Rappaccini's Daughter

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Editor: Matthew Derda
Date: 2016
Short Stories for Students
From: Short Stories for Students(Vol. 42. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 20
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Rappaccini's Daughter

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“Rappaccini's Daughter,” a short story written by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, first appeared in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in December 1844. Its first book publication was in 1846 as part of Hawthorne's collection of stories and sketches Mosses from an Old Manse—a title derived from “Old Manse,” the name of the home in Concord, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne lived from 1842 to 1845. (Manse can refer generally to a stately residence or more specifically to a Protestant cleric's current or former residence.) “Rappaccini's Daughter” tells the story of Beatrice Rappaccini, the daughter of a mad physician and medical researcher in Renaissance Italy, who cultivates and nurtures her father's garden of poisonous plants. In the process she becomes resistant to the poisons but poisonous to others, including a young medical student who is drawn to her mysterious beauty. The story is in many ways typical of Hawthorne's work because of its ominous, allegorical atmosphere and themes: in many of his novels and short stories, Hawthorne creates allegories of the dark, irredeemable human condition, a point of view most likely traceable to his New England Puritan roots.

Hawthorne, who remains best known for his classic 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, was a major figure in the American romantic movement and is often regarded as a writer in the tradition of “dark romanticism.” This is a subgenre of Page 241  |  Top of Articleromantic literature that includes, among other elements, social outcasts; the belief that the world is a place of darkness and mystery; and the conviction that humans are sinful, if not evil. At the extreme, the dark romantics, among them Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and Herman Melville, feature in their works vampires, ghouls, and manifestations of Satan. “Rappaccini's Daughter,” with its satanic garden, its isolated heroine, its mad scientist, and its atmosphere of poison and death, is consistent with the tradition of dark romanticism. “Rappaccini's Daughter” is widely available in anthologies of nineteenth-century American literature and collections of Hawthorne's short stories, including Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches, published by the Library of America in 1982.

American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (© Everett Historical / ShutterStock.com) (© Everett Historical / ShutterStock.com)


Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, the second of three children of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Manning Hathorne; Hawthorne added the w to his name sometime after 1830 as a way of distancing himself from relatives he found embarrassing. His father, a sea captain, died in 1808, leaving the family in poverty. He was raised in Salem and in Raymond, Maine, before attending Bowdoin College in Maine from 1821 to 1825, where, according to his own description, he was an idle student. After graduation, he returned to Salem to live with his mother and sister and tried to launch a writing career. One of his earliest efforts was an 1828 novel, Fanshawe, which he later considered a failure, so much so that he tried to collect and burn all copies of the book—and received help from a warehouse fire that destroyed the book's remaining unsold copies. He had more success with short stories, several of which were published in literary journals during these years, and his first collection of short stories, Twice-Told Tales, was published in 1837. He worked at the Boston Custom House from 1839 to 1841, and in 1841 he lived at (and was a founding member of) Brook Farm in Massachusetts, an experimental utopian community founded that year. By the early 1840s his income from writing was ample enough that he could marry Sophia Peabody in 1842. After his marriage, the couple moved into a house called Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, giving rise to the title of his 1846 collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, which includes “Rappaccini's Daughter.” Sophia, a painter, illustrator, and writer, studied and spoke Italian and collaborated with her husband on names for characters in the story.

Hawthorne was connected with the American transcendentalist movement and counted among his friends such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and others, some of whom were his neighbors in Concord. (Transcendentalism was a cultural and literary reformist movement that rejected orthodoxy and conformity and urged its followers to find an original relationship with creation, often through the natural world.) Because of growing debts, he and his family moved back to Salem, where in 1846 he took a position as a custom house surveyor (an official charged with collecting taxes on imported and exported goods). He lost this job in 1849, but in 1850 he published his major novel, The Scarlet Letter, bringing him some measure of fame and financial security. He followed this novel with The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, The Blithedale Romance in 1852 (a novel based on his disillusionment with Brook Farm), and The Marble Faun (1860), which shares an Italian Page 242  |  Top of Articlesetting with “Rappaccini's Daughter.” Meanwhile, he produced dozens of short stories that are considered classics of American literature: “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Roger Malvin's Burial,” the witchcraft story “Young Goodman Brown,” “Ethan Brand,” “The Minister's Black Veil,” “The Birth-Mark,” and many others. He also wrote literature for children, including A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys (1851) and its sequel, Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys (1853).

In 1853 Hawthorne was appointed to the position of American consul in Liverpool, England, by his old college friend and classmate, President Franklin Pierce. After the position was eliminated in 1857, he toured Italy before returning home. He died in his sleep of undetermined causes on May 19, 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire.


The story begins with a brief tongue-in-cheek prologue in which Hawthorne claims that the story is a translation of one written by a Frenchman, Monsieur de'Aubépine; Aubépine is the French word for “hawthorn,” referring to the medicinal plant.

As the story opens, Giovanni Guasconti arrives from Naples to begin his medical studies at the University of Padua. He takes an apartment on the upper floor of a mansion that at one time belonged to a family of nobles. Giovanni finds his chamber dreary, and he is uneasy about being away from home, occasioning a heavy sigh from him. His elderly housekeeper, Lisabetta, responds by suggesting that he look out the window at the sunshine. When he follows her advice, he sees a garden below. Lisabetta informs him that the garden belongs to the famous physician Giacomo Rappaccini, who grows plants out of which he makes medicines. As Giovanni observes the garden's various features, including a decayed marble fountain and a statue of Vertumnus, a tall, sickly looking man dressed in black appears. He examines the plants, but he avoids smelling or touching them without heavy gloves. When he examines a shrub with purple blossoms, he covers his mouth and nose with a mask.

The man summons his beautiful daughter, Beatrice, and tells her that if he approaches the shrub, it could cost him his life, so he consigns the plant to her sole care. Beatrice gladly accepts, speaking to the flower and calling it “sister.” In exchange for her care, the plant is to allow Beatrice to inhale its fragrance without her having to wear a mask or gloves. Evening approaches, and Giovanni fancies that the woman and the garden are fraught with peril. In the morning, however, Giovanni is more buoyant and considers himself lucky to live in a room with a view of such beauty.

At the university, Giovanni presents a letter of introduction to Dr. Pietro Baglioni, a highly admired medical professor. Giovanni asks the professor whether he knows Rappaccini. Baglioni responds by saying that Rappaccini is widely respected for his skills, but he adds that he is troubled by the doctor's ethics: In Baglioni's view, Rappaccini is coldly scientific and regards his patients as experimental subjects rather than human beings. He also points out that Rappaccini, his bitter rival for medical preeminence in Italy, makes deadly poisons from his plants, which he distills into cures for illness, some of which he admits are effective. Baglioni makes clear that he regards Rappaccini's experiments as dangerous and unethical.

On his way back to the mansion, Giovanni buys a bouquet of flowers. When he arrives at his room, he goes to the window, where he sees Beatrice enter the garden and embrace the shrub with the purple flowers. After she picks one of the flowers, he notices a chameleon on the walkway near the shrub. A drop of moisture from the flower's broken stem falls on the chameleon, which promptly dies. The same fate befalls a winged insect that hovers near Beatrice, who has placed the flower in the collar of her dress. After Beatrice sees Giovanni at the window, he tosses the bouquet of flowers to her. As she hurries back into her house, Giovanni notices that the flowers are withering.

