Rappaccini’s Daughter Essay: Solitude/Isolation in the Story and Hawthorne’s Life
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In the Nathaniel Hawthorne tale, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” we see and feel the solitude/isolation of the scientific-minded surgeon, Dr. Rappaccini, likewise that of his daughter, Beatrice, and finally that of the main character, Giovanni. Is this solitude not a reflection of the very life of the author?
According to A.N. Kaul in his Introduction to Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, the themes of isolation and alienation were ones which Hawthorne was “deeply preoccupied with” in his writings (2). Hawthorne’s personal isolation from people from 1825 to 1837 was probably due to his lifelong shyness among people. This reluctance to freely socialize may have been a result of a foot injury: “an injury to his foot at the age of nine reduced his physical activity for almost two years” (Martin 16). Wagenknecht says in Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Man, His Tales and Romances that this accident “reduced him for over two years to a state of invalidism that probably contributed toward developing his taste for reading” (2). Or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s shyness was perhaps due to the death of his father when he was but four years old. Regarding the impact of this death upon Hawthorne, Edmund Fuller and B. Jo Kinnick in “Stories Derived from New England Living,” say:
When the news came of his father’s death, Hawthorne’s mother withdrew into her upstairs bedroom, coming out only rarely during the remaining forty years of her life. The boy and his two sisters lived in almost complete isolation from her and from each other (29).
The Norton Anthology: American Literature states that as a college student at Bowdoin College “shyness caused him to try to evade the obligatory public declamations” (547). It continues:
Hawthorne’s years between 1825 and 1837 have fascinated his biographers and critics. Hawthorne himself took pains to propagate the notion that he had lived as a hermit who left his upstairs room only for nighttime walks and hardly communicated even with his mother and sisters (547).
Henry James, a contemporary of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who knew him socially, had lots to say about Hawthorne’s isolation and shyness in his book Hawthorne:
. . . this region to be of a "weird and woodsy" character; and Hawthorne, later in life, spoke of it to a friend as the place where "I first got my cursed habits of solitude.
" . . . But for a boy with a relish for solitude there were many natural resources, and we can understand that Hawthorne should in after years have spoken very tenderly of this episode: "I lived in Maine like a bird of the air, so perfect was the freedom I enjoyed." During the long summer days he roamed, gun in hand, through the great woods and during the moonlight nights of winter, says his biographer, quoting another informant, "he would skate until midnight, all alone. . . . " (14)
And the same writer alludes to a touching passage in the English Note-Books, which I shall quote entire:--. . . This dream, recurring all through these twenty or thirty years, must be one of the effects of that heavy seclusion in which I shut myself up for twelve years after leaving college, when everybody moved onward and left me behind. . . " (20-21)
The allusion here is to a state of solitude which was the young man's positive choice at the time--or into which he drifted at least under the pressure of his natural shyness and reserve. He was not expansive, he was not addicted to experiments and adventures of intercourse, he was not, personally, in a word, what is called sociable (21)
“Rappaccini’s Daughter” takes place in Padua, Italy, where a Naples student named Giovanni Guascanti has relocated in order to attend the medical school there. His modest room is in an old mansion watched over by the landlady, Dame Lisabetta, a two-dimensional character given to religious expletives like, ``Holy Virgin, signor!'' She seeks to make the customer content with his lodging; she answers Giovanni’s curiosity about a garden next-door: ``No; that garden is cultivated by the own hands of Signor Giacomo Rappaccini, the famous doctor. . . .” The garden is isolated in the sense that no one has access to it except the doctor and his daughter.
Giovanni in his room can hear the water gurgling in Dr. Rappaccini’s garden, from an ancient marble fountain located in the center of the plants and bushes; of particular interest to Giovanni is “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 lustre and richness of a gem.” As striking as the plant of the purple gems is “a tall, emaciated, sallow, and sickly-looking man, dressed in a scholar's garb of black,” who is busy in the garden, scientifically examining the plants in a detached and cautious manner as if “walking among malignant influences, such as savage beasts, or deadly snakes, or evil spirits.” The simile here points to the reason why the doctor’s garden has to be isolated from the general population.
