Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a third-person narrative focusing on the tragedy that befalls a young Italian man named Giovanni Guasconti. An intimate account of the theme of the unlimited quest for knowledge, the short story explores within the form of a Gothic genre, the misfortune that interrupts and seizes the act of sublime love and romance. Rappaccini’s Daughter, in their embodiment of the style of tragic romance, has been suggested to draw parallels to the story of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis.
Rappaccini’s Daughter | Summary
Rappaccini’s Daughter begins with the introduction of the young man Giovanni Guasconti, who comes from far away to pursue his studies at the University of Padua in Italy. The short story fiction takes place at the dark, gloomy, and old residence of the man who acquires great knowledge in Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem, Divine Comedy. As a man from Southern Italy, Giovanni finds the lodgings not entirely satisfactory, until his eyes perceive the beauty of the garden beneath the chambers of his residence. He curiously enquires about the garden and finds out that it belongs to the famous Doctor, Giacoma Rappaccini.
At first appearance, Giovanni speculates it to be a botanical garden. But as he was looking at the “gorgeously magnificent” flowers that seemed to be almost out of the ordinary world, especially when his eyes strikes the terrible beauty of the purple blossoms, Giovanni catches glances of the famous Doctor as he works in his garden. Interestingly here, Guasconti notices that even though the Doctor examined and observed the plants carefully, he kept a great length of distance from those plants, almost as if he was walking among devils and beasts or anything associated with the devil. At this moment, Giovanni wonders about the possibility of this garden being not a botanical garden but the Garden of Eden of the present, earthly world.
Giovanni continues to observe the activities of the Doctor from above his window. As the Doctor reaches the purple blossoms planted beside the marble fountain, “the distrustful gardener” adds even more layers of protection to be more cautious of that specific flower. But even then, unable to complete his dangerous task, the Doctor calls out to his daughter. Immediately, the readers are introduced to the beautiful Beatrice. Giovanni upon his first impression of the terrible beauty of the girl fancifully compares her to another flower in the garden. But as opposed to her father, Beatrice did not need any armor of protection as she smoothly inhaled the odors of those dangerously beautiful flowers. In fact, they were “the breath of life” for Beatrice. After a while, as the night closes in, the activities in the garden were stopped and the Doctor and his daughter hurried back to their rooms but on the other hand, Giovanni remains in his fanciful imagination of love.
The next morning, Giovanni goes to pay his respects to the prominent professor at Padua named Pietro Baglioni. In between their conversations, the Professor warns Guasconti about the Doctor, who would dare to even sacrifice human life if that means an addition or an elevation to his great heap of unlimited knowledge. The Doctor is recognized to be dangerous to the area of sciences as he cultivates poisonous substances out of those plants, provoking horrible damage to nature. Even though Giovanni is aware of the hatred shared between the Doctor and the Professor, he reaches a state of conflict because he has already fallen in love with Beatrice.
Giovanni goes back to his chambers and thinks about the warning from the Professor. But once again, these conflicting thoughts of the young man get ripped apart as the beautiful Beatrice enters the garden illuminating her terrifying beauty. Yet after a while, an incident occurs that forces the morbid fantasies of the man to come back. Beatrice plucks one of the blossoms from the purple shrubs and herein, Giovanni appears to notice the moisture of the purple flower to have fallen on a reptile that was present in the garden at the time. Shockingly and immediately, the man observes the reptile lying “motionless in the sunshine”. But Giovanni fixates on the idea that he must have been fanciful in his observations. Therefore, unconcerned about the incident, Giovanni impulsively draws Beatrice’s attention to him and in another impulsive moment, he throws down a bouquet of flowers to her. After this exciting incident, they don’t meet for some days but a chance for Giovanni to explore secretly the garden with close attention also gives him the chance to meet Beatrice. From then on, Giovanni and Beatrice begin to meet regularly.
At one time of their rendezvous, Giovanni reaches out to pluck one of the blossoms from the purple shrub to commemorate their meeting. But immediately, Beatrice forcefully grabs his hands away from the flower as she warns about its fatal power. Beatrice hurriedly goes returns to her chamber. Sometime later, the Professor visits Giovanni and familiarizes him with an Indian tale about a gorgeous woman who was distinguished from the rest with her rich perfume. A physician in the tale discerns the secret of this breath of scent to be that the woman was nourished with a variety of poisons and as a result, “she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence”. Giovanni clearly understands that this tale parallelly talks about his own woman, Beatrice. But the Professor bestows Giovanni with a bottle of antidote to rescue Beatrice from the world of poisons. Unfortunately, as the time of their meeting arrives, Giovanni realizes that he is already accursed as he finds out that his breath has been infected with poison when it kills the spider in his room.
