July 31, 2017

Toxic Beauty in Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter"

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844) allegorizes the effect of scientific knowledge on human relationships. The three main characters, the young man Giovanni Guasconti, the mad botanist Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini, and his daughter Beatrice, interact to narratively test the idea that perhaps the pursuit of scientific knowledge is toxic to romantic love.

The story takes place in medieval Padua in the botanical gardens of the University of Padua, which, through the logic of allegory, becomes a version of the Garden of Eden. In this view, Giovanni and Beatrice are the innocent Adam and Eve figures and Dr. Rappaccini is the serpent/satantic figure.

Dr. Rappaccini cultivates a variety of toxic plants and creates a few deadly plants through artificial means. In the course of doing this, he subjects his daughter, Beatrice, to a poisonous environment. Beatrice then develops a tolerance for poison but she also becomes poisonous herself. Her touch shrivels flowers. Her breath kills insects. Her kiss is deadly. And despite all of this, she is sublimely beautiful. Consider when Giovanni sees her for the first time:

There emerged from under a sculptured portal the figure of a young woman [...] beautiful as the day, and with a bloom so deep and vivid that one shade more would have been too much. She looked redundant with life, health, and energy.

But, upon deeper scrutiny, there is revealed something sinister to her beauty:

The impression the stranger made upon him was as if here were another flower, the human sister of those vegetable ones, as beautiful as they--more beautiful than the richest of them--but still to be touched only with a glove, nor to be approached without a mask.

Beatrice here makes me think of the Batman villainess, Poison Ivy, although, unlike Poison Ivy, this particular poisonous woman hates the toxic garden her father has created.

The conflict of the story proceeds from the vexed love that Giovanni develops for Beatrice. He sees her strolling in the garden everyday and so falls hard, and she for him as well. Beatrice never allows Giovanni to kiss her and she never embraces him, and soon he discovers her tragically poisonous nature. Even more, he discovers that since he has been hanging out with her in this toxic garden he, too, has become toxic and therefore unable to return to society. Beatrice is wracked with guilt because she thinks she has doomed them both to social isolation. We she tries to cure herself by drinking an antidote to her poisons, she dies.

Beatrice is the first of many female personifications of knowledge, inspiration, and truth, a literary tradition going all the way back to the Muses of Greek Mythology. I find Beatrice's poisonous quality compelling. She combines the allure of knowledge with the threat it also holds. I find it intriguing that this ambivalent view toward science appears as early as it does, fourteen years before Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1959) decentered the human animal. Rappaccini isn't a Darwinian figure, though; he is one of our first SF mad scientists, a inhuman sorcerer whose pursuit of knowledge leaves no room for the human.