Survey of Criticism of "Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne [with class response and discussion] Laura Stallman, VCU, 1995
All of the features characteristic of Hawthorne's fiction are present with a vengeance in "Rappaccini's Daughter": ambiguity, symbolism, allegory, the Gothic, fantasy, the shallow young hero, the vital female character, the Faustian and diabolical character, the theme of faith, the theme of science, the presence of morality, the conflict between head and heart, the breaking of the chain of humanity, and even perhaps the unpardonable sin. Given all of this, one might well decide that "Rappaccini's Daughter" is not only the most problematic of all of Hawthorne's tales, but also the most characteristic.
There has been no general agreement as to the tale's interpretation and there is still no clear emerging consensus yet regarding its meaning. It has aroused a bewildering array of conflicting interpretations. The tale's meaning has been construed to be pro-Transcendental and anti-Transcendental. Beatrice has been regarded as a heavenly angel and a fatal seductress. Giovanni has been characterized as a Puritan and an artist figure. Rappaccini has been deemed both God and Satan. And Baglioni has been seen as an ineffectual Christ and a Iago-like figure.
Connections with other texts are numerous. As far as other Hawthorne works," Rappaccini's Daughter" has been linked to The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, Fanshawe, The Marble Faun, "The Birthmark," "Young Goodman Brown," "The Artist of the Beautiful," "Drowne's Wooden Image," "The Minister's Black Veil," "The Maypole of Merry Mount," "Alice Donne's Appeal," "Ethan Brand," "Lady Eleanor's Mantle," "The New Adam and Eve," "The Devil in Manuscript," "Egotism, or the Bosom Serpent," "The Intelligence Office," and "Roger Malvin's Burial." Major emphasis has been placed on the text's relationship to Dante's The Divine Comedy and Purgatorio, and to the Bible stories of Genesis and Adam and Eve. Connections have also been made to Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Ligeia," Milton's Paradise Lost, Emerson's Nature, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, James' The Turn of the Screw, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Holmes' Elsie Venner, and Shakespeare's Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. The fate of Beatrice has been correlated to those of the heroines in works such as The Awakening, The Bell Jar and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Roy Male's traditional Christian interpretation of "Rappaccini's Daughter" in Hawthorne's Tragic Vision is perhaps the most popular reading of the tale. He finds the moral of the story to be that if man is to develop full human potential, he must accept either the woman or the dual promise she represents: tragic involvement with sin but also the consequent possibility of redemption (54).
Symbolically, the plants in the garden mimic God's creation in an "evil mockery of beauty." The water in the fountain symbolizes the spirit, immortal and unaffected by the changes that have shattered its earthly basin. The fountain combines the material and the spiritual. The purple shrub is the guide marker to the action of the story. Like the fountain, it is an ambiguous mixture of both matter and spirit. Magnificent yet poisonous, it symbolizes Beatrice's potential spiritual perfection and mirrors her paradoxical state since the Fall. It suggests that the true subject of the story is the dual nature of humanity.
The four protagonists embody in various ways the dualism of good and evil. The villains--Rappaccini and Baglioni--each represent a polar opposite of evil which seeks to dominate over good. Rappaccini's guilt of intellectual pride results in his being out of harmony with nature. Baglioni, a materialistic skeptic, strives to bring everything "within the realm of ordinary nature." Beatrice is the very embodiment of the central Christian paradox; she is angelic yet corrupt, beautiful but damned. Giovanni, a pilgrim of sorts, undergoes the critical experience of his Christian life. He is being instructed and tested and has the opportunity to win a high and holy faith through Beatrice. Whether or not he has the ability to attain and maintain hold of religious faith against the challenge of materialistic skepticism is the real question of the story. Unfortunately he fails due to his reliance upon his senses as the ultimate criterion of truth. Hawthorne shows in the tale that the inner world of human experience is a complex and ambiguous mixture of good and evil. The evil takes shape in Rappaccini's intellectual pride and Baglioni's gross materialism. Giovanni can not come to terms with the fact that Beatrice offers both sin and eventual redemption.
In Rappaccini's Children, William Shurr describes the tale as "a savage stereotype of the classic American religion"--Calvinism (4). He states that "Rappaccini's Daughter" is an allegory of a fallen garden with Giovanni and Beatrice as Adam and Eve, Rappaccini as both God and Satan, and Baglioni as an ineffectual Christ. The world is now totally under the control of Satan and redemption is only a quasi-successful operation involving a few "elect." The tree of life has turned into a poisonous plant of death. Rappaccini is compared to a Calvinist deity who gives his creatures no choice but preordains the poison which will infect their bodies. Beatrice is a child of the devil and her specific evil for Giovanni is her sexual attraction. In this corrupted garden, sexual love does not lead to love and consummation but rather to the death of a seductive woman.
