‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ is a short story by the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), first published in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in December 1844. The story is about an Italian medical researcher who grows poisonous plants in his garden. His daughter grows up to be immune to all of the poisons – but is poisonous to others who come into contact with her.
You can read ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’: plot summary
Giovanni Guasconti, a young man from the south of Italy, travels to Padua to study at the university there. He takes lodgings in a house from whose window he can see into the next-door garden, where he sees an emaciated and sickly-looking man, whom his landlady informs him is Giacomo Rappaccini, a doctor and scientist. Rappaccini grows unusual plants, from which he makes numerous medicines.
Giovanni sees Rappaccini call his beautiful daughter, Beatrice, out into the garden to assist him, and Giovanni falls in love with her instantly. He sees Rappaccini, who has been handling many of the plants very carefully, ask his daughter to take care of one which he will not handle himself.
The next day, Giovanni visits Baglioni, a professor of medicine at the university, who warns Giovanni that Rappaccini prefers science to mankind: he tells him that Rappaccini ‘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.’
When Giovanni observes Beatrice in her father’s garden, he notices that whenever living creatures – such as a lizard and an insect – come too close to her, they die instantly. Beatrice sees Giovanni watching her from his window, and he throws down a bouquet of flowers he had bought for her, and she takes them, going inside the house. He gradually realises that he has fallen in love with her, although his love is mixed with ‘horror’ at her effect on living creatures.
When Giovanni bumps into Baglioni in town, they are both approached by Rappaccini, who closely studies Giovanni as though he were a scientific specimen. Baglioni becomes horrified, believing Rappaccini has made Giovanni into one of his scientific experiments, and decides to rescue the young man from the doctor’s grasp.
Intent on seeing the garden more closely, Giovanni sneaks into it and encounters Beatrice, who allays all of his doubts and fears about her. She tells him that she has been deliberately kept innocent by her father, and she knows nothing of life beyond the garden. When Giovanni goes to pluck a flower from a plant, she grabs his hand and draws it back, telling him the plant is fatal. She runs back into the house, and Giovanni notices that Rappaccini has been watching them.
The next morning, Giovanni realises he has a burning sensation in his hand, the one Beatrice had touched to draw him back from the deadly flower. On his hand is her handprint: ‘a purple print, like that of four small fingers, and the likeness of a slender thumb upon his wrist.’ Giovanni slowly realises that he is now infected with the same deadly ability to kill living creatures.
Baglioni calls on Giovanni and gives him the antidote to the poison that afflicts Beatrice. He tells him that if Giovanni gives the antidote to her, she will be cured. When he visits her in the garden, she confines that she has been isolated from all other humans, and when he shows her that she has infected him with her poison, she is distraught, because she only wanted to love him and be with him.
She drinks the antidote Giovanni gives to her, and it kills her: the narrator tells us that ‘poison had been life, so the powerful antidote was death.’ Baglioni looks on, with both triumph and horror, and shouts, ‘Rappaccini! Rappaccini! and is this the upshot of your experiment!’
‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’: analysis
This story owes its origins in a note Hawthorne made in October 1841 in his notebook, in which he recorded his intention to ‘symbolize moral or spiritual disease of the body: – thus, when a person committed any sin, it might cause a sore to appear on the body; – this to be wrought out.’ Alongside this, Hawthorne also noted a legend concerning people who successfully inoculated themselves with snake venom, rendering them immune to any future snakebites. The legend of Mithridates, king of Pontus, involves a similar idea.
One of the key themes of ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, alongside Hawthorne’s interest in poison as a symbol for ‘moral or spiritual disease’, is science and its applications in the world. A scientist or doctor’s pursuit of scientific truth can lead him to lose sight of the moral or human aspect. This, of course, is a key moral theme in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), in which the titular character uses science to create a being composed of part of other humans, only to abandon his social and moral responsibility for the creature, leading to death and chaos. ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ might be analysed as part of the same ‘subgenre’ of texts dealing with the misuse of science.
However, Hawthorne’s stance on this issue is hard to determine from the story alone, because there is an ambivalence in his treatment of this central theme. On the one hand, Rappaccini does have the human benefit in his sights when he exposes his daughter to the deadly poisons: he seeks to protect her and make her immune to their toxins.
At the same time, his focus on the intellectual benefits of his experiments with the plants appears to have eroded his emotional understanding of what this will do to his daughter, making her an outcast who can never come too close to another human being (such as Giovanni) because she will infect and poison him as she has been infected.
Baglioni, the other scientist in the story, is not beyond reproach, however: in providing the antidote, he means well, but the result is death to Beatrice. The story’s last words belong to him, and are delivered in a mixture of ‘horror’ and ‘triumph’: triumph, presumably, because he has destroyed a hated scientific rival, but this has come at the cost of a human life.
In this respect, ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ resembles another ancient myth: that of King Midas, who wished to have everything he touched turn to gold. This wish was granted, with catastrophic results for his family relations, among other things.
But of course the wish was not Beatrice’s, but her father’s, and he uses her as his innocent pawn in pursuit of scientific gain. For this reason, many critics have analysed the story as a tale of intellectual arrogance and hubris: that ancient Greek term for excessive pride of self-confidence, a pride which usually comes before a terrible fall.
The wider symbolism of this story is relevant, in this regard. As our use of the word ‘fall’ suggests, there is something of the tale of Adam and Eve in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’: indeed, Hawthorne’s third-person narrator mentions Eden three times in the story, and there are numerous parallels.
There is the garden containing forbidden knowledge (scientific or medical, in this case), the man and the woman (with the woman leading the man, Giovanni in this case, to ‘fall’ with her), and even a suggestion of the ‘serpent’ which led Adam and Eve to temptation in the garden: note that Hawthorne describes how some of the climbing plants ‘crept serpent-like along the ground’; elsewhere, ‘deadly snakes’ are conflated with ‘evil spirits’ as two of the ‘malignant influences’ Giovanni walks amongst in the garden. These snake-references look back to one of Hawthorne’s influences for the story (those legends surrounding snake venom and inoculation) but also summon the story of the Fall of Man from the Book of Genesis.
Beatrice, whose name summons the beautiful and innocent heroine and muse in Dante’s medieval epic The Divine Comedy, means literally ‘blessed’. But this name is both apt and ironic. It is apt because she is the beautiful and innocent young woman to whom the smitten Giovanni is drawn, much as Dante is drawn to the happiness-bringing Beatrice, but it is ironic because this innocent woman harbours deadly power, and is thus cursed as well as blessed.
‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ is also, therefore, a variation on the ‘poisonous maiden’ trope that originated in Indian literature, and shows Hawthorne using a symbol – here, poison – to explore ideas relating to human sins and flaws. (Baglioni tells Giovanni this legend in the story itself, when he visits Giovanni at home.) In this regard, a productive analysis comparing this story with another of Hawthorne’s classic stories written around this time, ‘The Birthmark’, might be undertaken.