After the passage of several days, Giovanni encounters Baglioni on the street. As they chat, Rappaccini appears, but before moving on, he stares momentarily at Giovanni. Baglioni implies that Rappaccini's daughter is helping her father study Giovanni with a view to ensnaring him as a partner for her. Giovanni grows angry and stalks away. Baglioni decides that out of friendship for the young man's father, he will do what he can to thwart Rappaccini's plans.

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  • An operatic version of “Rappaccini's Daughter” under the title The Garden of Mystery, written by Charles Wakefield Cadman and Nelle Richmond Eberhart, premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1925.
  • NBC's The Weird Circle broadcast a radio play based on “Rappaccini's Daughter.” The play can be accessed at the Internet Archive at http://ia600508.us.archive.org/6/items/Weird_Circle_otr/Weird_Circle_-_441126 _-_52_-_Rapacinis_Daughter_-_32-22_25m 09s_5897.mp3 .
  • In 1963, Vincent Price starred in the film Twice-Told Tales, which included “Rappaccini's Daughter” as one of its three segments. (Note, however, that the story was not part of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales.)
  • PBS's American Short Story series produced “Rappaccini's Daughter,” starring Kristoffer Tabori, Kathleen Beller, and Leonardo Cimino, in 1980. Running time is fifty-six minutes.
  • In 1983, Margaret Garwood's operatic version of “Rappaccini's Daughter” premiered at the Pennsylvania Opera Theater.
  • Yet another operatic version of “Rappaccini's Daughter” was created by Ellen S. Bender, with libretto by Robert Di Domenica. It was first performed as a New England Conservatory recital piece in 1992.
  • In Mexico, La hija de Rappaccini by Daniel Catân, an opera based on a play by the same name written by Octavio Paz in 1956, premiered in 1994. Highlights are available from Naxos recordings as MP3 downloads.
  • An audio version of “Rappaccini's Daughter” is included on The Nathaniel Hawthorne Audio Collection from Harper Audio, released in 2004. The story is narrated by James Naughton.
  • In 2014, the 26th Annual Festival of New Musicals presented Beautiful Poison (music by Brendan Milburn, lyrics by Valerie Vagoda, book by Duane Poole). The story is set in steamy New Orleans, where a rock star singer is booked at a New Orleans nightclub. Upon arriving, he meets a beautiful, mysterious woman held captive by her father, Dr. Rappaccini, in a garden of unusual and exotic plants.

After Giovanni arrives at his rooms, Lisabetta shows him a secret door into the garden. Giovanni enters the garden and scrutinizes the plants, concluding that they look almost artificial. Beatrice enters, but she does not question him about his presence and denies having any special horticultural knowledge. As the two walk through the garden, Beatrice questions Giovanni about his home, his family, the city, and his friends, asking questions that suggest she has never been outside the garden. Giovanni reaches out his hand to pluck one of the purple flowers, but Beatrice seizes his hand and warns him that touching the flowers is fatal.

Returning to his room, Giovanni puts aside his suspicions about Beatrice, concluding that she is gentle and lovable. The following morning, however, he awakens with pain in his right hand where Beatrice gripped it. He sees a purple imprint of her fingers, but he fails to connect the marks with Beatrice. From then on, he frequents the garden, and although Beatrice comes out of her house to be with him, she keeps her distance; the two never touch or kiss.

Baglioni visits Giovanni and tells him a story about Porus, an Indian ruler who presented Alexander the Great with a beautiful woman whose breath was like a rich perfume and who had been nurtured on poisons. He observes that Beatrice is like the woman in the story. Although Giovanni pronounces the tale nonsense, his misgivings about Beatrice are Page 244  |  Top of Articlereawakened. Baglioni insists that her father exploits her in his experiments and wants to do the same with Giovanni. Believing it may not be too late to save Beatrice, Baglioni gives Giovanni a silver phial containing what he claims is an antidote that can counteract the poison in her system. Giovanni is uncertain what to do: he regards Beatrice as normal, despite the evidence of his senses, but he worries that she is indeed poisonous. He decides to conduct an experiment of his own: He buys a bouquet of flowers, intending to give them to Beatrice, but after he gets back to his rooms, he notices that the flowers are beginning to die. He then breathes on a spider, which convulses and dies. Giovanni gathers that he has been imbued with Beatrice's poison.

Giovanni confronts Beatrice in the garden. When she explains that the purple flower sprang from the earth when she was born and that she has lived an isolated life, Giovanni accuses her of luring him into the garden and filling his veins with poison solely to relieve her own solitude, turning him into a loathsome, deadly creature. Giovanni conducts a demonstration, breathing on garden insects, which then fall dead. Beatrice denies having done anything to change Giovanni and blames her father. Giovanni, his anger subsiding, produces the phial that Baglioni gave him, and Beatrice drinks the liquid it contains. When Rappaccini enters the garden, his daughter turns on him and tells him that rather being a creature of science, feared by others, she would rather have been loved. Beatrice knows that she is dying (raising the question of whether Baglioni has perhaps murdered her to thwart Rappaccini), and with her last words she tells Giovanni that he too has poison in his nature. As she dies, Baglioni, who entered Giovanni's apartment, stands at the window and calls out what is in effect an accusation that Rappaccini has killed his own daughter through his experiments.


Dr. Pietro Baglioni

Baglioni is a prominent physician at the University of Padua, and as such he is a bitter rival to Rappaccini for medical preeminence in Italy. Giovanni's father is a friend of the professor, and it is to him that Giovanni reports with a letter of introduction when he arrives in Padua.

Baglioni informs Giovanni that Rappaccini distills medicinal poisons from plants, and he indicates that he regards Rappaccini's experiments as ethically suspect. He later gives Giovanni a phial that contains a potion that he says will counteract Beatrice's poison; it is an open question whether he was trying to help the son of his friend or rather trying to thwart his rival by murdering his daughter.

Giovanni Guasconti

Giovanni is a young student from southern Italy who comes to Padua to study medicine. He takes an apartment in an old mansion that looks out over the garden kept by Dr. Rappaccini and his daughter, Beatrice. From his window, he sees Beatrice, and eventually he falls in love with her—or at least grows infatuated by her beauty and mysterious allure. He becomes suspicious, however, because he sees phenomena he cannot explain that suggest that Beatrice is in some manner deadly. Ultimately, he confronts her with the suspicion that she has infected him with the same deadly poison that fills her veins. Looking for a way to counteract the poison, he gives her a phial of liquid that Baglioni supplied as an antidote. Throughout, Giovanni is depicted as somewhat naive and immature, and he vacillates in his feelings for Beatrice.


Lisabetta is the aged housekeeper in the mansion in which Giovanni rents an apartment. She conducts Giovanni through corridors that lead to a secret entrance to Rappaccini's garden.

