all suggest the ledge overlooking deepest Hell where Dante and Vergil discussed the different degrees of sin, beginning with lust and ending with malice and betrayal.
However, at the bottom of this pit, at the center, is not Lucifer, or even Rappaccini, presumably his agent, but a fountain. There is no evidence that the water itself is polluted. Beatrice’s innocent spirit is several times likened to a fountain:Many a holy and passionate outgush of her heart, when the pure fountain has been unsealed from its depths and made visible in its transparency to his mental eye; recollections that, had Giovanni known how to estimate them, would have assured him that all this ugly mystery was but an earthly illusion.
Thus, the traditional association between evil and physical nature, magnified in the story, may seem real or illusory, depending on the purity of the human heart.
The story has two major settings, the first an old, gloomy building in Padua where the protagonist, Giovanni, lives while he studies at the University. Over the entrance to the ancient building is the armorial insignia of a family, a member of which is figured as a “partaker of the immortal agonies” in Dante’s Inferno. In this way, Hawthorne immediately establishes an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Like Dante, Giovanni is placed in a situation to learn about the nature of evil and its consequences. However, in this story, Hawthorne presents both evil and redemption in very ambiguous terms, making the journey from the one to the other neither inevitable nor necessarily desirable.
The second and more significant setting, which carries the symbols by which we interpret the meaning of the story, is the garden upon which Giovanni first looks from the window of his room. Cultivated by Dr. Rappaccini, the garden possesses an unnatural beauty, as does Beatrice, the daughter of the doctor. She wanders in the garden daily, and Giovanni is immediately captivated by her beauty. Throughout the story, Beatrice is associated with the “gorgeously magnificent” garden; she not only inhabits it but also signifies its complex relationship between innocence and evil.
At first, the garden provides Giovanni with a “communion with nature,” thus establishing the Romantic theme that nature provides a site of authenticity and simplicity that allows humans to participate in goodness away from the more crass aspects of material life. However, Hawthorne immediately complicates this transcendental notion by making the garden “unnatural.” Not growing freely, this garden is a product of Dr. Rappaccini’s scientific experiments to make nature more beautiful and, in this unnatural state, seductive rather than innocent.
Although the garden is fully secluded from the rest of the world, Giovanni eventually enters it and...
(The entire section is 735 words.)
The original full title of the story was “Writings of Aubépine: Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and it was accompanied by an introduction that explains the story was written by “M. de l'Aubépine,” which playfully alludes to the French name for the hawthorn plant once used by European herbalists for heart disease. Hawthorne continues to play with his audience by commenting that this name “is unknown to many of his own countrymen” and that “he seems to occupy an unfortunate position between the Transcendentalists . . . and the great body of pen-and-ink men who address the intellect and sympathies of the multitude.” This introduction calls attention to Hawthorne, who was friends with the transcendentalists but tended to invert (especially in this story) rather than subscribe to their philosophy concerning the divinity that resides in nature, as well as more popular writers, who wrote for the mass audience rather than for intellectuals. Hawthorne places himself squarely between the two types of writers. Frequently, publications of the story no longer include this original introduction.
Point of View
The dominant point of view is that of Giovanni. Seeing Beatrice through his eyes as he voyeuristically gazes on her in the garden, the reader wonders about her beauty and power and becomes frightened for Giovanni’s welfare more than Beatrice’s. Occasionally, however, the voice of the narrator provides information that Giovanni does not know, which results in different effects. When Giovanni realizes the mixture of “hope and dread” in his heart, the narrator tells us but not him “that all simple emotions” are “blessed,” thus cautioning us that Giovanni should not seek to separate one emotion from the other but see them in connection with each other. In this way, the narrator presents an intellectual context for the character’s experience. At other moments, he creates dramatic irony, such as when he...
(The entire section is 748 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
1. Does “Rappaccini’s Daughter” have any qualities of fairy tales? Think about qualities such as a poisonous touch, an evil parent, doomed lovers, and stories in which magical characters who cannot fit within the human world must return to fairy worlds. In what ways does Hawthorne adapt patterns of fairy tales to his own themes?
2. At the end of the story, Beatrice accuses Giovanni of being the real sinner: “Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?” What sort of poison do you think she might mean here? Are there different types of evil presented in this story? Do you agree with Beatrice?
3. Why does Giovanni give Beatrice the antidote? Consider a contemporary analogy and discuss whether you would do the same in his position. Do you think his motives were just? Is there a difference between “just” motives and “human” motives?
4. One theme in the story concerns male fears of beautiful women, based on the notion that beautiful women can weaken men, distract them, or make them do something they would not otherwise do. One version of this myth is Eve, who tempts Adam and makes him sin. The antithesis of this myth is that of woman as pure and good, having only a positive influence on the behavior of men. To what extent does Hawthorne draw on both myths in his character Beatrice and the reactions of other characters to her? Do these myths about women still have currency today?
5. The narrator indicts technology and an overambitious quest for knowledge as responsible for the demise of Beatrice, describing her as “the poor victim of man’s ingenuity.” Consider the dangers of “man’s ingenuity” in the twenty-first century. Stem-cell research, cloning, and gene-altered agriculture are products of “man’s ingenuity.” Do you consider them harmful or worthwhile? What do you think Hawthorne might say about these endeavors?
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Compare and contrast Hawthorne’s short story with a film adaptation. What aspects of the original story does the film amplify and what aspects does it minimize? What aspects does it change altogether? What is the thematic significance of any or all of these changes?
2. Hawthorne makes specific reference to the transcendentalists in his introduction to the story. Research transcendentalism and Hawthorne’s friendship with Emerson as well as his experience living at Brook Farm. How does the philosophy as well as Hawthorne’s personal experience inform themes and characters in the story?
3. Hawthorne was very influenced by his Puritan heritage and the fact that he had an ancestor who participated in the Salem Witch Trials. Research Puritanism, the Salem Witch Trials, and facts about Hawthorne’s biography, including his relationship with women, and use this information to interpret his characterization of Giovanni and Beatrice.
Octavio Paz adapted Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” into the play La Hija de Rappaccini (1956), closely following the original plot and characters.
Daniel Catán, a Mexican composer, adapted the story into an opera in 1991, but reviews emphasize that the composer used Paz’s play rather than Hawthorne’s work as his inspiration.
Other theatrical adaptations include a 1992 musical production by the Blooming Grove Theater Ensemble. A review in The New York Times described it as too “dead earnest” to be of any fun.
A 2001 DVD of Twice-Told Tales, originally produced in the 1960s, stars Vincent Price. It includes film adaptations of “Rappaccini’s Daughter”...
(The entire section is 147 words.)
For Further Reference
Erlich, Gloria Chasson. 1968. Deadly innocence: Hawthorne’s dark women. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 163-179. Erlich’s article addresses an assortment of Hawthorne’s texts, arguing that he consistently uses plots that are versions of the Fall, depicting his characters as versions of Adam, Eve, and Satan.
Male, Roy. 1957. Hawthorne’s tragic vision. New York: W. W. Norton. Male interprets the story in terms of the dualism of good and evil embodied in all human beings, as represented by Beatrice. Other characters are unable to understand this dualism or become alienated from the good aspects in themselves and others.
Millington, Richard H., Ed. 2004. Cambridge guide to...
(The entire section is 309 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Bell, Millicent, ed. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Hester Prynne. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.
Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Davis, Clark. Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Miller, Edward Havilland....
(The entire section is 228 words.)