After 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.”