Beatrice Rappaccini

Throughout her life, Beatrice has been exposed to the poisons in the plants and flowers that her father cultivates in his garden as part of his medical experiments. Although she has become poisonous, like the plants and flowers, she herself is immune to the poison. Her life is one of complete isolation until Giovanni moves into the apartment overlooking the garden and the two become acquainted and seem to fall in love. As Beatrice comes to understand what has happened to her, she turns against her father, telling him that she would rather have been loved than feared. She drinks a phial of liquid that Giovanni gives her in an effort to counteract the poison in her system, resulting in her death. Throughout, the narration makes clear that while Beatrice's body is corrupted by poison, her soul is pure and innocent. Ironically, the Page 245  |  Top of Articlename Beatrice derives from the Latin for “she who brings happiness.”

Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini

Rappaccini is a renowned physician at the University of Padua. In a garden attached to his house, he cultivates poisonous plants with the assistance of his daughter, Beatrice. He tries to extract medicinal cures from the poisons, but in the process of conducting his experiments, he has allowed his daughter to become poisonous. By keeping her isolated in the garden and house, he protects her from the outside world. Rappaccini can be thought of as an example of the “mad scientist” theme in literature—as one who explores the mysteries of science without regard to the effects of his experiments on others.



A central theme in “Rappaccini's Daughter” is corruption, although Hawthorne's treatment of the theme is ambiguous and subject to differing interpretations. Generally, it is thought that Hawthorne, in what is perhaps a reflection of his Puritan New England roots, uses the story to explore the notion of the corruption and sinfulness of humanity after the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The theme first emerges when Giovanni, observing the garden for the first time, notices that some of the plants “crept serpent-like along the ground,” suggesting the serpent in the Garden of Eden. When Dr. Rappaccini appears in the garden, the narration states that “the man's demeanor was that of one walking among malignant influences, such as savage beasts, or deadly snakes, or evil spirits, which, should he allow them one moment of license, would wreak upon him some terrible fatality.” According to one reading of the story, Rappaccini's soul is corrupt because he is guilty of the cardinal sin of pride: he defies God and nature to boost his reputation through medical experimentation that transforms his garden into a corrupt Eden. In the process, he corrupts his own body, which has become frail and sickly, and he corrupts his own innocent daughter, turning her into a poisonous “sister” to the lethal flowers in the garden. He may very well have corrupted even Lisabetta, using her as an agent to lure Giovanni into the garden so that Beatrice can charm him and in this way entangle the young man in his schemes.

When she shows him the secret door to the garden, Giovanni has this thought: “This interposition of old Lisabetta might perchance be connected with the intrigue, whatever were its nature, in which the Professor [Baglioni] seemed to suppose that Doctor Rappaccini was involving him [Giovanni].” Despite his suspicions, Giovanni frequents the garden, forms a relationship with Beatrice, and in time absorbs the poisons that corrupt his body. Angry, he accuses Beatrice of corrupting him: “Thou hast filled my veins with poison! Thou hast made me as hateful, as ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself,—a world's wonder of hideous monstrosity! Now—if our breath be happily as fatal to ourselves as to all others—let us join our lips in one kiss of unutterable hatred, and so die!”

The theme of corruption may extend to Professor Baglioni. He provides Giovanni with a phial of liquid that he claims is an antidote that will restore Beatrice to a normal state, but when she drinks it, she dies. One reading of the story is that his purpose is to protect Giovanni, the son of a friend, and that her death is the result of a fatal war in her system between poison and the antidote. An alternate reading is to see his actions as flowing from his bitter animosity toward Rappaccini. In this interpretation, he acts out of professional jealousy and ambition. Rappaccini and Baglioni despise each other, and it may be the case that to thwart Rappaccini, Baglioni deliberately poisons Beatrice; at one point he says to himself: “This daughter of his! It shall be looked to. Perchance, most learned Rappaccini, I may foil you where you little dream of it!” Thus, Baglioni has been corrupted by his own professional jealousy.


Dr. Rappaccini is often thought of as an example of the “mad scientist” whose ethics are suspect in his quest to push back the boundaries of knowledge. This theme is voiced most prominently by Rappaccini's professional rival, Professor Baglioni, who says to Giovanni:

But as for Rappaccini, it is said of him—and I, who know the man well, can answer for its truth—that he cares infinitely more for science than for mankind. His patients are interesting Page 246  |  Top of Articleto him only as subjects for some new experiment. He would sacrifice human life, his own among the rest, or whatever else was dearest to him, for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard-seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge.

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  • Among the characters in Theodora Goss's The Mad Scientist's Daughter (2010) is Beatrice Rappaccini. Goss's story is available at the Strange Horizons website ( http://www.strangehorizons.com/2010/20100118/daughter-f.shtml ). Read the story, then write a brief essay in which you explain the role Beatrice plays in the development of Goss's themes.
  • Cassandra Rose Clarke is the author of a young-adult novel also titled The Mad Scientist's Daughter (2013). Write a review of the novel reflecting the opinion you think Hawthorne might have held of it were he alive to read it.
  • A recurring DC Comics character is a “femme fatale” named Poison Ivy. Poison Ivy first appeared in Batman #181 in June 1966, and she has since appeared in various DC Comics series and in Batman television shows and movies. Locate any one of Poison Ivy's manifestations; one possibility would be the 1997 film Batman and Robin starring Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. Using a technical tool such as EDpuzzle, prepare a presentation for your classmates illustrating the debt the creators of Poison Ivy owe to Hawthorne and “Rappaccini's Daughter.”
  • As an alternative, a recurring character in the Marvel comics universe is Monica Rappaccini, who first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #7 in 2005. Again, using a tool such as EDpuzzle, prepare a class presentation illustrating what her creators owe to Hawthorne and “Rappaccini's Daughter.”
  • “Rappaccini's Daughter” is often compared to an 1861 novel by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. titled Elsie Venner, which tells the story of a medical professor, a student, and a disturbed young woman whose mother was bitten by a rattlesnake while pregnant, making her daughter half-woman, half-snake. Read the novel, then prepare a written report on its similarities to Hawthorne's short story.
  • Trace the historical roots of “Rappaccini's Daughter.” Scholars cite several sources, including the biblical book of Genesis (the story of Adam and Eve); the Geste Romanorum (or “Deeds of the Romans” ) “Of the Poison of Sin” ; the story told by Baglioni about the Indian prince, Porus, who presented Alexander the Great with a beautiful woman with poisonous breath (found in Sir Thomas Browne's 1646 Vulgar Errors); and the Bower of Bliss in book II, canto XII of Edmund Spenser's Renaissance poem The Fairie Queene. Trace these and other sources you can find and prepare a report on the connections between the sources and the story.
  • The connection between poisons and medicine is ancient. Conduct research on this connection. What poisons have been thought to have medical benefits? How did physicians, especially in the past, use poisons to treat patients? Do contemporary physicians use substances that are thought of as poisons? Present the results of your research in a written report.
  • Imagine that you are a journalist. Conduct an interview of Baglioni or of Giovanni for your local newspaper recounting his reactions to those events. Post your interview on your social networking site and invite your classmates to comment.
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The story takes place at an unspecified historical time in Padua, Italy. The story takes place at an unspecified historical time in Padua, Italy. (© Tom Roche / ShutterStock.com) (© Tom Roche / ShutterStock.com)

Rappaccini has sacrificed his own daughter to his quest for knowledge; at the very best, he has used his knowledge to protect her from the world. He has raised her in the isolation of his poisonous garden, thereby corrupting her with the poisons he distills for his own purposes. Some readers conclude that his intention is to ensnare Giovanni in his experiments through the agency of his charming and lovely daughter.