Marilyn Fryer relegates Beatrice to the ranks of Hawthorne's "Dark Women" in The Faces of Eve. Along with Hester Prynne, Miriam, and Zenobia, Beatrice is a temptress; an American femme fatale in nineteenth-century Romantic literature. She is deadly because of her alluring yet frightful sexuality which threatens to destroy Giovanni. Fryer views "Rappaccini's Daughter" as a testing of the doctrine of Original Sin in which Beatrice is Eve and Giovanni is Adam. Poisonous through no fault of her own, Beatrice is both a vehicle of guilt and a vessel of redemption. Doctor Rappaccini commits the unpardonable Hawthornian sin by caring "infinitely more for science than for mankind." Like Young Goodman Brown, Giovanni is unable to accept the sexuality and sinfulness of Beatrice. By refusing to accept her duality, Giovanni fails to realize that it is also through her that redemption and full human potential can be achieved. Giovanni is attempting to prevent a New World Fall. He resists the idea that it is necessary for him to enter into a passionate involvement with a woman and her temporal burden in order to gain salvation.
In "Beatrice Rappaccini: A Victim of Male Love and Horror," Richard Brenzo examines the male-female pairings and comes to the conclusion that the poison in the natures of Giovanni, Baglioni and Doctor Rappaccini represent their own fears, obsessions, ambitions, and unhealthy desires. The poison that they see and fear in Beatrice is in actuality the evil that they cannot admit in themselves. He reads the tale as a partial allegory; one in which Beatrice is exploited for love, revenge, science, or mere curiosity. He contends that all three men's motives are based on Beatrice's femaleness, with her sexuality as the main impetus for Giovanni.
Giovanni has a destructive need to dominate and possess Beatrice and Brenzo points out that this is precisely the quality Giovanni finds most threatening in his idea of her. He seems to desire a sexual union, while fearing its dangers. A sexual commitment to Beatrice would be a "death" in the sense of being dominated by a woman. By giving her the "antidote," Giovanni seeks to remake her into his ideal woman; one who will gratify his ego and conform to his fantasies.
Baglioni convinces himself that Beatrice is out to make a conquest for his academic chair. He desires to score a triumph over Doctor Rappaccini by eliminating his daughter and he acts out of revenge, fear, professional rivalry, and envy. Brenzo contends that if Baglioni feels threatened by Doctor Rappaccini, then the thought of a woman being his intellectual superior and displacing him from his position must be doubly frightening (161). Baglioni's final lines "So is this the upshot of your experiment" are interpreted as gloating satisfaction of an academician exposing the folly of a colleague.
Rappaccini projects his own selfish desires onto Beatrice and then blames her, not himself, when she refuses to go along with his scheme. His quest for knowledge is secondary to his need for power. By isolating her, he has kept her ignorant and dependent upon him. The power that he has given his own daughter is ultimately for his own use, not her protection.
Like Fryer, Brenzo reads the story as a variation on the femme fatale legend, but notes that although Beatrice is intrinsically malignant, she isn't purposefully harmful. Brenzo warns that one must look beyond such femme fatales to the "hommes fatals" who make them deadly. "All of the men profess a desire to help her, while secretly fearing her `embrace of death'. Consequently, they have offered her help in their own selfish, vengeful, scientific ways, and for her, their embrace has meant death" (164).
Leland S. Person's Aesthetic Headaches also focuses on the issue of projection and dramatizes the clouding human vision which occurs when one does so. By pointing out that there are two classic extremes of viewing women--as saints or demons--Person can show how Beatrice is a victim of male imagination that cannot overcome its own fears of women. Giovanni, Baglioni and Rappaccini are all accused of projecting upon Beatrice impulses they are unwilling to acknowledge as their own. Giovanni's failure is his desire to separate Beatrice's physical nature--which he perceives as poisonous--from her spiritual nature in an effort to purify her. His "victory" proves fatal for her and illuminates the consequences for a woman of a man's failure to accept her as she is.
In his book Hawthorne: A Critical Study, Hyatt H. Waggoner focuses on the symbolism of the garden and the Christian frame of reference within which the tale is written. He argues that "Rappaccini's Daughter" is a symbolic tale with allegorical elements which lack the "fixed and systematic identifications proper to allegory" and therefore the tale will not yield a satisfactory allegorical reading (116). He claims that Beatrice typifies the condition of man since the Fall and that the theme is primarily concerned with the origin, nature and cure of man's "radically mixed, his good-and-evil being" (113). Beatrice is seen as an extension of the garden imagery with the intermingling of beauty and decay, health and death, good and evil. She is lovely but poisonous, innocent yet corrupt. Waggoner describes her as "the victim of an original sin," but notes that she has not committed any actual sin, nor is she guilty of any capital vices (106). The plant with which she is so intimately associated is the vehicle for evil in the story.
