“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” set in Italy, significantly combines the biblical Garden of Eden with Dante’s medieval conception of Hell. Rappaccini’s garden is an inverse of Eden, a heavenly hell. God’s garden is positive, centered by a tree of life. Adam and Eve are expelled because they undertake to know good and evil. A plant of death centers Rappaccini’s garden, the product of his quest to know more than humans should. The snake in this garden is the will to probe forbidden depths, including the human heart and the material world.
Aspiring to be the god of his garden, Rappaccini reverses God’s creation. God created salubrious plants. Rappaccini creates poisonous ones. God created a male first, Adam, and—when the creatures around him proved inadequate—created Adam’s female mate, Eve. Rappaccini creates a female first and—when the plants around her prove insufficient—undertakes to provide her with a male mate. What Rappaccini conceives of as an invaluable haven, safe because it is poisonous, is actually a hell of isolation to which he has condemned his child. He does not seek to rescue her from that hell, attempting instead to bring her happiness by supplying an equally poisonous companion.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s loose allegory is subtle. His characters, their feelings, and their perceptions have human qualities as well as figurative significance. Physically, Beatrice is an inverted Eve in a perverse Eden, a less effectual Beatrice than the one who leads Dante through Paradise, and there is an echo about her of Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599), who—with the help of her stepmother, brothers, and lover—effected the murder of the cruel father who imprisoned and abused her. Hawthorne’s Beatrice is in her own right a sweet young woman trapped in an impossible situation. She hopes to share a heavenly relationship with Giovanni, but, though angelic, she is trapped in her father’s ill-conceived hellish haven.
The allegorical aspects of the narrative do not impede readers from recognizing the characters’ humanity. Giovanni is at the stage in life at which callow young men idealize the women who attract them physically. He thinks he is in love before he knows Beatrice, and, though their relationship blossoms, he is not above vicious verbal attacks that she correctly finds more poisonous than herself. Utterly decent, Beatrice is committed to making the best of an awful situation before she meets Giovanni. Some have suggested that she represents dangerous female sexuality, but her condition rules out physical contact. Like many innocent young women, she wants emotional and spiritual, not physical, love.
Even the story’s brightest characters have limited understandings. Rappaccini myopically ignores the needs of others, imposing his sense of things on the people who fall under his...
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