On one level, “Rappaccini's Daughter” is a kind of perverse love story. Rappaccini has corrupted the body of his daughter, but her soul remains pure; she is gentle, naive, and innocent, even heavenly. It appears that after meeting Giovanni, she falls in love with him. When Giovanni produces Baglioni's phial as an antidote for the poisons in their bodies, she seizes it from him and insists on drinking the liquid first so that Giovanni can see the result; perhaps she suspects that she is the target of foul play and wants to test the antidote and thereby protect Giovanni. It remains an open question as to what extent

Giovanni's love for Beatrice matches hers for him. For some readers, Giovanni is merely infatuated by Beatrice's beauty. When he concludes that she has deliberately corrupted him, he curses her, suggesting that his love for her is superficial; she, on the other hand, says to him: “It is my father's fatal science! No, no, Giovanni; it was not I! Never, never! I dreamed only to love thee, and be with thee a little time … though my body be nourished with poison, my spirit is God's creature, and craves love as its daily food.” In the end, Beatrice turns against her father, saying to him: “I would fain have been loved, not feared.”



“Rappaccini's Daughter” makes use of numerous symbols. One of the first is the ruin of the marble fountain in the center of the garden:

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 Page 248  |  Top of Articleoriginal 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 a fountain were an immortal spirit, that sung its song unceasingly, and without heeding the vicissitudes around it.

The fountain and its gurgling water can be thought of as symbolic of physical corruption and purity of soul; in this regard it symbolizes Beatrice and her mixture of innocence and corruption. The poisonous plant from which Beatrice draws life represents the corrupting force of nature. The garden, referred to as a Garden of Eden, suggests the Fall of humanity at the hands of Satan—in this case, the satanic Rappaccini, whose black clothing is symbolic of evil. Finally, Beatrice herself is a symbolic character. She represents feminine beauty, purity, and goodness, and although her father has corrupted her body with his poisonous plants, her soul remains pure, like untainted water:

Her spirit gushed out before him like a fresh rill, that was just catching its first glimpse of the sunlight, and wondering at the reflections of earth and sky which were flung into its bosom. There came thoughts, too, from a deep source, and fantasies of a gem-like brilliancy, as if diamonds and rubies sparkled upward among the bubbles of the fountain.

Indeterminate Setting

“Rappaccini's Daughter” is set at an indeterminate time in the past, although the first sentence of the story indicates a time “very long ago.” Some of the references in the story suggest that it takes place during the Italian Renaissance, perhaps in the 1500s. The action occurs in Padua, a university city in northern Italy. Most of the action is set in the garden cultivated by Giacomo Rappaccini, a lush and luxurious garden filled with poisonous plants he uses to distill medicines. Further scenes are in the apartment overlooking the garden occupied by Giovanni Guasconti, a young medical student.

The apartment, a “high and gloomy chamber,” is in an old mansion that strikes Giovanni and the reader as sinister and mysterious, especially because it was once owned by a now extinct noble family. He imagines the family as having been depicted in Dante's Inferno (the first book of the Divine Comedy) suffering the agonies of hell, a detail that foreshadows the theological themes of the story. Also giving the mansion a mysterious, gothic atmosphere is the secret door that leads to Rappaccini's garden.


Hawthorne enriches the reader's understanding of the story through numerous allusions, that is, references to familiar characters, real persons, events, or concepts, used to make an idea more readily understood. Many of the allusions are biblical. The garden is compared to the Garden of Eden in the biblical book of Genesis, suggesting that Beatrice is a kind of Eve opposite Giovanni's Adam. Rappaccini, then, with his efforts to play God with other people's lives, is a false god, indeed a Satan. Although the parallels are not exact, the overall references to Heaven, Eden, sin, corruption, serpents, and the like allude to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, suggesting that at some level the story is an allegory about the Fall of humanity through original sin.

Additionally, the story alludes to the Divine Comedy, the immense epic poem written by Dante Alighieri early in the fourteenth century. One of the poet's guides in the poem is named Beatrice, and when Giovanni moves into his apartment, he recalls that one of the ancestors of the family that owned the mansion was depicted by Dante as having undergone the agonies of hell. These links to the Divine Comedy draw the reader's attention to the spiritual significance of the story. Finally, as Baglioni gives Giovanni the phial containing the supposed antidote to the poisons in Beatrice's system, he suggests that his antidote would have neutralized the most virulent poisons of the Borgias. His allusion is to the corrupt Borgia family, which produced two popes and dominated political and church intrigues in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy.


Hawthorne is somewhat vague about the historical context of “Rappaccini's Daughter.” Early on, the narration tells us that the events of the story take place in the distant past. A fixture of the story is the University of Padua's medical school, which was established in 1250, so clearly the story is set after that date. Further, the story makes reference to Giovanni's having read and studied Dante's Divine Page 249  |  Top of ArticleComedy, which was written in the early fourteenth century, and an allusion is made to Benvenuto Cellini, a famed Italian sculptor in the 1500s. These details suggest that the reader is to imagine the events of the story as having occurred in the Italian Renaissance of the late 1500s or perhaps even as late as the 1600s.

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  • Renaissance: Under the heading of “natural philosophy,” the first stirrings of advances toward more modern science take place in such fields as astronomy, anatomy, physiology, and medicine.
    1844: Medicine as a science, or scientific medicine, is the result of advances in theory and practice on the part of European physicians.
    Today: The scientific method is firmly entrenched, with formally trained medical researchers and scientists conducting controlled experiments with strict ethical requirements and submitting their results for publication and peer review.
  • Renaissance: Universities with structured curricula emerged in Europe in the late Middle Ages, becoming established in the Renaissance. Medicine has become a standard part of the curriculum, typically offered as a field of study after a student has completed a master's degree.
    1844: New, more modern sciences have developed, spurred by advances in such fields as organic chemistry, physiology, geology, and physics; the word scientist was coined by William Whewell in 1833. The transcendentalist movement is expressing skepticism about traditional religious beliefs and urging a closer relationship with the natural order.
    Today: Since 1999, European medical schools have striven to enhance the cross-border mobility of medical students.
  • Renaissance: Medicinal plants are widely used by physicians to treat a range of disorders.
    1844: The Botanical Garden of Padua, affiliated with the university, continues to focus on medicinal plants and natural remedies. One of its collections includes poisonous plants.
    Today: In 2013, the New York Botanical Garden presents an exhibit called “Wild Medicine: Healing Plants around the World.” The exhibit is a recreation of a sixteenth-century botanical garden from Padua.

