Rappaccini's Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Rappaccini's Daughter Analysis

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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 Vergil 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.

Setting

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...

(The entire section is 3,027 words.)