Since Waggoner reads the tale symbolically rather than allegorically, he focuses on how color images support the implications of the garden, serpent, fountain and flower imagery. Bright sunshine corresponds to the illusions of unspoiled nature and gives the garden the appearance of perfect innocence. The color purple, associated with the flower and Beatrice's dress, is an ambiguous color, often relating to royalty and death and disturbing in its emotional effects.
I'd like to interject here another possible connection to the color purple. In Christianity, it is the color that marks the season of Advent, a period of waiting. This period culminates in the birth of Christ who was sent by God to bear the sins of the world. By doing so, he guaranteed forgiveness of human evil and life everlasting. Hawthorne may be alluding to this season as a reminder that humans must wait for perfection in the life to come. In the meantime, they must accept themselves as both good and evil, and learn to live with imperfection.
Finally, there is the color black which is constantly associated with Rappaccini. Waggoner contends that if sunlight suggests a positive value and red and purple an ambiguous value, black here is unambiguously negative. Together with the imagery of snakes and cold, it defines Rappaccini as an evil force in the story. He also paints Rappaccini as one who corrupted the garden rather than created it. Therefore, he argues, he is not a God, not even an evil one. Nor is he Satan, though he is associated with serpent imagery.
In his discussion of "Rappaccini's Daughter" in Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and Dark, Richard Fogle claims that he has found the tale the most difficult of Hawthorne's stories due to Beatrice's ambiguity and the double rather than single theme. To him, Beatrice should symbolically represent a contrast between outward beauty and inner ugliness and evil. Instead, he notes, she is essentially simple and good, her evil power merely a superficial disguise. The problem he has is with the antidote, which represents the only hope of remedy. He feels that it is unjust to her real goodness that she must die despite of it; or else suppose, in contradiction to Hawthorne's plain statement and emphasis, that evil was predominant in her. The problem with the theme is that it is difficult to find a focus which will both enclose and clarify the picture of the entire story. He thinks that the text suffers from an excess of virtues; there are too many things to look at at once and accurate definition of its elements is next to impossible.
Like Waggoner, Fogle concentrates on the symbolism in the tale. The color white symbolically stands for heaven and the true nature of Beatrice, as does the fountain in the garden. The color purple and the plants represent the earthly, external Beatrice. Purple is also seen as the color of complexity and evil, while white is the color of goodness and simplicity. Fogle claims, however, that Hawthorne fails by his symbolism to distinguish between the ordinary light of reason and the pure light which lays bare Beatrice's true goodness.
The primary theme is concerned with Giovanni and Beatrice. She is marked for death because she is too pure for this imperfect world. Metaphorically the world must break into this garden, which is associated with Eden, and does so in the person of Giovanni. He is representative of all men, not evil but ordinary, and he breaks beneath an extraordinary ordeal. The second theme is centered on Rappaccini. His sin is trying to rival God and subordinate human values to scientific knowledge. He is a false God of an unnatural Paradise.
Fogle sees "Rappaccini's Daughter" as a Gothic romance. The story occurs in a microcosm of its own, governed by its own laws. The garden is an adaptation of the isolated castle, similar to Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" and "Ligeia". And the hero--who in this case is Giovanni--is beset by mysterious and overpowering forces. There is also a sense of an unequal struggle against tremendous odds which can be defeated only by a miraculous invention or by violation of the laws of cause and effect. He also sees it as a Spenserian allegory where Rappaccini is Archimago and the Malbecco of The Faerie Queene. Beatrice and the garden are related to Acrasia in her Bower of Bliss and to Tasso's enchanting Armida. Giovanni is a pitiful Sir Guyon or paladin of Charlemagne and Beatrice is a sadly innocent and vulnerable sorceress. Finally, the tale can be interpreted as an ironic fairy tale with Beatrice as the sleeping beauty, Giovanni as her prince, Rappaccini as the malevolent fairy, and Baglioni as a good fairy. Baglioni's powerful antidote is the magic potion.
The chapter entitled "The Poison of Interpretation: Giovanni's Reading of Rappaccini's Daughter" in Dennis Phal's Architects of the Abyss discusses the issue of perspective and how the story seems to consistently obscure any "proper" point of view. He illustrates how Giovanni's problem of reading the world in a scientific way also calls attention to our own dilemma as interpreters of the story trying to reach certain conclusions based on literary "facts." Phal concludes that the tale is a critique of empirical understanding and explores how "truth" is precisely a function of perspective. He goes on to note that the sort of perspective truth implicit in "Rappaccini's Daughter" could be closely related to the Nietzschean idea of how truth and knowledge are obtained. Nietzsche says, "Ultimately, man finds in things nothing but what he himself has imported into them: the finding is called science, the importing--art, religion, love, pride" and "There are only facts--I would say: No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations" (61).
