Rappaccini’s Daughter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Friday , 2, February 2018 3 Comments

“For some purpose or other, this man of science is making a study of you. I know that look of his! It is the same that coldly illuminates his face, as he bends over a bird, a mouse, or a butterfly, which, in pursuance of some experiment, he has killed by the perfume of a flower; — a look as deep as Nature itself, but without Nature’s warmth of love. Signor Giovanni, I will stake my life upon it, you are the subject of one of Rappaccini’s experiments!”

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” university student Giovanni Guasconti finds his apartment overlooking a lush botanical garden tended by Beatrice Rappaccini, the daughter of reclusive scientist Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini. He soon discovers that the garden is poisonous, killing every creature that wanders into it, save for Beatrice. One day, while Giovanni watches Beatrice from his window, she discovers him, and the two fall for each other. Despite his mentor’s warning, Giovanni makes use of a secret passage to visit Beatrice in her garden, although always with the proper precautions for the poisons inside. For, having been raised in poison, Beatrice is poisonous herself. Soon, he discovers that his breath is as poisonous as Beatrice’s garden. Finally, Giovanni enters the garden one last time, carrying an antidote from his mentor that will neutralize the garden’s effects on his love…

Hidden behind the Gothic menace, the hand of new comedy is strong upon “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” In such tales, an obstacle separates two lovers, often placed there by an angry old man. If the couple can surmount this roadblock, the story is a comedy, ending with weddings and babies ever after. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is one example, as is The Taming of the Shrew. But if the couple cannot overcome, death, funerals, and mourning close out the tale.Again, we turn to Shakespeare for an example, this time Romeo and Juliet. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, the obstacle separating Giovanni and Beatrice is suitably lethal for tragedy:

“That this lovely woman,” continued Baglioni, with emphasis, “had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them, that she  herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element of life. With that rich perfume of her breath, she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison!–her embrace, death!”

Rappaccini attempts to surmount this obstacle by secretly changing Giovanni to match Beatrice’s poisonous nature, much to Giovanni’s horror. This revelation shakes his love for Beatrice, and he rejects Rappaccini’s designs. He attempts to free Beatrice with an antidote, but a lover’s quarrel poisons more than just the air in the garden. Alas, the tale of “Rappaccinin’s Daughter” is not a comedy.

Literature classes love Hawthorne, mainly for his social commentary. The Scarlet Letter, for instance, is used to show the evils and hypocrisy of shaming people. “Young Goodman Brown” is often used as an anti-Puritan and anti-Christian tract. “Rappaccinni’s Daughter” gets taught as an anti-science and anti-Modernist screed, warning against the immoral choices made when amoral science is pursued to the exclusion of all. And, yes, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” does fall in line with Romanticism’s critiques of science’s impact on society, as Rappaccini sacrifices his patients and his daughter for one more breakthrough in knowledge. (These critiques would resurface in the 1970s, as science fiction writers attempted to impose the conventions of Damon Knight’s writing circles on fantasy.) But “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is an illustration of C. S. Lewis’ “First and Second Things,” where he instructs “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things.” Rappaccini raises his daughter among poisonous plants to increase his knowledge and, in the end, loses both his daughter and his experiments. But to read Hawthorne for a message is to miss out on his stories, and in the case of “Rappaccinni’s Daughter,” portions of the story itself.

Absent from the textbook reprints and many others, including Weird Tales, is an introduction where Hawthorne claims to have found the story as an earlier work of “Monsieur Aubépine” and gives a critique of the monsieur’s literary style. Also included is a list of works written by Aubépine, a list that, like Aubépine himself, contains thinly veiled references to Hawthorne, his works, and his publisher. It isn’t the first time an author has created a fake history for a story, with a wink and a nod in this case, and it won’t be the last. During the chinoiserie craze of the pulps, many authors would claim that their stories had been discovered in the East, whether in an Istanbul marketplace, among the sacred writings of various Indian sects, or in the opium dens of China. Removing this introduction does not affect the meat of “Rappaccinni’s Daughter”–and it certainly saves precious space in a magazine–but it obscures the living link between Weird Tales and other pulps and the Romantic traditions they nurtured nearly a hundred years after the passing of that literary movement.

It comes as no surprise that Farnsworth Wright reprinted “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in Weird Tales. There is a timeless element to the tale and Hawthorne’s prose that matches the fashions of the pulp. Many of the elements that would feature throughout the magazine’s run appear here, eighty yeas earlier. A myth thought to be fiction imposes itself suddenly on the unsuspecting, as Rappaccini gained inspiration for his garden from an Indian fairy tale. Said fairy tale also brought a touch of chinoiserie, just as E. Hoffman Price brought to the unique magazine. Mad science? Check. Investigations into perilous realms of knowledge, in both lore and discovery? Check again. Moral and mortal peril with a touch of romance and the whims of fickle fate? Present and accounted for. Wellman’s Weird Tales outings bear Hawthorne’s influence on their structure, as do many others. And if the tale of a young man sneaking into a perilous garden to steal away a cloistered beauty from the plans of her father sounds familiar, we shall soon return to C. L. Moore’s “The Black Thirst.”

3 Comments
  • Vlad James says:

    I read this story early in high school and enjoyed it considerably. Very fast-paced and dramatic, under an appropriate mood of Gothic horror. I’ve only read this and “The Scarlet Letter” by Hawthorne, but I noticed both stories had fictional histories written in the introduction by their author. I should read “Young Goodman Brown” and a few of Hawthorne’s other tales to see if the trend persists.

  • Andy says:

    This was among the few works I was forced to read in high school that I enjoyed (along with stuff like Beowulf, Macbeth, the Iliad/Odyssey…). I found The Scarlet Letter a bit torturous but this story and Young Goodman Brown made me think I kind of like Hawthorne, although admittedly I don’t remember much about YGB aside from it having a nice spooky atmosphere.

  • Ben says:

    Anyone interested I suggest you check out “Graphic Classics” V15 with Frankenstein on the cover. Has this story in the middle. Not really a comics adaptation but more the text with a lot of illustrations. Very good, IMO. Quick find on Amazon for $5 range + S&H. ALso has a good HLP Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath adap too..

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