The question arises: Why did Hawthorne choose to set his story in Renaissance Italy rather than in nineteenth-century New England? One possible answer to this question is that during the nineteenth century, Italy was widely regarded by North Americans and northern Europeans as an exotic locale, one that was infused with the rich history of the Western world. The European Renaissance in large part was launched in Italy, and much of the West's cultural inheritance, from the classic authors of ancient Rome through the old masters of the visual arts, came from the Italian peninsula. For many authors and readers, Italy was inherently interesting. Its warm and sunny climate, combined with its aesthetic sensibilities (in contrast to dour Puritan New England, which in Hawthorne's mind lacked any kind of history worth consideration), sparked the imagination of authors, including Hawthorne, whose novel The Marble Faun was inspired by his extended travels in Italy late in his life. Numerous nineteenth-century American and British authors, including James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allan Poe, George Eliot, Robert Browning, and Henry James, found inspiration in the Italian experience and used it as a backdrop for novels, poems, and short Page 250  |  Top of Articlestories. Still today, books and movies such as Frances Mayes's Vnder the Tuscan Sun (1996) attest to the sensuous allure of Italy.

Beatrice is always in the garden, where poisonous plants grow. Beatrice is always in the garden, where poisonous plants grow. (© AN NGUYEN / shutterStock.com) (© AN NGUYEN / shutterStock.com)

Italy was also known as a place of political machinations. The Borgia family played key roles in the tortuous political and religious politics of Renaissance Italy, and various members of the family, including two popes and the infamous femme fatale Lucrezia Borgia, were guilty of assorted crimes, including adultery, incest, theft, bribery, murder—even, as Baglioni points out, murder by poison. Among nineteenth-century American Protestants, the Catholicism of Italy—its corrupt popes, its crafty and cunning Jesuit priests, its sensuous rituals, its incense and bells, its elaborate churches and cathedrals—rendered Italy a place of duplicity and decadence. Although an element of cultural stereotyping was at work, for a New Englander of the nineteenth century, Italy, with its lush sensuousness and its reputation for intrigue, would have been an appropriate setting not only for Rappaccini's garden but also for the sinister aims of Rappaccini and the political jousting of Rappaccini and Baglioni. At a more practical level, the University of Padua was one of the leading universities in Europe. Its highly regarded medical school would have been the perfect home for a figure such as Rappaccini, and readers familiar with the Botanical Garden of Padua and its collection of poisonous plants would have recognized this.

It is also possible that Hawthorne wanted thematically to capture the struggle between faith and reason that was current in his own day in the conflict between the transcendentalists and those who favored a more common-sense approach to the pursuit of truth. This struggle mirrors a similar struggle that persisted throughout the Renaissance at the University of Padua. This controversy centered on the philosophical position called “fideism,” which held that truth is dual, that is, that truths about matter are within the purview of philosophy (i.e., natural philosophy, or science) and can be arrived at through the use of reason, but that matters of the spirit lie within the purview of theology and can be arrived at only through faith. This conflict was replayed in Hawthorne's New England, where his transcendentalist neighbors, led by Page 251  |  Top of ArticleRalph Waldo Emerson, were skeptical about the Protestant religious beliefs they had inherited and urged a relationship with the divine through the natural order. Their writings on these matters provoked sharp controversy, especially at Harvard University, whose prominent divinity school urged the primacy of faith. This conflict between faith and skepticism mirrored the debates between faith and reason that occurred at the University of Padua and that are embodied in the character of Giovanni in “Rappaccini's Daughter.” Throughout the story, Giovanni vacillates between faith in Beatrice's goodness and innocence and skepticism about her fundamental nature as expressed by Baglioni. It is perhaps his own uncertainty and lack of commitment to a belief in Beatrice's underlying goodness that ends up destroying her and denying him the love he seems to crave.


Many critics commenting on “Rappaccini's Daughter” call attention to the interpretive difficulties the story presents. Richard Harter Fogle, for example, writing in Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, calls it “the most difficult of Hawthorne's stories.” Fogle goes on to state that “upon consideration, the difficulty seems to have two causes: the symbolism of Beatrice Rappaccini is puzzling, and the theme of the tale is double rather than single.” Elaborating, Fogle says about Beatrice: “Symbolically she should represent … a contrast between outward beauty and inner ugliness and evil…. Instead, however, she is essentially simple and good.” With regard to the themes, Fogle writes: “The real theme arises from Beatrice and Giovanni and concludes with a demonstration of Beatrice's spiritual superiority after both have undergone the severest possible trial. The theme of Rappaccini [as the mad scientist] is secondary but encroaches upon the first from the importance and complexity of its issues.”

Also emphasizing the story's ability to baffle interpretation is Lea Bertani Vozar Newman, who writes in A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Each of the four main characters has been seen alternately as admirable or reprehensible, heroic or villainous, or as fancifully ideal or ironically grotesque.” Newman explains:

Rappaccini is a tragic hero intent on defending God's estate and protecting his daughter. Or he is a devil whose lust for power drives him to supersede God's creation. Baglioni is a well-intentioned benevolent friend and the voice of the “normal conscience.” Or he is a diabolical, malevolent murderer, at best a bungler whose motives are seriously suspect.

This comment emphasizes that different readers respond to the characters in markedly differing ways. Beverly Haviland, in “The Sin of Synecdoche: Hawthorne's Allegory against Symbolism in ‘Rappaccini's Daughter,’” sums up the problem of conflicting interpretations in this way:

By provoking us to disagree with each other about what the story means, about what its sources are, about whether it is allegory at all, Hawthorne has produced a critical discourse in which differences must be preserved because there is no possibility of agreement.

Haviland concludes: “Accepting ambivalence and disagreement as inevitable, perhaps one is then fit to be a member of the audience Hawthorne imagined.”

In his book Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Man, His Tales and Romances, Edward Wagenknecht briefly summarizes the “standard” interpretation of “Rappaccini's Daughter” :

The point has often been made that though Rappaccini's garden inevitably suggests Eden, it is Eden after the Fall. Beatrice, then, lives, as we all do, in a “fallen” world, but her soul, like the pure water of the fountain, sings its song “unceasingly and without heeding the vicissitudes around it.”

Thus, as Wagenknecht notes, the story invites a biblical, allegorical interpretation. Wagenknecht goes on to point out what many critics have noticed: the sexually charged nature of the story. He comments that Beatrice “is far from being a sexless creature, and the garden itself is drenched in sexual suggestiveness.” In a similar vein, Frederick C. Crews, in The Sins of the Father, remarks:

If Beatrice's “poisonousness” accounts for [Giovanni's] characteristically ambivalent reaction, then that poisonousness may stand for her sexuality as it affects his contrary impulses. Hope and dread wage continual warfare in Giovanni's breast because he fears exactly what he desires. His sexual ambition triggers his fits of revulsion, for the closer he comes to Beatrice, the more he is appalled by her implied sexual power.

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From there, numerous critics take a feminist reading of the story. Leland S. Person, for example, in The Cambridge Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne, comments:

“Rappaccini's Daughter” is remarkable for the way it traces the operations of a man's imagination in the presence of a challenging woman. Hawthorne carefully delineates the process in which Beatrice is victimized by a man who cannot overcome his fears of woman. Giovanni cannot move beyond an essential narcissism—his assumption that Beatrice's role is to reflect an image of him.

