The main characters in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” are Giovanni, Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini, and Beatrice.
- Giovanni is a handsome young man who lives above Rappaccini’s garden. He falls in love with Rappaccini’s daughter, Beatrice, but comes to distrust and resent her when he believes she has infected him with poison.
- Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini is a scientist who tampers with nature by raising his daughter in a poisonous garden, granting her immunity but making her poisonous as well.
- Beatrice is Rappaccini’s beautiful, lonely daughter. Despite her poisonous nature, she is pure of heart. She loves Giovanni and ultimately dies by taking the antidote he gives her.
Last Updated on May 5, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178
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.
Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini
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...
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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 Giovanni cannot embrace.
Dr. Pietro Baglioni
Dr. Pietro Baglioni is the professor of medicine at the university, “a physician of eminent repute.” In contrast to Rappaccini, Baglioni has “habits that might almost be called jovial,” but the narrator qualifies any simplistic characterization by his comment that the professor “is apparently of genial nature,” thus refusing to depict him as fully good in contrast to the fully evil character of Rappaccini. Baglioni does not trust Rappaccini and warns Giovanni about his scientific experiments, but the narrator suggests this might be due to Baglioni’s jealousy of Rappaccini’s success as much as to his worry about young Giovanni. If Beatrice seduces Giovanni through her beauty, which is poisonous, Baglioni seduces Giovanni by causing him to distrust Beatrice and by giving him an antidote that will destroy the poison in her. Because the antidote kills the woman as well as the poison that gives her life, one is left to wonder about the benefit of such a cure. Baglioni’s final words in the story contribute to his ambiguous status, for upon witnessing Beatrice’s death, he calls out to Rappaccini “in a tone of triumph mixed with horror. . . . Is this the upshot of your experiment?” Personal animosity arising from competition rather than a real concern with the ethics of science has perhaps motivated Baglioni’s interference in Giovanni’s plight.
Lisabetta also appears to be more kind than she might actually be. Taking care of the chamber in which Giovanni lives and knowledgeable, at least in a vague way, about Rappaccini’s garden, she tells Giovanni when he moves in that “it is said [Rappaccini] distils these plants into medicines that are as potent as a charm.” Later, she makes it possible for Giovanni to meet Beatrice. With a smile making her face look “not unlike a grotesque carving in wood, darkened by centuries,” she leads him to a secret entrance to the garden, and for that Giovanni gives her a gold coin. In doing this, Giovanni half thinks that old Lisabetta is “connected with the intrigue,” but again he indulges in the temptation rather than resisting it.
Acting as a guide, similar to Dante in TheDivine Comedy, the narrator in this story has a distinctive voice. He frequently makes comments to steer the reader in the direction of interpretation while dropping clues that an easy interpretation of events is impossible. Giovanni, for example, is likely to trust what Dr. Baglioni tells him when they first meet, but the narrator intervenes that Giovanni’s view might be limited: “The youth might have taken Baglioni’s opinions with many grains of allowance, had he known that there was a professional warfare of long continuance” between the two scientists. Therefore, the narrator rather ominously concludes, “if the reader be inclined to judge for himself,” he should seek out research done by both “preserved in the medical department of the University of Padua.” The narrator’s voice here and elsewhere provides a sense of realism to this otherwise fantastical story.