The literary critics agree that there is considerable ambiguity in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” This essay intends to illustrate this statement and to analyze the cause of this ambiguity.
Henry James in Hawthorne mentions how Hawthorne’s allegorical meanings should be expressed clearly:
I frankly confess that I have, as a general thing, but little enjoyment of it, and that it has never seemed to me to be, as it were, a first-rate literary form. . . . But it is apt to spoil two good things – a story and a moral, a meaning and a form; and the taste for it is responsible for a large part of the forcible-feeding writing that has been inflicted upon the world. The only cases in which it is endurable is when it is extremely spontaneous, when the analogy presents itself with eager promptitude. When it shows signs of having been groped and fumbled for, the needful illusion is of course absent, and the failure complete. Then the machinery alone is visible and the end to which it operates becomes a matter of indifference (50).
When one has to grope for, and fumble for, the meaning of a tale, then there is “failure” in the work, as Henry James says. This unfortunately is the case of “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” It is so ambiguous in so many occasions in the tale that a blur rather than a distinct image forms in the mind of the reader. The Norton Anthology: American Literature states in “Nathaniel Hawthorne”:
Above all, his theme was curiosity about the recesses of other men’s and women’s beings. About this theme he was always ambivalent [my italics], for he knew that his success as a writer depended upon his keen psychologi...
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Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.
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.
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.
“Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature, edited by Baym et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995.
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