Rappaccini's Daughter Themes
The main themes in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” are corruption, morality, and science.
- Corruption: Both Beatrice and the plants in Rappaccini’s garden are beautiful but deadly. They have both been rendered poisonous by Rappaccini’s scientific pursuits, corrupted both literally and metaphorically.
- Morality: Rappaccini values science over all else, including his own daughter. He doesn’t think of his scientific experiments in terms of good and evil, and yet the story makes it clear that Rappaccini is a villain.
- Science: Rappaccini, a brilliant scientist, treats everything as an experiment, including his daughter. Rappaccini represents the dangers of immoral and selfish scientific pursuits.
This parable of the Fall from innocence in a poisonous garden of Eden has several levels of meaning, not all of them explicitly stated. The Eden analogy is certainly clear, and one may assume that the garden, with its ruined fountain, is in some sense a microcosm of the fallen world cursed by sin and death. Perhaps it is the world that might ensue if scientists value knowledge and power more than human love.
Nathaniel Hawthorne suggested in other stories as well, such as “The Birthmark” and “The Great Carbuncle,” that the scientist in his intellectual pride might destroy the natural blessings that God has provided. This sentiment was a fairly common one at the time. The technique of grafting plants was recently discovered and widely distrusted as an impious if not dangerous interference with God’s intentions. While such processes seem innocent enough today, readers may certainly recognize the “mad scientist” motif still popular in science fiction.
The imagery of the story, however, is primarily religious and moral. Granted Rappaccini’s malevolent impact, Giovanni falls from grace not entirely through the machinations of a satanic scientist. To be sure, the young man seems to have been lured deliberately into the garden by the doctor, not by Beatrice herself, to serve as a companion for the isolated girl. He falls not because of Beatrice’s evil nature, but because of his own shallow capacity for love. Giovanni’s shortcomings in the face of an admittedly tainted world are repeatedly suggested: “His love grew thin and faint as the morning mist,” “that cunning semblance of love which flourishes in the imagination, but strikes no depth of root into the heart.” Before he descends to the garden on the last occasion, he mutters venomously, “She is the only being whom my breath may not slay! Would that it might!” Given this preliminary evidence of Giovanni’s malice, the dying words of Beatrice ring true: “Farewell, Giovanni! Thy words of hatred are like lead within my heart; but they, too, will fall away as I ascend. Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?”
If Beatrice, unlike Giovanni, is innocent of malice, that sin most damned in Dante’s Inferno, the moral status of Dr. Baglioni, giver of the antidote that kills, is most ambiguous. Dr. Baglioni stands in a godlike position above the garden in the closing scene calling down his judgment from the balcony: “Rappaccini! Rappaccini! and is this the upshot of your experiment!” That would seem to reflect God’s moral indignation, except that Dr. Baglioni is also suspect as harboring considerable malice for Rappaccini as a professional rival. Moreover, there is a distinct implication that Dr. Baglioni knew that his antidote would kill, not cure, Rappaccini’s daughter. This ambiguity may suggest simply that the real world of Dr. Baglioni and the untested Giovanni is already contaminated, or it may suggest that God himself, who created a garden with the foreknowledge of humankind’s fall, is somehow implicated in the sin and death that inevitably follow.