Rappaccinis Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


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“Rappaccini’s Daughter” is a gothic tale written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1844. It was included in his collection of short stories called Mosses from an Old Manse. At this time he was forty years old and had been married to Sophia Peabody for two years. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is considered to be one of the most timeless tales ever written. The tale starts off with a young man, Giovanni, who comes to Padua to pursue his studies at the University of Padua. He rents a room in a “high and gloomy chamber” above a magical and poisonous garden. The garden is run by an old mad scientist, Dr. Rappaccini, and his gorgeous daughter, Beatrice. Giovanni falls in love with Beatrice but is warned by Professor Baglioni to stay away from her because of her poisonous nature. Professor Baglioni gives Giovanni an antidote for Beatrice to rid her of her poisons. The tale ends tragically when the innocent Beatrice takes the antidote and falls to her death. Many readers see the story as an allegorical tale. Rappaccini’s garden allegorical to the Garden of Eden. It is important to note the characters as they symbolize Adam and Eve and God and Satan. Rappaccini is a scientist who studies the medicinal properties of plants. He plays God with the life of his daughter and with his “natural” creations. Giovanni is a young medical student who symbolizes Adam. Beatrice is the pure and innocent but poisonous daughter of Rappaccini. She symbolizes Eve. Professor Baglioni is a friend of Giovanni and the academic rival of Dr. Rappaccini. We see him as good and evil, and he symbolizes the Devil in the Garden of Eden. Lisabetta is Giovanni’s housekeeper, a kind elderly woman. It is also important to notice the shrub; the central shrub is symbolic because it represents the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The story studies many major themes, three of which will be examined in this essay: the drug as a double, romance as a drug, and nature versus science as a double in a context where the “creators” produce the pharmakon, the drug which is both poison and remedy. Romantic love also proves to be toxic, because of the confusion of the image of the beloved with the real person.

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The first theme to study is the drug as a double. The drug in the story is the shrub, called both belladonna, and Deadly Nightshade. Belladonna is both good and evil; it is both a medicine and a poison. Belladonna, also known as Deadly Nightshade, can only thrive in dark moist areas. Its deadly character is due to the presence of an alkaloid, Atropine. Belladonna is also an Italian word which means “beautiful lady.” (Grieve, History) Hence, Beatrice is the “beautiful lady.” Historically women would use the juices to dilate their pupils; pupils become dilated when one’s aroused, which would one appear more beautiful. Hawthorne, knowing exactly what this drug does, relates often the beauty of Beatrice’s eyes. Belladonna is said to record an old superstition that at certain times it takes the form of an enchantress of exceeding loveliness, whom it is dangerous to look upon (Grieve, History). Beatrice is filled with poison from this magical shrub. Her father had made this shrub for her and it grew from the soil on the day she was born. She considers the shrub her “sister” and she has nourished it her whole life with her breath. Both Beatrice and the shrub are described in very similar ways:
There was one shrub in particular, set in a marble vase in the midst of the pool, that bore a profusion of purple blossoms, each of which had the luster and richness of a gem, and the whole together made a show so resplendent, that it seemed enough to illuminate the garden, even had there been no sunshine. (37)

…cried a rich and youthful voice from the window of the opposite house, -a voice as rich as a tropical sunset, and which made Giovanni, through he knew not why, think of deep hues of purple or crimson and of perfumes heavily delectable. (39)