Phal sees the tale as an Eden reconstructed by modern science in which Rappaccini is a false God and Beatrice is the chief inhabitant of a fallen world. In Giovanni we see a depiction of an aspect of the Puritan mind which sees "nature as a text written by God" and one that tries to control human nature--even human nature itself--by imposing on Beatrice's sexuality a certain moral value that is evil (63). Giovanni is superficial; he lacks depth and sympathy and the only truth that he sees is the one that he imagines.
Phal thinks that it is language, or its interpretation, that subverts the natural world that Beatrice and her garden represent. We as readers are tempted to read the tale allegorically, and by doing so we become the exact type of empirical scientist or interpreter that is characterized in the story and subject to the same kind of errors of interpretation. He explains that the Preface to the tale calls into question the authoritative or "proper" point of view and that it is Hawthorne's attempt to undermine the notion of a final word. By doing so, Hawthorne allows us to see the irony implicit in any authoritative gesture.
John Downton Hazlett's "Rereading `Rappaccini's Daughter': Giovanni and the Seduction of the Transcendental Reader" also focuses on the issue of perception. His verdict is that the tale is anti-Transcendental because he contends that "nature as seen in the tale has no readable symbolic or allegorical relation to Spirit" (61). He believes that "Rappaccini's Daughter" shows the way in which the Emersonian doctrine that "every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact" could go awry (51). He identifies Giovanni, whose symbolizing is both conventionally allegorical and rigidly Transcendental, as the main focus of that criticism. Hazlett takes into account the dynamic interaction between the reader and the narrative and arrives at his conclusions after having navigated his way through the series of narrative traps, obstacles and tests.
Hazlett shows how Hawthorne seduces the reader into misreading the tale by making them naturally identify with Giovanni and thereby commit the same symbolizing errors. Giovanni, who is a conventional reader of romance, is used as bait with which to reel the reader in. The first encounter in the garden sets up the pattern for his role as the reader's proxy. The scene is set up by the narrator who places Giovanni in a position where he can perceive a scene, and then the narrator relays the scene to the reader, thereby inferring that what the reader is seeing is Giovanni's perception and not the narrator's (though the narrator's conveyance adds weight to the authority).
Hazlett equates Giovanni's moonlight readings of Beatrice with heterodox Transcendentalism which unveils a radical split between inner and outer appearance. He also notes how moonlight, when used as a romance convention, tends to reveal deeper realities of the world. In gothic romances, daylight is known to hide the truth. Both of these conventions, along with some reverse psychology similar to the kind used by Iago on Othello, seduce the reader into adopting the moonlight reading of "the Demon Beatrice" (52). But Hazlett points out that Hawthorne's idiosyncratic use of this atmospheric medium is more likely to reveal pathological states of mind of the perceiver.
The daylight readings are equated with orthodox Transcendentalism, "a most rational view," which denies the existence of evil and any split between nature and spirit. To adopt this reading, Giovanni must suppress evidence of Beatrice's physical toxicity. Hazlett recognizes that both views--heterodox and orthodox--assume a correspondence between nature and spirit that is essentially Transcendental.
Although the denouement reveals the literal truth of Giovanni's moonlight suspicions, it denies the spiritual implications of that truth. Readers at this point, however, are likely to make the conventional assumption that her spirit is also deformed. Hawthorne's red herring--that the interpretation of Beatrice's character turns on a judgement of her inner nature and that her inner nature has nothing to do with her physical being--is not made problematic until the end of the story. Giovanni's reading (and the reader's, too) is revealed to be a fatal misapplication of the conventions of romance and Transcendentalism to a real person.
Hazlett notes that at this point, with some embarrassment, the reader will switch allegiance to the narrator which is yet another trap. The narrator is not trustworthy and he is also guilty of reading Beatrice as a symbol of an absolute spiritual quality. Both readings are allegorical, Transcendental and hostile to human love which requires the recognition that people are neither demons nor angels, but human beings. In the end, Giovanni, we as readers, the narrator, and even the author of the tale (who is characterized by Hawthorne in the guise of the story's editor as having an allegorical habit of stealing away from characters their "human warmth"), are guilty of manslaughter.
Yet another anti-Transcendental reading of the tale is offered by Carol Bensick in La Nouvelle Beatrice: Renaissance and Romance in "Rappaccini's Daughter." Her book focuses on reconstructing the sixteenth-century Paduan setting because she believes that it is the key to understanding the meaning of the tale. She discovers that what the language of sixteenth-century medicine did to nature, the language of nineteenth-century religion was still doing. "The new element was the Romanticism that pretended that the problems of raw or pre-philosophized nature could be solved with the wave of some poetic wand" (137).
