“Romanticism” is a term often used to describe many works of art produced in the early nineteenth century. Romanticism is often seen as a reaction against the art of the eighteenth century, which is often called “neo-classical.” If neo-classical art emphasized reason, responsibility, tradition, order, moderation, and the lives of aristocrats and members of the upper classes, romanticism often emphasized strong emotion (even passion), freedom, innovation, lack of restraint, excesses, and the lives of the middle classes or the poor. Neo-classicism is often associated with the man-made and artificial; Romanticism is often associated with anything and everything natural, including especially the beauty and power of untamed natural landscapes.
Romanticism tends to celebrate the distinctive individual, the exotic or strange, the unusual or even the bizarre. At the same time, it also tends to celebrate the ideal of humans living in harmony with nature and with one another.
In what ways might Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” be considered “Romantic”? Some possibilities include the following:
- The opening paragraph of the story mentions that Giovanni takes lodging in “a high and gloomy chamber of an old edifice.” This setting already suggests the “gothic” qualities that are typical of much Romantic literature, with its emphasis on strange behavior by strange people in strange places. In this sense, Hawthorne’s story seems to exemplify what might be called “dark Romanticism” – the kind of Romanticism also characteristic of so many works by Edgar Allan Poe.
- The first depiction of Rappacini himself presents him as
no common laborer, but a tall, emaciated, sallow, and sickly looking man, dressed in a scholar's garb of black.
Once again the “gothic” elements of “dark Romanticism” are stressed here. Rappaccini, we will soon learn, is an extreme individualist who pursues his own personal goals, even if they conflict with what others might consider reasonable and moral and even if they seem irreligious to some. Like Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s dark Romantic novel, Rappaccini rejects tame, conventional ideas to pursue his own distinctive ambitions.
- When Giovanni first hears the voice of Beatrice, it seems to him
a voice as rich as a tropical sunset, and which made Giovanni, though he knew not why, think of deep hues of purple or crimson, and of perfumes heavily delectable.
To Giovanni, Beatrice seems exotically attractive; little wonder, then, that his erotic desires are aroused. Beatrice is associated with the beauties of nature; she is associated with the aspects of nature that appeal to our senses, including the senses of sight, sound, and smell.
- The final pages of the story are full of strong emotions and passionate outbursts, as when Giovanni exclaims to Beatrice,
"Yes, poisonous thing!" repeated Giovanni, beside himself with passion. "Thou hast done it! Thou hast blasted me! Thou hast filled my veins with poison!
Thus, in many of the ways indicated above – especially in its emphasis on beauty, nature, passion, and highly unconventional behavior – Hawthorne’s story seems an example of Romanticism, although more the kind of Romanticism associated with Poe than with Wordsworth.