This essay focuses on the way Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” articulates the tension between the spirit and the empirical world. Hawthorne challenges the empirical world Rappaccini, both malevolent for his experimentation with human nature and sympathetic for his love for his daughter, represents, by raising an aesthetic question Rappaccini implicitly asks. Hawthorne never conclusively answers this question in his quest to preserve spiritual beauty in an empirical world, offering the most disturbing possibility of all: could art and the artist prove as fatal to the human spirit as empiricism?
Hawthorne’s sinister representation of Rappaccini early in the story belies this self-isolating character’s complexity and his overriding desire to protect his daughter from the “miserable doom” (942) she nonetheless suffers by creating her as a poisonous body, dangerous like her “sister” plant in the garden. Rappaccini is first presented to us “a tall, emaciated, sallow, and sickly-looking man, dressed in a scholar’s garb of black.” He “could never, even in his more youthful days, have expressed much warmth of heart,” appearing as a somber figure apparently morose and removed from love at the tale’s beginning. Hawthorne opens the story in an allegorical framework he draws from Dante’s Inferno by presenting Rappaccini as a seemingly fixed character: his “demeanor was that of one walking among malignant influences,” or “influences” that signal his role in the tale both as evil, since he walks among the “deadly snakes, or evil spirits” (925), and as Adam, the first man encountering evil in the Garden of Eden. Rappaccini’s dubious, if not entirely evil character as “the distrustful gardener,” along...
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...” in a practical world that threatens the spiritual one with its evil? Obviously, Rappaccini’s answer in his self-imposed isolation and experiment with Giovanni and Beatrice fails; rather, his attempt to ameliorate the poisonous effects of the physical world on the spirit only attracts a greater, more deadly poison—the dark aspects of human nature. He gives a dissatisfying alternative in Baglioni’s last, mocking line to Rappaccini, one in which the empirical horrors have, in the end, killed the spiritual essence along with Beatrice. It is a lesson not just about the dangers of science, then, but also about the dangers of human nature and its capacity for evil, from which art cannot lift us. Hawthorne’s bleak view of the scientist and the artist proposes a perfect world no one—not Rappaccini, not Giovanni, not Hawthorne—can achieve, even with the best of intentions.
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