Discussion of the scientific controversy between Paracelsianism and Galenism which was occurring in sixteenth-century Padua enables the reader to understand the characters in historical terms, thereby making it no longer necessary to regard them as "Gothic-romantic literary cliches" (67). Rappaccini is characterized as a Paracelsian. He learns from nature rather than authority, relies on observational evidence, uses "like to cure like," and attempts experiments. Baglioni is Rappaccini's counterpart, a Galenist who doesn't distinguish between the body and its sickness. He is associated with traditional academia and uses "contraries" to cure. Likewise, Bensick discusses the philosophic and literary assumptions which govern each character's world view. Rappaccini is seen as a NeoPlatonist, Baglioni as a Aristotelian, and Giovanni as wavering between the two.
Bensick also seeks to find a historical correlation to the malady which affects Giovanni, Beatrice and Rappaccini. She concludes that it is in fact syphilis and supports her findings by noting similarities in the descriptions of the illnesses (fever and strange bursts of energy), mentions of famous Renaissance syphilis suffers in the text (Cesare Borgia and Benvenuto Cellini, who so happens to have been the creator of Baglioni's vial), the differing effects the disease has on the various characters (Rappaccini is sick with it, Beatrice, infected at birth, has inherited it from her father and developed an immunity to it, and Giovanni is an unconscious carrier), and the fact that Paracelsianism played a major role in the finding of a treatment for the disease.
Bensick also focuses on the narrator and his interpretation of the story. The narrator presents the story of Giovanni and Beatrice as an allegory of faith. He sees Beatrice as a symbol of religious truth and allegorically, Giovanni as a young man who flirts with spiritual commitment. Rappaccini and Baglioni are doctors, not of medicine, but of divinity. Rappaccini represents "the seventeenth-century New England divine or even John Calvin himself" while Baglioni is out to destroy the false doctrines of Rappaccini's religion (121). The narrator's view is simply a partisan version of the religious situation and a Transcendental critique of religious alternatives in New England at the time of the writing of "Rappaccini's Daughter."
Guiovanni's belief in Beatrice is identical to the Transcendental doctrine. The narrator holds that Giovanni should have gotten beyond the orthodox doctrine of original sin, just as he should have gotten past Beatrice's poisonousness. Like Hazlett, Bensick also disapproves of the narrator's point. She believes the tale shows that Transcendental romantic idealism cannot be used as a guide for actual historical experience. Giovanni's experience in fact confirms everything the narrator denies: sin, death, and the need for grace. Hawthorne intended the tale to show that the effect of neutralizing the Christian doctrine of original sin is death and that it is "not possible to purify the essential good news of salvation from the evil of gloomy doctrines" (130).
Bensick's book ultimately demonstrates how medicine, philosophy, and theology converge in the early sixteenth-century in the common metaphor of poison as syphilis. But poison in the tale is not to be regarded as evil. Rather, it needs to be treated as a fact--empirical and neutral--and not as a moral or metaphysical symbol. Asking Giovanni to accept Beatrice's poison is asking him to accept sex, disease, and the ultimate natural fact of death. Although these may not all be unambiguously happy facts, they do indeed seem to be facts. Bensick claims that by accepting these facts, we are changing our most basic thinking about morality and metaphor which is required if one hopes to be able to naturalize the text.
Margaret Hallissy's "Hawthorne's Venomous Beatrice" explains how poison in general and venomous women in particular have long been the embodiment of fear for moral evil and physical destruction. Venomous women have been equated with sexual excess and are believed to threaten men both physically and morally. She explores the paradoxes and ambiguities which surround female sexuality. Beatrice represents the homeopathic strand of this tradition, defined by Sir Thomas Browne, which makes her both a sexual seductress and a spiritual savior (234). It is this strand in which one poisonous creature is not only unable to infect another, but also serve as an antidote. As a paradox, Beatrice can touch poison yet not die. She can also operate in a world of sexuality yet remain uncorrupted. In "Rappaccini's Daughter," Beatrice is a life force who reconciles both physical and spiritual natures. Giovanni responds to her only as a physical being and fails to understand her as a real person rather than just a symbol of evil. The fall into sexuality is the Fortunate Fall for it unites flesh and spirit and allows man to move beyond his initial physical attraction for the female and come to understand her as a total being. Beatrice, representative of all females, is therefore to be considered both the problem and the solution to man's salvation.
Kent Bales' "Sexual Exploitation and the Fall from the Natural Virtue in `Rappaccini's Daughter'" determines the basic issue of the tale to be the mystery of Beatrice, which essentially is the mystery of why she is poisonous and why she is both terrible as well as beautiful. He sees the correlation between her and her namesake Beatrice Cenci, a woman who was raped by her father and in turn killed him. He thinks that Beatrice Rappaccini has been the victim of an incestuous rape but not quite in the same way. Doctor Rappaccini has impregnated her with poison. "The pervading sexual innuendo derives largely from his role as Adam and the curious circumstance that his helpmate is his daughter rather than his wife" (136). His pollution of her has connotations of incest. Poison in the tale derives from "the constricting conventionality of male consciousness and manifests itself in sexual and political victimization" (134). Man and nature's original Eden is now poison to the male characters. Bales sees the more malicious poison to lie within the men who feel threatened by Beatrice's pure nature. He notes that the Romantic conception of the Fall entails not only man's fall from natural goodness into depravity, but also his distancing from nature as well. Bales sees the point of the story to be that the restoration of Eden would destroy civilization as we know it. No radical change, not even the restoration of Edenic virtue, can occur without destroying our present state and circumstances.