Richard Brenzo, in “Beatrice Rappaccini: A Victim of Male Love and Horror,” comments again on the interpretive difficulties the story poses, noting: “Critics have been fascinated by Nathaniel Hawthorne's ‘Rappaccini's Daughter,’ a tale which has proved as elusive, ambiguous, symbolic, and intimidating as Beatrice Rappaccini is in the eyes of Giovanni Guasconti.” He then cites as an example Roy R. Male, who “sees the story as an allegory, rich in ambiguity, about a conflict between ‘idealistic’ faith and ‘materialistic skepticism.’” He further notes that “other scholars view the tale as an allegory of corrupted and pure nature, or emphasize the attack on single-minded scientific inquiry.” Brenzo goes on to offer his own alternative: “However, what I find striking is the story's concern with the relationship of three men to a woman, who, though she never deliberately harms any of them, and though the men profess to have her good in mind, is nevertheless destroyed by them.”

Terence Martin, in his book Nathaniel Hawthorne, examines the story from more of a structural perspective:

The structure of the tale involves two mutually dependent stories—one contained and given fuller meaning by the dimensions of the other. Though his focus is on Beatrice as she is seen by Giovanni, Hawthorne's story of this young man and woman is folded within the contours of Baglioni's rivalry with Rappaccini.

In commenting on how Giovanni sees Beatrice, Martin sounds a common theme in responses to his character:

Giovanni, in short, lacks the depth of heart necessary to tender to Beatrice the love to which her spirit could respond. He vacillates between faith and doubt, between the promptings of the heart and those of the fancy—and his alternating moods comprise the essential dramatic movement of the tale.

In this respect, a reader can regard Giovanni rather than Beatrice as the central character in the story.


Michael J. O'Neal

O'Neal holds a PhD in English. In the following essay, he examines Hawthorne's use of imagery in “Rappaccini's Daughter.”

It could be argued, with only slight exaggeration, that the difference between literature and various forms of nonfictional writing—history texts provide a good example—is that the focus of literature is the particular while that of history is the general. History appeals largely to the intellect. It relies on the denotations of language to identify and record concepts and events. It strives to avoid ambiguity by providing a precise, semantically based meeting ground for the author and the reader, and its language serves as a means to that end. Literary language, in contrast, is not a means to an end. It is the end itself, for it is through the particulars of the language that authors create, rather than record, the particulars of the experience they want to evoke.

Authors have numerous tools to achieve their aesthetic ends: symbolism, metaphor and simile, personification. Poets, and even fiction writers, often rely on alliteration, assonance, and consonance to achieve aesthetic effects. A principal tool, however, is imagery, which underlines the fact that readers experience the world through their senses. Imagery, then, refers to literary language that calls up those sensory experiences. The word imagery implies that the technique is limited to language that captures visual experience, but imagery more broadly can encompass sound, smell, touch, texture, taste, movement, and even such sensations as hunger. Imagery is the tribute literature pays to other artistic forms, such as painting, sculpture, and music. It should be acknowledged that effective nonfiction writers often use imagery and other literary techniques to make their writing more vivid, but generally their focus remains on conveying an unambiguous semantic meaning.

“Rappaccini's Daughter” relies heavily on imagery, and it stands out from many other literary works by its reliance not just on visual Page 253  |  Top of Articleimages but on other sorts of images as well. The fundamental “meaning” of the story is ambiguous, for its allegorical and symbolic elements invite various interpretations. But the story is not an essay on human corruption, or on the Fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden, or on the exploitation of people for the ends of science, or on the inability of an unsophisticated, repressed young man to commit himself to the love of a sexually alluring and therefore frightening woman. The story is about all of these and more, but “Rappaccini's Daughter” exists through its promiscuous wealth of sensory detail. Nearly every paragraph is replete with images that draw the reader into the experience of the story.

One set of images could be described as those of “entanglement.” These images not only suggest the luxuriance of the garden but also suggest, thematically, the concept of the intermixture of spirit and flesh, good and evil, beauty and decay, health and death, innocence and corruption. Additionally, they add to the sexually charged nature of the garden, where Giovanni feels the threat of entrapment. Numerous passages contain these kinds of images. As Giovanni explores the garden and its plants, the narration comments:

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.

The narration elsewhere notes of the plants:

Several, also, would have shocked a delicate instinct by an appearance of artificialness, indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God's making, but the monstrous offspring of man's depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty. They were probably the result of experiment, which, in one or two cases, had succeeded in mingling plants individually lovely into a compound possessing the questionable and ominous character that distinguished the whole growth of the garden.

Beatrice is implicated in this ominous “commixture” and “mingling,” which borders on the incestuous:

Approaching the shrub, she threw open her arms, as with a passionate ardor, and drew its branches into an intimate embrace; so intimate, that her features were hidden in its leafy bosom, and her glistening ringlets all intermingled with the flowers.

Another set of images has to do with jewels and gems, along with language that suggests bright, glittering surfaces. These images point to the duality of the universe Beatrice and Giovanni inhabit, which, on the one hand, consists of a lush, gorgeous surface that glimmers and glistens but, on the other, is also corrupt, poisonous, and fatal. Reference, for example, is made to the garden's “gem-like flowers.” The plant with the purple flowers that seems particularly poisonous is described in this way: “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.” It made a “show so resplendent that it seemed enough to illuminate the garden.” These images are sustained in Giovanni's response to Beatrice, whose “glistening ringlets” have already been noted:

Her spirit gushed out before him like a fresh rill, that was just catching its first glimpse of the sunlight, and wondering at the reflections of earth and sky which were flung into its bosom. There came thoughts, too, from a deep source, and fantasies of a gem-like brilliancy, as if diamonds and rubies sparkled upward among the bubbles of the fountain.

At another point, Giovanni observes that Beatrice “glowed amid the sunlight and … positively illuminated the more shadowy intervals of the garden path.”

Yet other sets of images capture color and smell, the latter often suggested by breath:

“Give me thy breath, my sister,” exclaimed Beatrice; “for I am faint with common air!

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Sidebar: HideShow

  • Hawthorne's major work is his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, an allegorical tale of sin, guilt, and redemption set in early colonial America.
  • Hawthorne's “The Birth-Mark,” first published in 1843, was included in Mosses from an Old Manse. It tells the story of a scientist obsessed with an imperfection on the face of his beautiful young wife—a small birthmark in the shape of a hand. He tries to remove the birthmark, with tragic results.
  • William G. Rothstein surveys the history of nineteenth-century American medicine, as both science and social science, in American Physicians in the Nineteenth Century: From Sects to Science (1992).
  • A classic novel about the arrogance of attempts to control creation that has been enjoyed by generations of young adults is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818).
  • The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), by H. G. Wells, often seen as a young-adult novel, is one of the earliest science-fiction novels to explore the topic of a deranged scientist who is more concerned with what he can do than with what he should do.
  • Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (2001), by Lorraine J. Daston and Katharine Park, surveys the topic of natural inquiry and the history of “wonders in the order of nature” in the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and beyond. The book would provide insight into the scientific passions of a character like Dr. Rappaccini.
  • The Eastern roots of Western medicine and the cultural inheritance that might have affected a physician in Renaissance Italy is explored in Medieval Islamic Medicine (2007), by Peter E. Pormann and Emilie Savage-Smith.
  • Philip Pullman is the author of His Dark Materials, an epic/fantasy trilogy for young adults consisting of Northern Lights (1995, published in North America as The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000). The trilogy embraces several themes and motifs found in “Rappaccini's Daughter,” including a (possibly) mad scientist (in a world in which scientists are referred to as “theologians” ), dangerous and unethical experimentation, an emphasis on the Fall of man in the biblical account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (a lead character is regarded as the new “Eve” ), and original sin.

