Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

rossettiAfter the interest from Monday’s post and an email from a former roommate telling me of his enthusiasm for Nathaniel Hawthorne, I feel compelled to write about a favorite short story of mine: “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (pub. 1844). This story can be found in the author’s collection, Mosses from an Old Manse available for free at Project Gutenberg.

“Rappaccini’s Daughter” begins in medieval Padua with the arrival of university student, Giovanni Guasconti. He takes up residence next to the scientist Giacomo Rappaccini and his daughter, Beatrice, whose beauty, although, never beheld by the young men of the city, is held in high regard.

Guasconti spends his days staring at Rappaccini’s garden where his daughter spends most of her time. He is bewitched by her beauty and by the mysterious connection she has to the plants in the garden. Alas, he is given a warning by Professor Baglioni, a friend of his father’s, that no good will come of becoming entangled with Rappaccini or his daughter. Guasconti ignores him, of course, and as the weeks go on, becomes even more hypnotized by Beatrice.

What I love about Hawthorne’s story is the intermingling of beauty and death (which can also be said of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray). The combination of two themes that should not be mixed leads to an uncomfortable horror. Guasconti’s ability to be rational is so dampened by Beatrice’s beauty that he ignores the oddness of small creatures contorting themselves violently and dying at her feet. He even gets quite grumpy when Professor Baglioni tries to warn him via an anecdotal story of Alexander the Great, but when the young man dismisses it, Baglioni has to go so far as to just plainly say that the girl is full of poison. Beware!

With many horror stories throughout literary history, the horror can be found in the gruesome and uncanny, but with “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (and the aforementioned The Picture of Dorian Gray), the story is so off-putting by the blind attainment of beauty. It is not till the end of the tale does Guasconti finally believe what everyone around him has been saying; Rappaccini is a mad scientist and this fact is only made believable to him when his own beauty is tampered with.

I can’t recommend this story enough. Also, I haven’t had a chance to take a listen, but I found a 1940s radio show that is in the public domain called Weird Circle. You can listen to over 70 tales (each about 20-30 minutes long), including such great haunted horrors and grim stories as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Frankenstein, and if you haven’t guessed it, “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Ma.

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Ma on our day-trip last week.

As a bit of a post script, I have a feeling fans of Trolls 2 will enjoy this story (from Wikipedia: “The plot concerns a family pursued by vegetarian goblins who seek to transform them into plants so that they can eat them.”).
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14 comments

  1. Love “Rappaccini’s Daughter”! What I found interesting is that, except for Beatrice, every one is a bit of a bad guy. Rappaccini’s a madman, Baglioni is spiteful, and the protagonist was (I thought) rather judgmental (and willful.

    Since I read it in a collection of classic Gothic tales, which usually have a pretty clear-cut good guy and bad guy, the moral ambiguity in the story really stood out for me. I get the feeling sometimes that Hawthorne was a bit of a cynical guy….

    1. Yes, I completely agree. I’ve read this story several times and I still think it ‘reads’ so much differently than other stories of the period. The main character is even a bit unlikable, which is not in the normal trend.
      Honestly, it surprises me every time.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I’m listening to the radio play now and am enjoying it. I’ll probably listening to other Weird Circle shows, too. They have some other favorites archived there.

  2. In early 2012, I read an interesting biography of Hawthorne that you might like. My post about that book is at http://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/hawthorne-a-life-by-brenda-wineapple/

    In general, I love Hawthorne’s fiction, especially his short fiction, I did struggle through his novel, The Marble Faun, once long ago and wonder if a re-reading all these years later (now that I am much more literarily self-aware) would yield a different reaction.

    I echo the thanks of the others about sharing the link to the audio of the old radio theater programs. I love that stuff. That medium was just dying out when I was a kid, but I do have distinct memories of listening to “Radio Mystery Theater” between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. while I was working my early morning Indianapolis Star paper route…

    -Jay

    1. Thanks, Jay. I’ve put Brenda Wineapple’s book on my list for January/February. Once I finish up with these few galleys and my December read (which I usually reserve for a classic), I look forward to it. I rarely get a chance to read non-fiction and since I’m a fan of New England writers, I hope it will be a perfect match. I hope you can one day take a trip to Salem to visit his old stomping grounds.

      I’ve already listened to another of the radio programs from that link (one of my favorites: The Fall of the House of Usher). Your local library might have available some BBC radio plays. They are still being produced and are popular in the UK, and I’ve listened to a few. Most recently a PD James, which I found enjoyable.

  3. Love Hawthorne! Coincidentally, I am presently reading his short stories from a collection titled, Hawthorne:20 Tales. It was a book purchased at a library book sale…(poor thing was weeded out, but is now rescued)

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