"The Sin of Synecdoche: Hawthorne's Allegory against Symbolism in `Rappaccini's Daughter'," by Beverly Haviland, takes a twentieth-century critical approach as it examines Hawthorne's use of allegory. Haviland finds that in "Rappaccini's Daughter" Hawthorne's allegory plays between metaphor and metonymy, resulting in a tale that illustrates in a variety of ways how two levels of meaning can coexist and differ. She defines the originality of his allegory in epistemological terms, claiming that it shows "the willful ignorance of the difference between self and other and/or text and life" (280). Hawthorne's allegory affirms the traditional distinction between the ideal and the real, but then refuses to reconcile them at the expense of the real because the real is severely flawed. What results is frustration for the reader. This can be seen as a mark of Hawthorne's success because it indicates the he has accomplished in defeating the reader's quest for the organic, harmonious, ideal whole.
Haviland states that Hawthorne, "America's greatest allegorist," used allegory to attack the American version of romantic symbolism--transcendentalism--because he saw how vicious idealism could be in practice (279). He also sought to deconstruct the hierarchical relation of the ideal and the real that was essential to romanticism, and that had been, in the past, essential to allegory. Although Hawthorne felt that "the real" was a necessary antidote to any imagined ideal world, he did not choose realistic, representational narrative as his method with which to attack idealism. Mimesis would have been powerless against symbolism because at their extremes both deny, or either obscure, the difference between text and life (279).
Haviland also views "Rappaccini's Daughter" to be anti-Transcendental. She claims that "the belief that differences could be reconciled in an organic whole did not, for Hawthorne, promise celestial harmony, but rather the horror of monsters, the corruption of nature, the adulterous hybrids that only idealizing men in their will to power are capable of producing. Better the differences be preserved than that nature be violated by uniting dissimilar things" (281). She notes that at the time he wrote the tale, Hawthorne was actually living in the Old Manse, Emerson's home, and enjoying his hospitality. She calls Hawthorne's attack on Transcendentalism "indirect" and explains that Hawthorne saw the danger in this philosophy not in Emerson himself, but rather with how others used his rhetoric to justify their own selfish ends under the guise of idealism.
Haviland focuses on the patterns Hawthorne created which provoke and frustrate the reader who is trying to read the tale allegorically. The Genesis story, Dante, and Romeo and Juliet are three models for the allegory, but none of them will yield a correct reading. Hawthorne constantly provokes the reader to recognize that they are reading a text that needs to be interpreted in various ways simultaneously rather than a text that comforts them with the illusion that life and art and all other oppositions can be reconciled. The men in the tale are guilty of the sin of synecdoche because they only see that part of Beatrice that suits their purpose and they also want to resolve her differences into a harmonious whole. Hawthorne's own allegory enacts its own beliefs that heterogeneity must be preserved; there is no possibility of agreement and truths are many, not one.
Lois Cuddy focuses on Hawthorne's ironic manipulation of Dante's The Divine Comedy as the basis for the tale in "The Purgatorial Gardens of Hawthorne and Dante: Irony and Redefinition in `Rappaccini's Daughter'." She cites the similarities of the two works in the description of their openings, the religious and imagery diction used, the complexity of the garden settings, the characters, and the overall structures. Hawthorne's inversion of the Purgatorio allows him to make the statement that the modern world of the nineteenth-century is not Dante's world. Even a good and potentially virtuous man cannot reach and remain at the heights of truth and revelation. Man is a flawed creature. By his very nature, he cannot appreciate absolute goodness even if it is offered to him; he would find it poisonous to exist in such a purified atmosphere of life. Man's nature dictates that if he were offered a woman as virtuous as Beatrice--who is the symbol of Divine Truth, Light and Beauty--modern man would not recognize that Truth, appreciate that Beauty, or understand the Revelation (42). To Hawthorne, there is no hope for a renewed pre-Lapsarian state, or for the enduring purity and happiness promised by Eden. The underlying irony of life is that any absolute is to be mistrusted and under every positive is a negative that must also be recognized and accepted. Cuddy asserts that "Hawthorne has offered us an ironic, bleak and unambiguous vision of existence in this tale, and what he says with the help of a medieval garden world and a Dantean vision reversed to make a modern skeptical statement about life and human relations is consistent with the philosophy in his major fiction as well as with life as he observed it" (52).
