What elements in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Rappaccini's Daughter" characterize the romantic movement in American literature?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nathaniel Hawthorne, along with Herman Melville, is considered to be one of the primary novelists of the Romantic movement in American literature; Walt Whitman most exemplifies this movement in poetry. Hawthorne's short story "Rappaccini's Daughter" also exhibits many of the characteristics associated with the Romantic movement.

First, the story promotes the idea that the individual is more important than society. Clearly Doctor Rappaccini acted in his own self-interest when he conducted a deadly experiment with his daughter, Beatrice. Though he tells Beatrice he did everything to make her into some kind of super-human being, we understand that she was really just part of his grand experiment rather than a daughter he loved.

Second, in this story nature is used to reveal truth, which is one of the elements of Romanticism. Everything in this story is a lie except what the plants in the garden reveal; though Rappaccini has manipulated them for his own uses, they reflect his evil and thereby reveal truth to anyone who will really look at them. 

Third, the Romantic movement valued creativity above formal structures; in this story, Rappaccini does the same. Medicine is supposed to be used for the good of mankind; here Rappaccini uses it to experiment and create in ways that others were not doing--a perfect parallel to what the writers of the Romantic era were doing in their writing. Old structures and forms were discarded in favor of creativity and freedom of expression. 

Finally, "Rappaccini's Daughter" is an excellent example of Romanticism because it contains Gothic elements such as the supernatural and the grotesque, as well as the juxtaposition of good and evil. At first Giovanni looks at the garden below his window and finds it beautiful and satisfying in every way; soon he has reason to examine the garden more closely, and he does not like what he sees. 

The aspect of one and all of them dissatisfied him; their gorgeousness seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural. There was hardly an individual shrub which a wanderer, straying by himself through a forest, would not have been startled to find growing wild, as if an unearthly face had glared at him out of the thicket. Several also would have shocked a delicate instinct by an appearance of artificialness indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery, of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God's making, but the monstrous offspring of man's depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty. 

The grotesque beauty of the garden is a perfect example of the Romantic movement because of its Gothic elements.

Hawthorne was one of the foremost writers of the rather short-lived Romantic movement in American literature, and this story contains all the key elements of Romanticism.

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Rappaccini's Daughter

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