And give me this flower of thine, which I separate with gentlest fingers from the stem, and place it close beside my heart.”

When Giovanni first hears Beatrice speak, he hears “a voice as rich as a tropical sunset, … which made Giovanni, though he knew not why, think of deep hues of purple or crimson, and of perfumes heavily delectable.” The color purple, which plays a prominent role in the story, carries its own wealth of connotations. Because purple is a hybrid color, it occurs rarely in nature, so it has traditionally been thought to have a spiritual meaning, and purple flowers are often considered precious and delicate. The color is often associated with royalty and nobility and thus with luxury, ambition, power, wealth, extravagance, and grandeur, along with magic and mystery. Purple is thought to have various effects on people: it encourages the imagination and creativity, it boosts nurturing tendencies, and it enhances a feeling of the sacred. Purple is also often associated with feminine energy and power. All of these associations can come into play as Beatrice nurtures the plant with purple flowers, which she addresses as her “sister.”

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Giovanni unwittingly kills Beatrice when he brings an antidote, intending to rid her body of the poisons. Giovanni unwittingly kills Beatrice when he brings an antidote, intending to rid her body of the poisons. (© Rynio Productions / ShutterStock.com) (© Rynio Productions / ShutterStock.com)

When Giovanni meets with Beatrice in the garden,

there was a fragrance in the atmosphere around her, rich and delightful, though evanescent, yet which the young man, from an indefinable reluctance, scarcely dared to draw into his lungs. It might be the odor of the flowers. Could it be Beatrice's breath, which thus embalmed her words with a strange richness, as if by steeping them in her heart?

This emphasis on breath, exhalations, and fragrances enhances the reader's sense of the redolence and sensuousness of the garden as well as its latent sexuality (which is often triggered by fragrances, as perfume manufacturers know). What should also be observed are the auditory images in many of these passages. The reader is invited to hear the gush of water from the ruined fountain and, through the combination of visual and auditory images, feel the tension between ruin and salvation, between corruption and innocence.

The attentive reader can locate additional image patterns in the story: snakes and serpents, warmth and cold, sunshine and shadow, white and black. The reader's immersion in these images turns “Rappaccini's Daughter” into a lush, sensory experience and transforms its theological abstractions into the immediacy and tangibility of art.

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Source: Michael J. O'Neal, Critical Essay on “Rappaccini's Daughter,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2016.

Lea Bertani Vozar Newman

In the following excerpt, Newman points out that “Rappaccini's Daughter” is a complex story, leading reviewers to conflicting conclusions about its meaning.

… “The most difficult of Hawthorne's stories”—such is Fogle's assessment of “Rappaccini's Daughter,” and few of the circa seventy other readers whose interpretations are reflected in this review would disagree. Their very number attests to the complexities in the story, while their conflicting conclusions complicate the situation further. Each of the four main characters has been seen alternately as admirable or reprehensible, heroic or villainous, or as fancifully ideal or ironically grotesque. Rappaccini is a tragic hero intent on defending God's estate and protecting his daughter. Or he is a devil whose lust for power drives him to supersede God's creation. Baglioni is a well-intentioned benevolent friend and the voice of the “normal conscience.” Or he is a diabolical, malevolent murderer, at best a bungler whose motives are seriously suspect. Even the star-crossed lovers, who emerge in most readings with Beatrice as the pure and selfless innocent victim and Giovanni as the inadequate, shallow, faithless lover, occasionally reverse roles with one reader giving precedence to Beatrice's poisonousness, another to Giovanni's good “common sense.”

Several typically Hawthornian attributes contribute to and help to explain such a paradoxical array of responses. The first, and most crucial, is his handling of point of view; the second, and most apparent, is his unique kind of symbolic allegory; and the third, and most pervasive, is his ambivalence, a vacillation firmly rooted in a basic psychological and philosophical duality.

Point of view is listed as the first of these factors because it is in this fundamental aspect of form, in a subtle yet highly significant shift in perspective, that many of the interpretative problems lie. In the opening sentence of the tale proper, Giovanni is established as the subject of the story, and it is from his viewpoint that the garden and the other characters are initially described and the incidents in the plot are developed. The reader is presented with some objective facts that help to shape and assess Giovanni's character, but primarily the reader's sensibilities parallel Giovanni's and change, with his, between accepting the sensory evidence of Beatrice's poisonousness and the intuitive feeling that she is pure and good. The dilemma is a valid one for the first thirty pages of the thirty-seven-page story, but at this point, in the middle of a paragraph that reviews Giovanni's “dark surmises,” the perspective shifts to an authoritative, omniscient point of view that informs the reader, but not Giovanni, that it would be a mistake to trust one's senses. The authorial voice unequivocally states, “There is something truer and more real, than what we can see with the eyes, and touch with the finger.” Two pages later this authority verifies beyond doubt that “the real Beatrice was a heavenly angel.” The uninitiated reader could easily overlook the actual source of the confirmation and assume that Giovanni shares the benefit of this insight. Those readers who have identified and analyzed the manipulation of the narrative structure have not approved of it. McCabe considers the abandonment of Giovanni's mediating consciousness as the “one unsatisfactory element” in an otherwise “compelling work of art,” while Ross calls the intrusion of an outside superior knowledge “a serious flaw” that undercuts the reader's identification with Giovanni and makes for an inept resolution of the conflict. Waggoner, without specifically referring to point of view, assesses the plot as a series of controlled revelations of Beatrice's full character. Hawthorne's shift may be a part of this “controlled revelation,” or it may be an arbitrary change inserted after he had decided to make Beatrice an angel and Page 257  |  Top of Articlenot a devil. (His indecision is discussed under circumstances of composition, above.) In either case, the reader who is aware of the privileged communication between author and reader will be better able to grasp Giovanni's dilemma.

The author's sleight of hand with viewpoint is significant in another way as well. It demonstrates and confirms one of the story's dominant themes—the unreliability of sensory perceptions. Several readers have discussed Giovanni's “quick fancy,” a phrase Hawthorne uses to denote the faculty that receives and combines sense impressions. Most have condemned Giovanni for not being able to transcend his physical senses, but Franklin points out that the issue of whether Giovanni perceives Beatrice accurately is ultimately irrelevant. Giovanni's perception is a trick intended to momentarily delude the reader in the same way that Baglioni's and Rappaccini's “science” deludes all three men in the story. They “mistake the actual for the real.” Without the authorial intercessions, the reader would too. If the narrative is directly calculated to “egregiously deceive,” as Franklin claims, the change in point of view may not be a blunder but a case of the form skillfully echoing the content and reinforcing one of the themes.

