Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This almost novella-length story, one of Hawthorne’s most celebrated, is prefaced by a self-parodic author biography, in which Hawthorne, in a fit of Romantic irony, Frenchifies himself as M. de l’Aubépine, emphasizing his outsider’s perspective on an America too controlled by Puritan and mercantile values to reward his dreamy and proto-decadent sensibility. I will spare the reader my identification with Hawthorne’s difficulties—well, almost, but the following so well describes one of my own problems that I have to quote it:
As a writer, he seems to occupy an unfortunate position between the Transcendentalists (who, under one name or another, have their share in all the current literature of the world) and the great body of pen-and-ink men who address the intellect and sympathies of the multitude. If not too refined, at all events too remote, too shadowy, and unsubstantial in his modes of development to suit the taste of the latter class, and yet too popular to satisfy the spiritual or metaphysical requisitions of the former, he must necessarily find himself without an audience, except here and there an individual or possibly an isolated clique.
When Hawthorne says that the Transcendentalists “under one name or another, have their share in all the current literature of the world,” I believe he means to identify them with literary avant-gardes in general. It is as difficult today as it was in Hawthorne’s time, in my experience, to find a publisher for fiction that neither announces a radical intention on its surface (a gesture I find facile and overdone—how many more novels do we need with no paragraph breaks or with numbered sections à la Wittgenstein?) nor provides all the traditional satisfactions of the mainstream and popular (which would of course be a far too conventional thing to do for any writer interested in the possibilities of form).
The words “Aubépine” and “Hawthorne” both refer to a flowering plant. Hawthorne himself added the “w” to his family name, granting himself a floral appellation in an attempt to expiate the Puritanical crimes against nature and pleasure committed by the witch-hunting Hathornes.
In this particular tale, flowers are at issue: set in Renaissance Italy, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” tells of a young man named Giovanni who comes to Padua to study and takes an apartment overlooking a garden where he spies a beautiful maiden named, like Dante’s beloved, Beatrice. Alas, as the tale unfolds, we learn that Beatrice has been turned by her scientist father into an ambulatory poison flower, contaminating Giovanni through his very love of her. Aubépine, the self-mocking preface tells us, has “an inveterate love of allegory,” and this tale’s allegory seems clear enough at first: men, whether Dante or Rappaccini, make women into angels or demons, pure flowers or poison ones, and then hold them responsible for it despite their lack of control in the matter. As Beatrice tells Giovanni at the conclusion, “‘Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?'” She’s not wrong: his obsessive voyeurism and idealism draws him into a relationship with her, and his refusal to countenance anything less than spiritually beatified in that relation causes him to fall prey to her father’s machinations and then to blame her for the poison with which the old scientist has corrupted her. Allegorically, then, we have a prophetically feminist statement from an author better remembered for complaining about the female authors who were his more successful rivals.
I’m not sure, though, that finding a satisfyingly “progressive” thesis is the only way to read this strange story. First of all, it should be admitted that the story is strange; apparently based on an ancient tale that Hawthorne found in Burton, its depiction of a mad scientist turning his daughter into a super-villain was pulpy enough to inspire both DC and Marvel comics to create characters based on Beatrice, according to Wikipedia. And Hawthorne, perhaps more like both Giovanni (the voyeur of the garden) and Rappaccini (the master of the garden) than he lets on, enjoys himself amid the floral perfumes, creating an aesthetic and sensory prose that in its near opiation looks forward to Pater, Huysmans, and Wilde:
Giovanni still found no better occupation than to look down into the garden beneath his window. From its appearance, he judged it to be one of those botanic gardens which were of earlier date in Padua than elsewhere in Italy or in the world. Or, not improbably, it might once have been the pleasure-place of an opulent family; for there was the ruin of a marble fountain in the centre, sculptured with rare art, but so wofully shattered that it was impossible to trace the original design from the chaos of remaining fragments. The water, however, continued to gush and sparkle into the sunbeams as cheerfully as ever. A little gurgling sound ascended to the young man’s window, and made him feel as if the fountain were an immortal spirit that sung its song unceasingly and without heeding the vicissitudes around it, while one century imbodied it in marble and another scattered the perishable garniture on the soil. All about the pool into which the water subsided grew various plants, that seemed to require a plentiful supply of moisture for the nourishment of gigantic leaves, and, in some instances, flowers gorgeously magnificent. 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 lustre 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. Every portion of the soil was peopled with plants and herbs, which, if less beautiful, still bore tokens of assiduous care, as if all had their individual virtues, known to the scientific mind that fostered them. Some were placed in urns, rich with old carving, and others in common garden pots; some crept serpent-like along the ground or climbed on high, using whatever means of ascent was offered them. One plant had wreathed itself round a statue of Vertumnus, which was thus quite veiled and shrouded in a drapery of hanging foliage, so happily arranged that it might have served a sculptor for a study.
As in so much of Hawthorne’s writing, an ineliminable Puritan sense of guilt runs under the aesthetic pleasure, creating a powerful sense of irony. The story is both a richly lurid tale of sin and a self-critique—recalling Calvinist self-examination and anticipating the postmodern progressivism that is that Calvinism’s legacy—for writing such a wicked thing at all.