The reader sees another character enter the tale with the doctor’s shout “in the infirm voice of a person affected with inward disease, -- `’Beatrice! Beatrice!’'' This reference to an “inward disease” implies the necessary isolation of the doctor from normal people. From his window Giovanni sees approaching the doctor’s daughter “beautiful as the day, and with a bloom so deep and vivid that one shade more would have been too much.” Her abilities are exceptional because it is apparent to Giovanni that “she handled and inhaled the odor of several of the plants which her father had most sedulously avoided.” Beatrice exhibits an especially close relationship to the purple gem plant, which Rappaccini is too fearful of tending anymore: ``Yes, my sister, my splendour, it shall be Beatrice's task to nurse and serve thee; and thou shalt reward her with thy kisses and perfumed breath, which to her is as the breath of life.'' Beatrice’s closeness to such mysteriously harmful plantlife implies the fact that she too is isolated from humanity generally speaking.
Today Giovanni makes his rounds of the university, meeting the next character being introduced into the tale: “Signor Pietro Baglioni, professor of medicine in the university, a physician of eminent repute to whom Giovanni had brought a letter of introduction.” When, in the course of dinner with the professor, Giovanni inquires of his neighbor, Dr. Rappaccini, Baglioni responds in a foreboding manner, saying that the medical student should be careful not “to imbibe erroneous ideas respecting a man who might hereafter chance to hold your life and death in his hands.” And later the professor adds: “His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment.” This emphasizes the surgeon’s evil tendency to disregard human life and feelings, thus isolating himself from normal, loving and caring people.
It is Rappaccini’s theory that all medicines derive from substances called vegetable poisons; the doctor’s garden is set up to produce such vegetable poisons. And according to Baglioni, the application of his “poisons” results in more failures than successes. The professor sheds light on Beatrice also: “I know little of the Signora Beatrice save that Rappaccini is said to have instructed her deeply in his science.” The professor’s words emphasizes the fact that Beatrice lives apart from ordinary people. Toward Beatrice the protagonist becomes more ambivalent, asking, “Beautiful shall I call her, or inexpressibly terrible?''
The deadly aspect of Beatrice and her inadvertent conflicts with living creatures around her, causes considerable buildup of suspense, as a small reptile dies, followed by the death of an insect (“while Beatrice was gazing at the insect with childish delight, it grew faint and fell at her feet”), followed by the withering of Giovanni’s bouquet of flowers in her hand (“his beautiful bouquet was already beginning to wither in her grasp.”) Giovanni’s association with Beatrice expresses itself in ambivalent psychological reactions which indicate an inner conflict of growing proportions.
Professor Baglioni injects considerable suspense into the plot when he comments, after witnessing Rappaccini look strangely at Giovanni, “Signor Giovanni, I will stake my life upon it, you are the subject of one of Rappaccini's experiments!''
There is a private entrance into the garden, and Giovanni’s “piece of gold” enables the protagonist to examine the plants in Rappaccini’s garden more closely (“The aspect of one and all of them dissatisfied him; their gorgeousness seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural. . . . the monstrous offspring of man's depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty”), and to make regular contact with Beatrice, who displays an ongoing conflict with her dad, her reputation and with evil powers within. Thus she is quite isolated in several senses of the word.
Giovanni feels an agony is his right hand, “the very hand which Beatrice had grasped in her own when he was on the point of plucking one of the gemlike flowers,” but the ugly feeling is lost in a “reverie of Beatrice.” The clues to the poisonous nature of the girl are disregarded by the love-blind protagonist. Beatrice herself is falling deeply in love. Strangely, though, for two people in love, “there had been no seal of lips, no clasp of hands, nor any slightest caress such as love claims and hallows”; this is due, of course, to the resolve within Beatrice to not harm her boyfriend through her poison.
