Rappaccini's Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Themes and Characters

Giovanni, with “remarkable beauty of person,” is the young protagonist. That he views the garden from his “lofty window” suggests his perspective on the complexity of good and evil embodied in Beatrice: he is distant from it and looks down upon it. Immediately suspicious and somewhat repulsed by Beatrice, Giovanni finds her at once “beautiful” and “inexpressibly terrible,” which might say more about his own view of the woman than the woman herself. When he first begins to understand that she is dangerous, he dismisses his suspicions as “fantasy”; however, as he becomes more concerned with himself than with her, he eventually calls her a “poisonous thing” who has contaminated him, making him “as hateful, as ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature” as she. By the end of the story, his selfishness completely blinds him to her goodness, and as a result, he gives her the antidote provided by Baglioni, in this way hoping to “redeem” her from her evil nature and save her for a life of love with him.

A “tall, emaciated, sallow, and sickly looking man, dressed in a scholar’s garb of black,” Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini, a scientist who dares tamper with nature, is the antagonist in the story. Rappaccini’s appearance indicates how a quest for knowledge results in a lack of human warmth and a cold distance between technology and the greater world. Sometimes compared by critics to God and still other times to Satan, Rappaccini has the ability to look into the “inmost nature” of the plants in his garden “making observations in regard to their creative essence,” but because he has grown these plants to be poisonous, he avoids “intimacy” with them. Indeed, he cannot even touch his daughter, for he has grown her, too, in this garden of poison, making her but not himself impervious to its powers. He justifies his actions at the end of the story when Beatrice accuses him of inflicting a “miserable doom” upon her. “What mean you, foolish girl?” he asks, truly shocked that she does not understand that through his experiments he has given her “marvelous gifts” because “no enemy” can harm her. The question he poses carries an important theme concerning the power of women and their sexuality symbolized by Beatrice’s beautiful but poisonous nature: “wouldst thou, then, have preferred the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none?” As an evil scientist who interferes with nature, Rappaccini also furthers the theme of nature versus science, an issue important in the discourse of nineteenth-century Romanticism that questioned the problems arising from technology and its related consumerism.

By virtue of her beauty and ability to destroy, Beatrice is quite a femme fatale, but unlike those destructive women, Beatrice means no harm. She loves the beautiful purple flower even while understanding its power to destroy, not because she embraces evil but because she accepts that beauty and evil coexist. She knows her father “created it” and that she “grew up . . . and was nourished with its breath.” Deeply lonely because of her isolation in the garden, she has longed for love. Indeed, she pointedly rejects Giovanni’s claim that she is evil for she “dreamed only to love” him. “My spirit is God’s creature, and craves love as its daily food,” she adds. She would rather die than harm Giovanni, which testifies to her goodness. The narrator tells us that her only fate can be to “forget her grief in the light of immortality,” and she would be prepared to do this—except that Giovanni asks her to take the antidote so that they might be united outside this garden in the greater world. Willing to drink it before he, Beatrice knows the result, which is her death. She understands, too, that “from the first” there was “more poison in [his] nature than in [hers]”: she understood that she could be good while contaminated with evil, but this is a truth that...

(The entire section is 1,166 words.)