For the 36th week in the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I read Rappaccini's Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Many years ago I watched this short story on a DVD from the library. I was intrigued and enjoyed the movie, so I was happy to be able to read the book this week.
Rappaccini's Daughter was published in 1844, and is about Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini, a medical researcher in medieval Padua, Italy, who works in isolation as he grows poisonous plants in his garden. He raises his daughter, Beatrice, to tend the plants, and she becomes resistant to the poisons. However, in the process of caring for the plants, she herself becomes poisonous to other living things (human and non-human).
A student, Giovanni Guasconti, moves into a home next door that overlooks the garden. He is amazed at the beauty and diversity he sees within the garden. Even more interesting to him is the beautiful daughter of Rappaccini.
He is unaware of the poisonous nature of both the plants and Beatrice. Yet, he is fascinated by Beatrice's odd relationship with the plants as well as how fresh flowers wither and how an insect died when exposed to her skin or breath.
At this point, it's too late for Giovanni. He's fallen in love with Beatrice and enters the garden. He meets with her many times while ignoring the warnings from his mentor, Professor Pietro Baglioni. He persistently warns Giovanni that Rappaccini and his work should be avoided.
Finally, Giovanni realizes that Beatrice is poisonous because she has been raised in the presence of poison. Beatrice urges Giovanni to look past her poisonous exterior and see her innocent and pure nature. Giovanni, although skeptical, continues to see Beatrice.
Eventually, Giovanni becomes poisonous himself due to being around the plants and Beatrice. The professor brings a tiny vial of a powerful antidote to Giovanni with the instruction that if he gives some to Beatrice that it will overcome the poisons in her.
However, as the professor leaves Giovanni with the vial, he says to himself, "We will thwart Rappaccini yet! But, let us confess the truth of him, he is a wonderful man! - a wonderful man indeed! A vile empiric, however, in his practice, and therefore not to be tolerated by those who respect the good old rules of the medical profession."
Shortly thereafter and with hope, Giovanni brings the antidote to Beatrice so that they can be together. However, the antidote kills her rather than gets rid of her poisonous nature. In essence, the professor uses medicine in an equally malicious way as the father did...even though the original intent may not have been evil.
As she is dying, Beatrice shows her frustration and anger at what her father had done to her and, as a result, the isolated life she was forced to lead.
Yet, he claims that his intentions were beneficial to her and meant to protect her: not only did Giovanni enter her life and become just like her because his "science, and the sympathy between thee and him, have so wrought within his system that he now stands apart from common men, as thou dost, daughter of my pride and triumph, from ordinary women."
He continued when Beatrice said her life was miserable. "Dost thou deem it misery to be endowed with marvelous gifts, against which no power nor strength could avail an enemy? Misery, to be able to quell the mightiest with a breath? Misery, to be as terrible as thou art beautiful? Wouldst thou, then have preferred the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none?"
Ultimately, there was an antidote far more powerful than what Rappaccini created. And, so, the story ends with loss of a daughter, a potential spouse, and of power and control.
There are so many interesting themes within this story. Two, though, stand out:
- Man versus Science - which is more important - life or science?
- Man versus Self - do you pursue what is known to be bad for personal pleasure or gain?
This is a short story that should be read repeatedly because each time the reader will be left with a deeper understanding of these and other themes that the author wanted to convey.