They are both described as being rich as the sun. It is important not to miss the importance of the color purple when Hawthorne describes both the shrub and Beatrice. The color purple is used very ambiguously when describing the two. A deep hue of purple is often associated with gloom, with sad and mysterious feelings. Contrastingly, the color purple is also associated with royalty and spirituality. By using the color purple Hawthorn shows the reader the double nature of the shrub and Beatrice. Beatrice, like the shrub, is often shown as both good and evil and she is as pure as she is poisonous: “…While Beatrice was gazing at the insect with childish delight, it grew faint and fell at her feel; its bright wings shivered; it was dead,---from no cause that he could discern, unless it were the atmosphere of her breath.” Poor Beatrice is as innocent as she is deadly. The theme of the drug as a double is most certainly played out in “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” We are introduced to the beautiful shrub, which is the drug Belladonna. Belladonna is as good as it is evil. Belladonna is good because it is used for medical patients, mainly with eye diseases.
“O, how stubbornly does love, ---or even that cunning semblance of love flourish in the imagination, but strikes no depth of root into the heart, ---how stubbornly does it hold its faith until the moment comes when it is doomed to vanish into thin mist.” (51)
The above quote represents the passion of Romance that Giovanni feels towards Beatrice. Hawthorne uses Dante’s Beatrice of The Divine Comedy as a basis for the Romantic relationship between Beatrice and Giovanni. Romance as the drug is an important theme in “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Romance is Giovanni’s drug; he is simply overwhelmed and overtaken by the power this drug seems to possess. The symptoms of drugs are ainfully similar to the symptoms of Romance. The symptoms include but are not limited to: worshipping of images, confusion of thoughts, sleep deprivation, and heavy withdrawal symptoms. Romance can also end tragically. Romance is not the same as love. It can become love, but initially the romance starts with wanting something you think that you cannot have. There must be a barrier for romance to exist. The barriers in Rappaccini’s Daughter” are the father figures as in Romeo and Juliet. Even at the first sight of Beatrice Giovanni experiences his first symptom of romance:
…She had instilled a fierce and subtle poison into his system. It was not love, although her beauty was madness to him; nor horror, even while he fancied her spirit to be imbued with the same baneful 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 another… (44)
The very image of Beatrice has made Giovanni mad. He is worshipping the image of Beatrice, what he hopes she is. The “love and horror” are the double qualities that this drug, Romance, consists of. She has overtaken his thoughts, and turned them into a lust-filled obsession. Giovanni places the image of Beatrice on a pedestal, and his thoughts become solely dedicated to her. After Giovanni’s initial meeting with Beatrice he becomes so engulfed in this pit of Romance that he finds it hard even to sleep and stays up until dawn. Giovanni becomes confused in his thoughts. He thinks he loves her but cannot get the monstrous-like feeling toward Beatrice out of his head:
But now his spirit was incapable of sustaining itself at height to which early enthusiasm of passion had exalted it; he fell down, groveling among earthly doubts, and defiled there with the pure whiteness of Beatrice’s image…he resolved to institute some decisive test that should satisfy him. (54)
Here we see that Giovanni has worshipped the image of Beatrice. He has overstepped the barrier and no longer feels the desire he once felt in the beginning. The image of Beatrice, which he once worshipped, is ruined, but is it? Romance, as stated earlier, may end tragically. The death of Beatrice is the tragic ending. The antidote was Giovanni’s wish to rid Beatrice of her poison so that they could be together. He did not realize that Beatrice’s blood was the poison.
Nature and Science is the next double theme that is explored in “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Both doctors are trying to manipulate nature and it ends in destruction. Beatrice and Giovanni symbolize how human lives can be destroyed when scientific experiments go amiss. In Rappaccini’s garden he plays God to his daughter and her “sisters”, the plants. He creates every perfect plant that lives within his garden’s walls. His plants are perfect and poisonous. It is appropriate to say that Beatrice was Rappaccini’s “guinea pig.” He has made her poisonous to the outside world to protect her from its evils. It may appear on the outside that he is protecting Beatrice, but in Baglioni’s words, “He cares infinitely more for science than for mankind….He would sacrifice human life, his own among the rest, or whatever else was dearest to him” (41). It appears that in his obsession with knowledge and science his fatherly duties have vanished. He is not trying to protect her, the powers he has given to Beatrice are ultimately for his own use. Dr. Rappaccini’s “sin is trying to rival God and subordinate human values to scientific knowledge” (Stallman, par. 19). He is the false God of an unnatural heaven. His garden is described as having,
An appearance of artificialness indicating that there had been commixture, named as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God’s making, but the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty.

Rappaccini trying to play God is evil because it is an imitation. The imitation is the double. It is also important to note again the double qualities of the shrub; it is symbolic of the Tree of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. So therefore, the double is in nature itself.
The themes discussed in this essay all revolve around the double. The whole tale is about the double—that what is good is also bad. The rivals in this story are both physicians who study medicine or the drug. In Greek Pharmakon is the drug, and the double to the drug is, Pharmakos, the sacrificial victim. The drug in this story is the shrub. The sacrificial victim in this story happens to be poor, innocent Beatrice. In this story Beatrice represents the victim of original sin, even though she has not committed any real sin herself. The sacrificial victim possesses double qualities as well. Beatrice is shown as a good hearted person, but she is also poisonous. The sacrifical victim is good because it takes away the sins of the other people. The shrub is the real object of sin. Does she represent Jesus, the sacrificial victim, who took our sins away? Beatrice dies because of the mimetic rivalry between the fathers. She is the hero, and the hero must always die. The resolution of the ambiguous double is the murder of the victim. The story also touches on the violence of rivalry; the mimetic rivalry between both doctors causes the death of an innocent person. Hawthorne is a master of words and to discover the meaning of his words you must reread and deeply analyze what he was trying to get across. Only a master of words can make so much of so short a story.


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