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“Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Card picked: Two of Clubs – my last wild card! I decided to pull from my list of Obscure Literary Monsters
Thoughts: When found in the anthology Mosses from an Old Manse and other stories, this story is titled “Rappaccini’s Daughter [from the writings of Aubepine]” and there’s a preface about the esoteric M. de l’Aubepine. The “translator” notes that Aubepine is prone to fantasy and allegory and his characters barely have the semblance of real people. In this way, Hawthorne is providing with a wink and a nudge an explanation for his fantastic allegory. Some online versions of the story skip this bit.
Rappaccini is a great scientist; a genius with plants. He has “created” incredibly toxic plants, ones that he can’t even touch or breath in their fragrance. A young doctor, Giovanni Guasconti, has rented the apartment overlooking Rappaccini’s courtyard garden and observes that the mad scientist’s lovely daughter, Beatrice, can tend to the plants without ill effects. He is, of course, smitten. It doesn’t matter that one of Rappaccini’s envious colleagues warns him away from the father-daughter pair or that small animals and insects seem to fall dead when within proximity to her very breath. Amazingly, Giovanni is shown a secret entrance to Rappaccini’s garden and begins to meet with Beatrice on a regular basis. Nothing good can come of this…
Over and over, Hawthorne states that Rappaccini is a true scientist–he doesn’t let silly things like ethics and empathy get in his way. I’m sure Hawthorne means well with such a warning, especially in an era when the biological sciences were taking a leap forward, but these sort of stories always strike me as a bit hysterical. There’s also a strong nature/nurture theme going on here, though I doubt that Hawthorne would have stated in that manner. Time and time again, Giovanni ignores Beatrice’s faults in favor of her looks and her “heavenly” nature. He overlooks any influence her father has had over her in the belief that her nature will save her. This isn’t the case; it’s Rappaccini’s nurturing that dooms her. There’s also a hint of the thought that Giovanni has been sullied by this woman. There are plenty of Adam, Eve, and garden references; we all know how that ended.