In a thought-provoking allegory written nearly two years after “The Birth-Mark,” Nathaniel Hawthorne uses a first-person narrator to introduce “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” This nameless narrator tells the reader that he translated the story, originally entitled “Beatrice: ou la Belle Empoisonneuse” (Beatrice: or the Beautiful Poisoner) and written by M. de l’Aubépine. Hawthorne’s wit is at play here, because the fictional M. de l’Aubépine has written books whose titles, when translated from the French, are those of some of Hawthorne’s own (Twice Told Tales and The Artist of the Beautiful, for instance); moreover, Aubépine has, as Hawthorne was, a fondness for allegory, and he believes that readers may find his tales briefly entertaining. Critics continue to examine Hawthorne’s reasons for using this alter ego (self-deprecation? amusement? discomfort with sexual matters?), but in any case, the narrator leads the reader into the story, set in Padua, Italy, and then, having lent a degree of authenticity to the narrative, disappears from the text altogether.
The protagonist, Giovanni Guasconti, a young man from Naples, arrives in Padua to study at the university and takes rooms at an old palace whose early owners are rumored to have been incorporated by Dante Alighieri into his classic work, The Inferno. The allusion to Dante and to hell strikes a somber note and helps to prepare the reader for the walled garden of the palace. Although this garden, directly referred to as Eden, immediately attracts Guasconti with its beautiful gardener and its gorgeous herbs and flowers, he senses a sinister aura permeating this paradise. The gardener is a young woman named Beatrice—the name of Dante’s beloved—and her father, Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini, is famous for his work with poisonous herbs. Throughout the story, the lush garden imagery is penetrated by imagery of rustling, coiling snakes: Dr. Rappaccini himself looks lean and serpentlike, and his cold-blooded intelligence gives him the deadly power to use poison to control human life. In this retelling of Adam and Eve in the biblical garden story, Hawthorne aptly chose the ancient backdrop of The Inferno as Guasconti and Beatrice become smitten with each other.
One other character plays a significant role in this story: Signor Pietro Baglioni, a professor at the university, old friend of Guasconti’s father and longtime rival of Rappaccini. These male connections and rivalries prove significant as the story moves to its conclusion: Beatrice is not named in the title (she is merely Rappaccini’s daughter), and, in fact, from the beginning, she is doomed—a word she uses repeatedly—a helpless victim of these men and the only representative of the forces of truth and good in the story. We learn that her father has fed her with poison since her birth, making her immune to its source in the garden: Only she can touch the beautiful, deadly plant that she calls her “sister.” As a result, she herself is poisonous, unable to touch flowers or people without infecting them.
Baglioni is jealous of Beatrice, fearing that her father has taught her so well that she could take Baglioni’s place at the university. When Baglioni gives Guasconti a potion for Beatrice, he tells him that it will make her immune to the poison and that they can then enjoy their love. Whether or not Guasconti suspects that the potion will kill Beatrice is unclear, but, before giving it to her, this young man, so vain about his looks, wishes he himself could kill her. In a rage, he villifies Beatrice with epithets and calls her an “accursed,” “loathesome” monster from a “region of unspeakable horror” (69–70). Significantly, in his anger, he is described as “venomous”; indeed, he sounds like a man who has discovered that his beloved has been unfaithful to him. As Beatrice dies from drinking the potion Guasconti has given her, her father appears, “erect with conscious power” (71), an image both serpentine and Freudian (see Freud). Dr. Rappaccini explains that he made Beatrice poisonous so that she could overcome the condition of a “weak woman,” and with her dying breath, she says that she would have preferred love to power. Addressing Guasconti, she asks him if there were not more poison in his nature than in hers from the very first.
Secure in her own goodness, Beatrice will ascend to the region where the “holy virgin,” whom she calls on several times in the story, and that other Beatrice, Dante’s spiritual guide, dwell. The three men, vain and power hungry, remain, Baglioni accusing Rappaccini of causing the death of his daughter. None of them realizes that the poison lies within them all in their terrible lust for knowledge—and in their implied fear of feminine beauty and sexuality. Critics and readers of this story continue to debate whether Hawthorne aimed to demonstrate the powerless position of women, or whether he shared the fears of his male characters.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” In American Short Stories. 4th ed. Edited by Eugene Current-García and Walton R. Patrick. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman.