man and woman looking at one another and the woman is filled with plants and vines that are creeping into the man's body

Rappaccini's Daughter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The story has two major settings, the first an old, gloomy building in Padua where the protagonist, Giovanni, lives while he studies at the university. Over the entrance to the ancient building is the armorial insignia of a family, a member of which is figured as a “partaker of the immortal agonies” in Dante’s Inferno. In this way, Hawthorne immediately establishes an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Like Dante, Giovanni is placed in a situation to learn about the nature of evil and its consequences. However, in this story, Hawthorne presents both evil and redemption in very ambiguous terms, making the journey from the one to the other neither inevitable nor necessarily desirable.

The second and more significant setting, which carries the symbols by which we interpret the meaning of the story, is the garden upon which Giovanni first looks from the window of his room. Cultivated by Dr. Rappaccini, the garden possesses an unnatural beauty, as does Beatrice, the daughter of the doctor. She wanders in the garden daily, and Giovanni is immediately captivated by her beauty. Throughout the story, Beatrice is associated with the “gorgeously magnificent” garden; she not only inhabits it but also signifies its complex relationship between innocence and evil.

At first, the garden provides Giovanni with a “communion with nature,” thus establishing the Romantic theme that nature provides a site of authenticity and simplicity that allows humans to participate in goodness away from the more crass aspects of material life. However, Hawthorne immediately complicates this transcendental notion by making the garden “unnatural.” Not growing freely, this garden is a product of Dr. Rappaccini’s scientific experiments to make nature more beautiful and, in this unnatural state, seductive rather than innocent.

Although the garden is fully secluded from the rest of the world, Giovanni eventually enters it and there falls in love with Beatrice. As he spends time with her, he becomes immune to the poison of the purple blossoms and thrives on their beauty and fragrance. In the garden, Giovanni and Beatrice, somewhat like Adam and Eve, are isolated from the rest of the world and united by their love; however, they are also united by the poison of the flowers, which will forever isolate them from the rest of the world because their contact with others would kill. Even insects that fly near Beatrice and Giovanni die, so powerful is the poison the young lovers share. What gives them life will bring about the destruction of other living creatures.

Most scholars link the garden beneath Giovanni’s window with the Garden of Eden, but it is difficult to establish an unequivocal correspondence between the two. Like the Garden of Eden, Rappaccini’s garden is lush in its plants and flowers, but unlike that original garden, it also contains elements of decay, as seen in the “ruin of a marble fountain in the centre . . . woefully shattered.” Furthermore, the “gorgeousness” of the plants and especially of the poisonous purple blossoms “seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural . . . an evil mockery of beauty” rather than beauty itself (at least from Giovanni’s point of view). The garden is a mockery of the Garden of Eden rather than a replication of it. The fountain, because it is broken, signifies the material aspects of life, but curiously, water that “sparkle[s] into the sunbeams as cheerfully as ever” springs from it. This description suggests that the water symbolizes an aspect of the spirit that, immortal, survives material change. Because it also nourishes the poisonous flowers, the water also symbolizes the relationship between good and evil, indicating that the former gives “life” to the latter. Clearly, the purple blossoms, “each of which had the lustre and richness of a gem,” carry the symbolic weight of the tale. On one hand, they embody evil because they destroy even the most innocent insect, yet on the other hand, they offer magnificence in their beauty and power. The purple color connotes a defect, such as in a bruise, but also the raiment of royalty. In this way, the blossoms symbolize the dual aspect of humankind after the Fall—knowledge, especially sexual knowledge, but also estrangement from the natural state of paradise. Because they embody both aspects of the Fall, the flowers suggest humans’ fall from grace was fortunate because it allows us to achieve a spiritual goodness as a result of our experience with evil and sin.


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Style and Technique

This story is obviously replete with literary symbols, some of them pointing in seemingly opposite directions. Although the function of Beatrice suggests Eve, often blamed for Adam’s fall, her name recalls that other Beatrice who rescued Dante from sin and escorted him into heaven.

If one looks at the story from the viewpoint of Freudian psychology, one might suspect that the “original sin” of this virginal Eve is simply her inborn sexuality, and the “original sin” (though not the final sin) of Giovanni is plain lust. One might even imagine that the lethal purple plant so close to the fountain of life might signify, in dream language, the female sexual parts that he must not touch. Nowhere is that inelegant word “lust” used, yet the description of his obsession seems to convey it:

She had at least instilled a fierce and subtle poison into his system. It was not love, although her rich beauty was a madness to him; nor horror, even while he fancied her spirit to be imbued with the same baleful essence that seemed to pervade her physical frame; but a wild offspring of both love and horror that had each parent in it and burned like one and shivered like the other.

Seldom has the forbidden term “lust” been evoked in such rich and gothic prose.

The deliberate mention of Dante at the beginning, the viewpoint of Giovanni from his balcony looking down as into a pit, the poisonous vapors presumably arising from it, all suggest the ledge overlooking deepest hell where Dante and Virgil discussed the different degrees of sin, beginning with lust and ending with malice and betrayal.

However, at the bottom of this pit, at the center, is not Lucifer, or even Rappaccini, presumably his agent, but a fountain. There is no evidence that the water itself is polluted. Beatrice’s innocent spirit is several times likened to a fountain:

Many a holy and passionate outgush of her heart, when the pure fountain has been unsealed from its depths and made visible in its transparency to his mental eye; recollections that, had Giovanni known how to estimate them, would have assured him that all this ugly mystery was but an earthly illusion.

Thus, the traditional association between evil and physical nature, magnified in the story, may seem real or illusory, depending on the purity of the human heart.

Literary Techniques

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The original full title of the story was “Writings of Aubépine: Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and it was accompanied by an introduction that explains the story was written by “M. de l'Aubépine,” which playfully alludes to the French name for the hawthorn plant once used by European herbalists for heart disease. Hawthorne continues to play with his audience by commenting that this name “is unknown to many of his own countrymen” and that “he seems to occupy an unfortunate position between the Transcendentalists . . . and the great body of pen-and-ink men who address the intellect and sympathies of the multitude.” This introduction calls attention to Hawthorne, who was friends with the transcendentalists but tended to invert (especially in this story) rather than subscribe to their philosophy concerning the divinity that resides in nature, as well as more popular writers, who wrote for the mass audience rather than for intellectuals. Hawthorne places himself squarely between the two types of writers. Frequently, publications of the story no longer include this original introduction.

Point of View

The dominant point of view is that of Giovanni. Seeing Beatrice through his eyes as he voyeuristically gazes on her in the garden, the reader wonders about her beauty and power and becomes frightened for Giovanni’s welfare more than Beatrice’s. Occasionally, however, the voice of the narrator provides information that Giovanni does not know, which results in different effects. When Giovanni realizes the mixture of “hope and dread” in his heart, the narrator tells us but not him “that all simple emotions” are “blessed,” thus cautioning us that Giovanni should not seek to separate one emotion from the other but see them in connection with each other. In this way, the narrator presents an intellectual context for the character’s experience. At other moments, he creates dramatic irony, such as when he warns the reader that there might be more than meets the eye with the jovial Baglioni.


The gothic was an aspect of the Romantic movement in literature that used elements of the supernatural or fantastical as a means to celebrate the imagination and explore the darker side of the human experience. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” the gothic enables a consideration of the relationship between good and evil. Gothic elements include the frighteningly beautiful purple blossom, the evil professor, the dark and gloomy medieval building where Giovanni lives, and Giovanni’s incredulous response to what he sees in the garden: does he imagine the deadliness of the flowers? Does their fragrance really have the power to kill?


An allegory permits a simultaneous literal meaning and deeper meaning that results from the abstract qualities embodied in the characters, setting, events, and other elements of the story. The predominant allegorical reading of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is in terms of the Garden of Eden, but the garden is fallen, with Giovanni and Beatrice as Adam and Eve, Rappaccini as either God or Satan (or perhaps both), and Baglioni as a Christlike figure who tries to intercede and save the couple but is ineffective in doing so. However, interpretations of Beatrice as both angelic and a seducer of men, of Giovanni as a Puritan and an artist, of Rappaccini as both God and Satan, and Baglioni as Christ but evil troublemaker complicate a straightforward allegorical reading of the story. Beatrice becomes particularly difficult to interpret allegorically, for on one hand she is poisonous and therefore evil, but on the other hand she is clearly innocent—she has done nothing wrong. For this reason, some critics understand her “poison” as a projection of male fears of female sexuality rather than an inherent evil in Beatrice herself.


The two primary allusions are to The Divine Comedy and to the Bible stories in Genesis of Adam and Eve, and both cases enable an inversion of the original story rather than a reproduction of it. In the first paragraph, the story alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy through the inscription on the house and then intensifies that allusion by using the name Beatrice as the character who guides Giovanni through experience to learn about sin and redemption. However, whereas after his experience Dante’s pilgrim is better able to understand sin and thereby achieve paradise, in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” the protagonist does not necessarily gain in understanding and certainly does not achieve paradise. The allusions to the Garden of Eden are not at all subtle; at one point the narrator describes it as “that Eden of poisonous flowers.”