In American Romanticism and the Marketplace, Michael T. Gilmore reads "Rappaccini's Daughter" as a dramatization of Hawthorne's predicament as a writer who was having problems attracting a popular audience. He cites the Preface to the tale as alluding to this. The characters in the tale each represent some aspect of Hawthorne's situation: his fiction, his reading public, the Transcendentalists, and the popular writers, a.k.a. "the pen and ink men." Giovanni corresponds to Hawthorne's reader, Beatrice is an allegorical representation of Hawthorne's writing/art, Rappaccini is a fictional Transcendentalist, and Baglioni represents the "pen-and-ink" writer. Giovanni fails to find the proper point of view from which to interpret Hawthorne's art. Baglioni sees Beatrice as a seductress, a portrait in keeping with the melodramatic preferences of popular literature. Rappaccini turns his daughter into a Transcendentalist work of art--a being isolated from the multitude and outside the pale of common experience. The competing factions which dominate the American literary scene conspire with the reader to destroy Beatrice, hence Hawthorne's art. The narrative questions the relationship between the poison and Beatrice's inner meaning. Reading the tale allegorically, one would assume a direct correlation between exterior and interior, where a poisonous body must signify a poisonous soul. But Hawthorne, through Beatrice vehemently protests against this way of reading allegory. The tale insists on the discontinuity, the lack of correspondence, between the heroine's outside and her unblemished spirit. The real Hawthorne is conventional, sentimental, and longs to "open an intercourse with the world" as he claims in the preface to Twice Told Tales. Beatrice explains to her father, "I would fain have been loved, not feared;" this sentiment also holds true for Hawthorne. He presents himself as an "innocent victim, a writer deprived of an audience because the public persists in mistaking his grim exterior for his inner character" (68). The allegory of the tale is really the allegory of the common reader's inability to read Hawthorne's fiction correctly.
Frederick Crews emphasizes the psychosexual elements of the tale in Sins of the Fathers. He sees Giovanni as a "Hawthorne protagonist who regresses to juvenile nausea over female sexuality" (134). Beatrice's poison stands for sexuality as it affects Giovanni's contrary impulses. Her innocence consists in an almost willful unconsciousness of her sexual power, and this innocence is the foundation of her claim to spiritual purity. Giovanni fears what he desires and his situation is one of erotic challenge. Both characters are in their first mature love affair, yet are betrayed by their ignorance of each other's nature (119). At first they cherish the idea of a puerile, unselfconscious love between physically mature adults. The rest of the tale however slowly dispels that illusion.
Crews finds that the luxurious and rich language used to describe Beatrice adds to the sexual quality of her allure. Every hint of her complete womanliness is a blow to Giovanni's narcissism. He is only really looking for a surrogate mother or sister in Beatrice, for he cannot recognize her sexuality without at once degrading her spitefully to the level of a scheming whore. The situation is metaphorically an Oedipal one. Giovanni and Beatrice want to remain like playmates and they converse like brother and sister. It is the father, Rappaccini, who is responsible for Beatrice's condition. It is he who wishes to join them in a perverse marriage which will be not only freakish, but vicariously incestuous, too. Giovanni's lurid intermixture of feelings springs from his own combination of fear and prurient interest with regard to her sexuality. What Beatrice, Baglioni, Rappaccini and Lisabetta all advise Giovanni to do is essentially what his conflicting impulses of trysting love, lewdness, and morbid curiosity are urging upon him.
The garden is found to have strong sexual connotations and Crews calls attention to the virtually pornographic scene in which Lisabetta leads Giovanni to the entrance to the garden and he presses money into her palm, much like a "john" paying a madame. After being led "along several obscure passages," Giovanni must finally "force himself through the entanglement of a shrub that wreathed its tendrils over the hidden entrance" (123).
The religious meaning of the tale is the fall from the child's unawareness of sex, not from virtue. Unlike Adam and Eve, Giovanni and Beatrice are destined not to sin, but to become cognizant of sin. Evil is produced not by wrongdoing, or even sinning in thought, but by the conflict between lustful wishes and an ideal of sexless virtue.
Addition, Spring 2003: : Here is an interesting chapter on the story, associating it with Hawthorne's relationship to his wife. Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft in "Rappaccini's Daughter" from Nathaniel Hawthorne; Studies in The House of the Seven Gables, by Thomas St. John.
Bibliography of Works Consulted
Bales, Kent. "Sexual Exploitation and the Fall from Natural Virtue in `Rappaccini's Daughter'." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 24 (1978): 133-144.
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Brenzo, Richard. "Beatrice Rappaccini: A Victim of Male Love and Horror," American Literature 48 (1977): 152-164.
Crews, Frederick. The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Cuddy, Lois A. "The Purgatorial Gardens of Hawthorne and Dante: Irony and Redefinition in `Rappaccini's Daughter'." Modern Language Studies 17 (1987): 39-53.