One morning Giovanni is “disagreeably surprised by a visit” from Professor Baglioni, who wishes to save Beatrice: “Possibly we may even succeed in bringing back this miserable child within the limits of ordinary nature, from which her father's madness has estranged her. Behold this little silver vase!” The silver vial contains a poison-antidote. Resolving “to institute some decisive test that should satisfy him, once for all, whether there were those dreadful peculiarities” within his Beatrice, Giovanni purchases more flowers for her; and on the way “A thrill of indefinable horror shot through his frame on perceiving that those dewy flowers were already beginning to droop. . . .” The character of the hero becomes more confirmed in his poisonousness as he breathes on a spider: “The spider made a convulsive gripe with his limbs and hung dead across the window.” Giovanni is now aware of the poisonous effect of Beatrice and goes for a climactic meeting with her in the isolated garden.
The full rage of Giovanni’s various conflicts comes forth: “’Accursed one!'’ cried he, with venomous scorn and anger. `’And, finding thy solitude wearisome, thou hast severed me likewise from all the warmth of life and enticed me into thy region of unspeakable horror!’'' Giovanni is so distraught that he despairs and asks for the ultimate act of isolation - a mutual suicide:
``Yes, poisonous thing!'' repeated Giovanni, beside himself with passion. ``Thou hast done it! Thou hast blasted me! Thou hast filled my veins with poison! Thou hast made me as hateful, as ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself -- a world's wonder of hideous monstrosity! Now, if our breath be happily as fatal to ourselves as to all others, let us join our lips in one kiss of unutterable hatred, and so die!''
Beatrice humbly and lovingly admits that she is a monster; she further admits her father’s evil intention to experiment with Giovanni. At this point the narrator’s exploration of Giovanni’s mental workings reveal him as the New Adam leading a saved Eve from the garden of Eden: “Besides, thought Giovanni, might there not still be a hope of his returning within the limits of ordinary nature, and leading Beatrice, the redeemed Beatrice, by the hand?” He wishes to save her and himself from perpetual solitude and isolation from people. The outcome of the climax depends on Baglioni’s poison-antidote: “Shall we not quaff it together, and thus be purified from evil?'' Beatrice puts Baglioni's antidote to her lips; and, at the same moment, the figure of Rappaccini emerges. Now dying because of a reaction to the antidote, Beatrice becomes fully aware of the evil within her father – the underlying cause of his isolation: “Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?'' These words are reflective of a statement made by a literary critic regarding Hawthorne’s short stories: Alfred Kazin says in the Introduction to Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne:
As the background and unifying theme of Hawthorne’s stories is the human obsession with guilt, so the central character in all these stories is the inward man, the human soul trying to represent itself. . . . In story after story the given element, the central and unifying element, is what moves and stirs within us, the mysterious springs of our every action, our “soul”(14).
Hawthorne’s penchant for characterizing the “inner man” may be an isolating factor in his stories. And so Beatrice dies, “the poor victim of man's ingenuity and of thwarted nature,” at the feet of her father and Giovanni, and leaving both of them isolated, for different reasons, from each other and from the normal world.
Fuller, Edmund and B. Jo Kinnick. “Stories Derived from New England Living.” In Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Clarice Swisher. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” ElectronicText Center. University of Virginia Library. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/browse-mixed-new?id="HawRapp"&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public
James, Henry. Hawthorne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.
Kaul, A.N. “Introduction.” In Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Kazin, Alfred. Introduction. Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Fawcett Premier, 1966.
Lang, H.J.. “How Ambiguous Is Hawthorne.” In Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by A.N. Kaul. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Martin, Terence. Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Twayne Publishers Inc., 1965.
“Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature, edited by Baym et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Man, His Tales and Romances. New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1989.