Ideas for Group Discussions

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1. Does “Rappaccini’s Daughter” have any qualities of fairy tales? Think about qualities such as a poisonous touch, an evil parent, doomed lovers, and stories in which magical characters who cannot fit within the human world must return to fairy worlds. In what ways does Hawthorne adapt patterns of fairy tales to his own themes?

2. At the end of the story, Beatrice accuses Giovanni of being the real sinner: “Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?” What sort of poison do you think she might mean here? Are there different types of evil presented in this story? Do you agree with Beatrice?

3. Why does Giovanni give Beatrice the antidote? Consider a contemporary analogy and discuss whether you would do the same in his position. Do you think his motives were just? Is there a difference between “just” motives and “human” motives?

4. One theme in the story concerns male fears of beautiful women, based on the notion that beautiful women can weaken men, distract them, or make them do something they would not otherwise do. One version of this myth is Eve, who tempts Adam and makes him sin. The antithesis of this myth is that of woman as pure and good, having only a positive influence on the behavior of men. To what extent does Hawthorne draw on both myths in his character Beatrice and the reactions of other characters to her? Do these myths about women still have currency today?

5. The narrator indicts technology and an overambitious quest for knowledge as responsible for the demise of Beatrice, describing her as “the poor victim of man’s ingenuity.” Consider the dangers of “man’s ingenuity” in the twenty-first century. Stem cell research, cloning, and gene-altered agriculture are products of “man’s ingenuity.” Do you consider them harmful or worthwhile? What do you think Hawthorne might say about these endeavors?

Ideas for Reports and Papers

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1. Compare and contrast Hawthorne’s short story with a film adaptation. What aspects of the original story does the film amplify and what aspects does it minimize? What aspects does it change altogether? What is the thematic significance of any or all of these changes?

2. Hawthorne makes specific reference to the transcendentalists in his introduction to the story. Research transcendentalism and Hawthorne’s friendship with Emerson as well as his experience living at Brook Farm. How does the philosophy as well as Hawthorne’s personal experience inform themes and characters in the story?

3. Hawthorne was very influenced by his Puritan heritage and the fact that he had an ancestor who participated in the Salem Witch Trials. Research Puritanism, the Salem Witch Trials, and facts about Hawthorne’s biography, including his relationship with women, and use this information to interpret his characterization of Giovanni and Beatrice.

For Further Reference

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Erlich, Gloria Chasson. 1968. “Deadly innocence: Hawthorne’s dark women.” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 163–179. Erlich’s article addresses an assortment of Hawthorne’s texts, arguing that he consistently uses plots that are versions of the Fall, depicting his characters as versions of Adam, Eve, and Satan.

Male, Roy. 1957. Hawthorne’s tragic vision. New York: W. W. Norton. Male interprets the story in terms of the dualism of good and evil embodied in all human beings, as represented by Beatrice. Other characters are unable to understand this dualism or become alienated from the good aspects in themselves and others.

Millington, Richard H., Ed. 2004. Cambridge guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Cambridge University Press. This contains a collection of essays on all of Hawthorne’s classic works and on topics such as Hawthorne's relationship to history, women, politics, and early America.

Sterling, Laurie A. (Ed. by Harold Bloom). 2007. Bloom’s how to write about Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Chelsea House. This book is useful for both students and teachers. It offers paper-topic suggestions; strategies on how to write a strong, analytical essay; and an insightful introduction by Harold Bloom on writing about Hawthorne.

Stewart, Susan. 1982. “The epistemology of the horror story.” Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 95, No. 375, pp. 33–50. Discussing horror stories as a genre, Stewart pays particular attention to the use of a narrative voice as well as to issues of ambiguity, where the story seems both true and impossible to be true (e.g., Beatrice seems to be both a human and a plant, thus breaking the boundaries between nature and culture).

Wineapple, Brenda. 2004. Hawthorne: A life. New York: Random House. This recent biography accepts the contradictions in Hawthorne’s personality without putting forth compelling evidence to sway the reader one way or the other on controversial views. The author’s reportorial style makes for easy reading.


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Bell, Millicent, ed. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hester Prynne. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Davis, Clark. Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Miller, Edward Havilland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Millington, Richard H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Muirhead, Kimberly Free. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”: A Critical Resource Guide and Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography of Literary Criticism, 1950–2000. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Pennell, Melissa McFarland. Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Scharnhorst, Gary. The Critical Response to Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Stoehr, Taylor. Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1978.

Thompson, G. R. The Art of Authorial Presence: Hawthorne’s Provincial Tales. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

Von Frank, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

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Critical Essays