Fogle, Richard F. Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
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Garber, Frederick. The Autonomy of the Self from Richardson to Huysmans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Gilmore, Michael T. American Romanticism and the Marketplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Hallissy, Margaret. "Hawthorne's Venomous Beatrice." Studies in Short Fiction 19 (1982): 231-239.
Haviland, Beverly. "The Sin of Synecdoche: Hawthorne's Allegory Against Symbolism in `Rappaccini's Daughter'." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 29 (1987): 278-301.
Hazlett, John Downton. "Re-reading `Rappaccini's Daughter': Giovanni and the Seduction of the Transcendental Reader." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 35 (1989): 43-69.
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Update and Additions on Criticism of the Story [from MLA Bibliography, 3/2005]
Brown, GillianHawthorne and Children in the Nineteenth Century: Daughters, Flowers, Stories. Reynolds, Larry J. (ed. and introd.).. A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne.. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 2001. viii, 223 pp.pp. 79-108.
Kállay, Katalin G. Envying One's Garden: A Touch of Rappaccini's Philanthropy. Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik: A Quarterly of Language, Literature and Culture, 48:4 (2000), pp. 326-33.
Mitchell, Thomas R. Rappaccini's Garden and Emerson's Concord: Translating the Voice of Margaret Fuller. . Idol, John L., Jr. (ed. and introd.) Ponder, Melinda M. (ed. and introd.).. Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition.. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1999. ix, 323 pp. pp. 75-91.
Brown, Gillian. Hawthorne's Endangered Daughters. Western Humanities Review, 50-51:4-1 (1997 Winter-1997 Spring), pp. 327-31.
Stouck, David and Giltrow, Janet. 'A Confused and Doubtful Sound of Voices': Ironic Contingencies in the Language of Hawthorne's Romances. Modern Language Review, 92:3 (1997 July), pp. 559-72.
Roger, Patricia M. Taking a Perspective: Hawthorne's Concept of Language and Nineteenth-Century Language Theory. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 51:4 (1997 Mar), pp. 433-54.
Brown, Gaye. Hawthorne's 'Rappaccini's Daughter': The Distaff Christ. Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, 22:2 (1996 Fall), pp. 21-59.
Hall, Julie E. 'Tracing the Original Design': The Hawthornes in Rappaccini's Garden.Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, 21:1 (1995 Spring), pp. 26-35.
Miller, John N. Fideism vs. Allegory in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 46:2 (1991 Sept), pp. 223-44.
Cooper, Allene. The Discourse of Romance: Truth and Fantasy in Hawthorne's Point of View.Studies in Short Fiction, 28:4 (1991 Fall), pp. 497-507.
Chappell, Charles. Pietro Baglioni's Motives for Murder in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'.Studies in American Fiction, 18:1 (1990 Spring), pp. 55-63.
Serio, John N. The Riddle of Existence: Hawthorne's 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. Ball State University Forum, 29:1 (1988 Winter), pp. 42-50.
Jones, Deborah L. Hawthorne's Post-Platonic Paradise: The Inversion of Allegory in Rappaccini's Daughter. Journal of Narrative Technique, 18:2 (1988 Spring), pp. 153-169.
Baris, Sharon Deykin. Giovanni's Garden: Hawthorne's Hope for America. Modern Language Studies, 12:4 (1982 Fall), pp. 75-90.
Mailloux, Steven.Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982. 228 pp.
Way, Brian. Art and the Spirit of Anarchy: A Reading of Hawthorne's Short Stories Lee, A. Robert (ed.).. Nathaniel Hawthorne: New Critical Essays.. London--Totowa, NJ: Vision--Barnes & Noble, 1982. 254 pp. .pp. 11-30..
Karlow, Martin. 'Rappaccini's Daughter' and the Art of Dreaming.University of Hartford Studies in Literature: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism, 13:2 (1981), pp. 122-138.
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Kloeckner, Alfred J. The Flower and the Fountain: Hawthorne's Chief Symbols in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, 38:3 (1966 Nov), pp. 323-36.
Evans, Oliver. Allegory and Incest in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 19:2 (1964 Sept), pp. 185-95.
Evans, Oliver. The Cavern and the Fountain: Paradox and Double Paradox in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. College English, 24:6 (1963 Mar), pp. 461-63.
Rosenberry, Edward H. Hawthorne's Allegory of Science: 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, 32:1 (1960 Mar), pp. 39-46.
McCabe, Bernard. Narrative Technique in Rappaccini's Daughter. Modern Language Notes, 74:3 (1959 Mar), pp. 213-17.
Boewe, Charles. Rappaccini's Garden. American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, 30:1 (1958 Mar), pp. 37-49.
Price, Sherwood R. The Heart, the Head, and 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. New England Quarterly: A Historical Review of New England Life and Letters, 27:3 (1954 Sept), pp. 399-403.
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