The second factor that contributes to this story's interpretative difficulties is the allegorical “meaning” that it embodies. For the reader who defines allegory as a consistent set of symbols used to signify a second series of referents with exact correspondence, “Rappaccini's Daughter” is hopelessly “inconsistent” and finally unsatisfactory as “pure allegory.” Such a rigid allegorical formula cannot be made to fit the multitude of conflicting literary allusions with which the story abounds. Each legend that it invokes suggests a different set of identifying symbols and a corresponding reversal in role assignments. For example, the biblical analogue proposes Beatrice as the temptress Eve who leads Giovanni to his fall; the Dantean model makes her the Italian, idealized Beatrice who leads her beloved to Paradise; and the Ovidian myth suggests that Giovanni as Vertumnus will rescue her instead. (See sources and influences, above.) These kinds of contradictions pose no problem for another set of readers who accept a broader definition of allegory. For them, allegory is a symbolic mode that thrives on irony and enigma. One such reader claims that “the confusion in the symbolism” aids this kind of fiction. Another commends Hawthorne for integrating a continuum of legendary allusions. Honig believes Baglioni's mixed motives add a dimension lacking in the antecedent legends and enhance the ironic character portrayals throughout the story. One explanation for Hawthorne's ambiguous allegory is that he could no longer accept the firm beliefs on which Spenser and Bunyan based their “allegory of certainty” ; in following their manner but not their convictions, Hawthorne produces an “allegory of doubt.”

Unbelief provides a shaky foundation for allegory, but readers have nevertheless attempted allegorical approaches to “Rappaccini's Daughter.” Edenic parallels are the most common, undoubtedly because the story itself asks, “Was this garden, then, the Eden of the present world?—and this man [Rappaccini], was he the Adam?” The rhetorical question has been answered in diverse ways. Rappaccini could be the old Adam (Beatrice, like Eve, is created from him and for him); this would make Baglioni the serpent, who seduces and betrays, and Giovanni a second Adam who falls again. Giovanni's sin would be directly linked to his inability to accept Beatrice as a postlapsarian Eve. Or Rappaccini could be not Adam, but a kind of false God wielding his power over a perversely re-created Adam and Eve in an unnatural Paradise of his own making. If Giovanni is Adam, his offering Beatrice the antidote could be interpreted as the temptation of the apple, a situation that reverses the Miltonic emphasis on Eve as temptress. Or Giovanni might simply be Adam after the fall in a “lost Eden Paradise” that he cannot redeem because of his un-Christian selfishness.

Two other allegorical schemes have also been applied, one involving folklore, the other science. The former centers on the principals in the fairy tale—a prince and princess, a good fairy and an evil one. Like the counterparts in the biblical versions, the identities reverse and confuse their roles. Beatrice is the bewitched Princess-in-Distress, but she is not rescued by the Knight-Errant (Giovanni) because he fails the test (the poison); Rappaccini is the Wicked Enchanter, but he is partially good; and Baglioni, who tries to counteract the spell with a magic potion (the antidote), is as much an Evil Counselor as a good fairy. The self-contradictions, once more, underscore Hawthorne's ironic intent by forcing the reader to reshape his original expectations. As an allegory of Page 258  |  Top of Articlescience, the story yields, in one reading, a more clearly defined series of correspondences. Rappaccini is the experimental scientist, the garden is his laboratory. Beatrice is the new scientific generation; Giovanni, traditional education; and Baglioni, conservative science. This neatly assigned scheme has been severely criticized as arbitrary and irrelevent. One reader completely rules out the notion that the doctors in the story are meant to represent science because they display none of the objectivity associated with the medical profession even in Hawthorne's day.

Perhaps the most telling commentary on “Rappaccini's Daughter” as allegory is Hawthorne's own reaction in 1854, ten years after he had written it. In preparing the Mosses col-lection for a new edition, Hawthorne writes to his publisher, James T. Fields: “Upon my honor, I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in some of these blasted allegories.” Since reinsertion of the preface to “Rappaccini's Daughter” is one of the changes Hawthorne specifically mentions in this letter, and since the preface refers to “an inveterate love of allegory” as part of the author's problem, we can rightfully assume that this story is one of the “blasted allegories” that confuses its author as it does many of its readers….

Source: Lea Bertani Vozar Newman, “Rappaccini's Daughter,” in A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, G. K. Hall, 1979, pp. 263–67.


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Gale, Robert L., A Nathaniel Hawthorne Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 1991.

This volume includes roughly 1,500 entries on all aspects of Hawthorne's life and works: characters, plots, poetry, nonfiction prose, family members, friends, and associates. It includes a chronological listing of the events in his life, chronicles his personal relationships, and documents his experiences as reflected in his stories, reviews, poems, letters, and notebooks.

Kincaid, Paul, “American Fantasy: 1820–1950,” in The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Readers interested in the development of American fantasy literature will find this essay informative. The book as a whole includes essays on a wide range of topics having to do with fantasy literature.

Leeming, David Adams, and Kathleen Morgan Drowne, Encyclopedia of Allegorical Literature, ABC-CLIO, 1996.

Readers interested in allegorical literature will find in this volume discussion of all aspects of allegory in the Western tradition, from parts of the Bible to modern fiction. It also includes discussion of works from Africa, the Middle East, South America, and other cultures.

Meltzer, Milton, Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography, Twenty-First Century Books, 2006.

This volume is a biography of Hawthorne writ-ten for young adults. The biography explores the drama and tragedy of Hawthorne's life and is made more appealing by its use of drawings, paintings, and photographs.

Miller, Edwin Haviland, Salem Is My Dwelling Place: Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne, University of Iowa Press, 1992.

Readers interested in a more comprehensive, scholarly biography of Hawthorne will find this entry satisfying. While steering clear of psychological jargon, the biography explores the suppression and anguish that marked much of Hawthorne's life.

Porte, Joel, In Respect to Egotism: Studies in American Romanticism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

This volume is a wide-ranging study of American romanticism and places Hawthorne in the context of other American romantics, including Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and others. Hawthorne is discussed in chapter 5, “Hawthorne: ‘The Obscurest Man of Letters in America.’”

Wright, Sarah Bird, Critical Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Facts on File, 2006.

This volume constitutes a comprehensive guide to all things having to do with Hawthorne and his work. It includes critical entries on his novels, short stories, travel writing, and criticism. Additional entries examine his major characters, his family, friends, publishers, critics, and the periodicals in which his work appeared. It also contains full texts of reviews written by his contemporaries.


Nathaniel Hawthorne

Rappaccini's Daughter AND Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne AND Twice-Told Tales

femme fatale

American romanticism

dark romanticism

Garden of Eden

mad scientist

Mosses from an Old Manse

nineteenth century AND American medicine

Puritanism AND America

University of Padua

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3774900023