The key to my understanding Hawthornes perspective on Science and Nature in Rappaccinis Daughter was his cheeky introduction, when he placed himself somewhere between transcendentalists and “pen-and-ink men who address the intellect and sympathies of the multitude” – too unpopular for the multitude, and too popular for the transcendentalists. Choosing not to fit in either camp, he seems to tease us with the merits and deficits of each – science and nature, too. Its not a matter of balance, or a weighing of arguments. His device here is to play upon the tensions attendant to these apparent polarities.
On the first reading “Rappaccinis Daughter” appeared to be a cautionary tale, a warning about the dangers of too much science, excessive manipulation of nature – leading to “thwarted nature,” the “fatality that attends all such acts of perverted wisdom. ” Rappaccini is described as a “vile empiric” and “not restrained by natural affection for his daughter. ” Beatrice, his daughter, describes herself as merely his earthly child, while the plants are the “offspring of his intellect. ” Beatrice is described by her physical beauty and poisonous physical nature. She is described also by the “pure light of her character.
Giovanni, the would-be lover, alternates between obsession with Beatrice – which might be love – and abhorrence of her. The obsession is with her beauty and simplicity – her goodness. The abhorrence is with her poisonous physical nature. Giovannis character, however, is found wanting when he urges Beatrice to take the fatal antidote to her poisonousness. Beatrice protected Giovanni from fatal poisoning when she stopped him from touching her “sister” plant. She protected him from fatal physical contact with her. At the end, she protected him by ending her life. I did not see sexuality in this story on the first reading.
It can be interpreted with a great deal of sexuality in the symbolism, and in the phrasing. Laura Stallmans survey of criticisms informed my view on this greatly. She refers to Frederick Crews criticism: “The garden is found to have strong sexual connotations and Crews calls attention to the virtually pornographic scene in which Lisabetta (the landlady) leads Giovanni to the entrance to the garden and he presses money into her palm, much like a “john” paying a madame. After being led “along several obscure passages,” Giovanni must finally “force himself through the entanglement of a shrub that wreathed its tendrils over the hidden entrance.
There are many criticisms of this work that read it through such a lens. Such provocative images have purpose, especially when a work can be read on so very many levels. On one level, suggestive images can serve to keep the readers interest. Michael Gilmore (in Stallmans survey) notes that Hawthorne “was having problems attracting a popular audience. ” Perhaps he boosted sales/popularity with this. (As Kristen noted, Hawthorne was “just having fun” with this piece, too! ) Sexuality is an important element of the story, but perhaps only a vehicle through which to tell another story.
Sex is sometimes about power. I read this story now as an exploration of human nature, particularly as a story about the human lust for power. Rappaccini used science as his vehicle for power over nature, through Beatrice and the garden. The objectivity of science was represented by his demeanor with his daughter and his garden – touching nothing directly, only looking and tending from a distance. Baglioni sought power manipulatively and politically – represented by his academic rivalry with Rappaccini, his plan to kill Beatrice, and his manipulation of Giovanni as the instrument to kill Beatrice.
Giovanni wanted power over Beatrice – he wanted to recast her into a form he could “love” – he couldnt love her as she was. Beatrice and the plants in the garden were the innocents in this story – they simply came into being. The poison in their physical nature simply was – there was no malice in them. Beatrice was the only human who exhibited real love, and who only wanted love/to love. She expressed her love for Giovanni by dying – and in dying released herself from (transcended) the power of each of these men.