As Giovanni goes to meet Beatrice, he blames her for poisoning him. However, soon they realize that both of them were part of Rappaccini’s dangerous experiment and hence Beatrice drinks the antidote but unfortunately, for her, the antidote becomes her death. But right before she dies, Giovanni and Beatrice understand that the Doctor’s experiments were conducted on the young man so as to create a companion for his daughter. At the end of the story, the Professor looks down from the window and triumphantly and with terror utters, “Rappaccini! Rappaccini! And is this the upshot of your experiment?”, evoking a tone of mockery and deception.
Rappaccini’s Daughter | Analysis
Rappaccini’s Daughter is a brilliantly knit gothic short story that expresses the notion of terrible beauty through the suggestive allegorical representation of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis to that of the characters of Giovanni and Beatrice, respectively. Moreover, the theme of the thirst for indefinite knowledge in the present world of the short story symbolizes the fall from Grace in the Bible associated with Adam and Eve.
Hawthorne beautifully invites the readers to the Garden of Eden with abundant use of images to express the magnificence of those poisonous flowers. In other words, the short story cunningly lures Giovanni as well as the readers to take a bite from the forbidden and sublime world of the Eden garden. The short story expresses the contradictory nature of the flowers to connote their beautiful yet terrible attraction of them. For instance, the sublime beauty of the purple blossoms that are the “breath of life” to Beatrice, is described as such, “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”. These lines clearly manifest the desirous but poisonous nature of the purple blossoms and foreshadow the events that are about to occur. Precisely, these flowers are the ones that curse Giovanni as he becomes fancifully in love with Beatrice.
Through the eyes of Giovanni, the narrator describes Beatrice as another flower in the garden, “more beautiful than the richest of them–but still to be touched only with a glove, nor to be approached without a mask”. Herein, the poisonous flowers are metaphorical of the products of Rappaccini and a comparison of Beatrice to another flower in the garden clearly manifests her as an extended metaphor of the most poisonous flower, the terrible beauty born out of the ordinary world of nature. Moreover, Giovanni himself brings on an analogy between “the beautiful girl and the gorgeous shrub that hung its gem-like flowers over the fountain”, referring to the purple blossoms. In addition to this, in all of Giovanni’s fanciful thoughts of Beatrice, a tone of morbid imagination is also included that forces the young man to wonder, “What is this being?–beautiful, shall I call her?–or inexpressibly terrible?”, evoking the notion of terrible beauty at the most.
In the short story, the allegory between Adam and Eve to Giovanni and Beatrice is perfectly evoked as Rappaccini triumphantly announces the success of his experiment, precisely, the experiment of creation of a companion for his daughter similar to the creation of Eve for Adam by the God. This might suggest the Doctor embodies the form of God. But at the same time, Rappaccini can also evoke the devil-like character who went above the world of nature and interfered with the laws of nature and science for the possession of accumulated knowledge, echoing the character of Doctor Faustus in the play by Christopher Marlowe. Here, in fact, in the death of Beatrice, the terrible sacrifice Rappaccini pays for worldly and beautiful knowledge is evidently evoked and echoes the fall of man and the original sin expressed in the Bible.
Rappaccini’s Daughter — Themes
One of the significant themes looked at in this short story is the destruction that befalls the human being that attempts to reach above the limitations of nature and worldly knowledge. Rappaccini represents such a figure who interferes with the limitations set by God in this world. Even though in the fantastical story of Giovanni and Beatrice or Adam and Eve, respectively, Rappaccini embodies the role of God, when it comes to the real world he embodies the mysterious figure of the Doctor who sacrifices even human beings “for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard-seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge”. The tragedy of the death of Beatrice, his only daughter, is what befalls the life of the Doctor who interrupts the natural world.
Rappaccini’s Daughter — Literary Devices
Rappaccini’s Daughter uses most significantly the literary device of allegory to compare the world of heaven and the present world that only evokes a heaven-like atmosphere. Such an allegory is cleverly used by Hawthorne to manifest the desire for the human beings of the real world to move beyond and reach or even more, to grasp the knowledge and worldly materials of the sublime world of God.
In addition to this, the short story uses similes and personification to highlight and elevate the senses and images of the terrible beauty evoked and embodied by the flowers of Eden. The short story also uses the technique of allusion as it refers to the poem, “Divine Comedy” by the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, to sketch out the character of the young Italian man Giovanni.
Rappaccini’s Daughter — Title of the Story
The title of the story echoes the importance bestowed upon the character, Beatrice, the Rappaccini’s daughter. But at the same time, the title evokes Beatrice to be the Doctor’s daughter more than her own individual self. The title becomes more heightened with meaning as the Doctor’s thirst for knowledge tragically kills his own daughter. Therefore, the title echoes the tragedy that will befall Rappaccini’s daughter as well.