Into that Eden of Poisonous Flowers: 'Rappaccini's Daughter' Readalong

Welcome to the very second Generally Gothic Book Club read-along, and thank you for your patience as this week’s read-along turned into this fortnight‘s read-along… As explained over on Instagram, November, dubbed ‘Nature is Gothic’, has been dedicated to exploring the – you guessed it – gothic within our natural world. Whilst many of us are enjoying dark, drawn-out evenings on the brink of winter, and the weather is getting ghastly and gothicky outdoors, I have invited you all to read fictionalised terrors of the natural world along with me.

The following is my response to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, which I hope will prompt you to share your own thoughts in the comments below, on the associated post on Instagram, on your own blog/feed (please tag me so I can read it!), in your notebook, with your friends, with the purple plants, or in your head…

‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ can be read, free, online (this is the .PDF version that I read).
*The following discussion includes spoilers.*

© Generally Gothic

First published in 1844, ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ is a short story by American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864). The narrative is set in some vague and distant time, in Padua, Italy. Padua is famously home to Giotto frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel – a private, gothic structure completed in 1305, and located atop a 60BC Roman amphitheatre. Giotto (1266 -1377) was an Italian painter and architect from Florence, who worked during the Gothic and Proto-Renaissance periods of art history, during the Late Middle Ages. Padua has operated as a university town since the (classically named) University of Padua first opened its doors in 1222. In other words, this place is OLD.

Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, with direct connections to the town’s witch trials, which directly influenced his most famous work, the historical novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), and his gothic novel, The House of the Seven Gables (1851). The latter is amongst my favourite books, and I had grown accustomed to the New England setting, in the relatively recent past of the 17th and 19th centuries, respectively. That being said, early traditions of gothic literature followed architecture – and the precedent set by the very first novel of the genre, Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797) The Castle of Otranto (1764) – to mainland Europe.

From ‘Asiatic Papers: Part IV’ by Dr. Jivani Jamshedji Modi, 1929.

Literature

‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ begins, unexpectedly, with neither Rappaccini, nor his eponymous daughter, but instead with our protagonist, “[a] young man, named Giovanni Guasconti.” It is the university which newly brings him to Padua where the story begins “very long ago”, but no earlier than 1222, as we now know.

“𝓘 𝓱𝓪𝓿𝓮 𝓫𝓮𝓮𝓷 𝓻𝓮𝓪𝓭𝓲𝓷𝓰 𝓪𝓷 𝓸𝓵𝓭 𝓬𝓵𝓪𝓼𝓼𝓲𝓬 𝓪𝓾𝓽𝓱𝓸𝓻 𝓵𝓪𝓽𝓮𝓵𝔂,”
confesses the protagonist’s elderly mentor, Signor Baglioni. As the university’s Professor of Medicine, Baglioni is an esteemed character who not only educates and aids the main character, but also the reader. By delivering a lesson through a literary reference, Baglioni reminds the reader of the power of fiction, its ability to deliver messages and morals, and thus encourages the reader to respond to this text in the same manner. The story Baglioni reads is about “an Indian prince, who sent a beautiful woman as a present to Alexander the Great…” Are you familiar with this story, and if so, what do you make of the parallels? But this is neither the first, nor the most apparent literary reference of the narrative…

“𝓘 𝓪𝓶 𝓷𝓸 𝓯𝓵𝓸𝔀𝓮𝓻 𝓽𝓸 𝓹𝓮𝓻𝓲𝓼𝓱 𝓲𝓷 𝓱𝓮𝓻 𝓰𝓻𝓪𝓼𝓹!”

Giovanni takes up “lodgings in a high and gloomy chamber,” is “not unstudied in the great poem of his country,” and has a “remarkable beauty of person.” Within the opening sequence, then, Giovanni is set up as the perfect gothic heroine, or the perfect Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey, Austen, 1818), – save his gender. Does Giovanni remind you of any other literary characters? Are there any other characteristics he displays that you associate with the gothic genre?

The “great poem,” Hawthorne clarifies, is Dante’s Divine Comedy, often referred to by the title of its first part as “Dante’s ‘Inferno'”. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was an Italian poet who, in exile wandered towns neighbouring Giovanni’s Padua. This is no mere coincidence, however, as Hawthorne and Dante’s protagonists share the same love interest: Beatrice.

© Generally Gothic

Love

Stylistically, Hawthorne’s short story is a gothic romance – a predominantly female sub-genre distinct from gothic horror, lead by Ann Radcliffe and populated by works such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). With this in mind, the lack of horror within the narrative was no surprise to me, nor was the love story thread.

A NOTE ON ROMANCE: The ‘romance’ of the gothic romance classification is more akin to the romance of the romantic poets – that is, an exploration and admiration of nature and the nature of man as opposed to emotional and physical romances between humans.

Even with this distinction in mind, I found the love story too much of a focus and wished instead for greater insight into the science within the plot. Where you interested in the blossoming romance between Giovanni and Beatrice?

Giovanni’s gothic accommodation overlooks a walled garden owned by Rappaccini. It is “this scientific gardener”, Dr. Rappaccini, who Giovanni first observes at work amongst the flora. He is described as intelligent, almost monstrous, and close to death. In stark contrast, when the young protagonist first encounters the doctor’s daughter, Beatrice, he responds with shining positivity . It is her “𝓿𝓸𝓲𝓬𝓮 𝓪𝓼 𝓻𝓲𝓬𝓱 𝓪𝓼 𝓪 𝓽𝓻𝓸𝓹𝓲𝓬𝓪𝓵 𝓼𝓾𝓷𝓼𝓮𝓽 […] 𝔀𝓱𝓲𝓬𝓱 𝓶𝓪𝓭𝓮 𝓖𝓲𝓸𝓿𝓪𝓷𝓷𝓲, 𝓽𝓱𝓸𝓾𝓰𝓱 𝓱𝓮 𝓴𝓷𝓮𝔀 𝓷𝓸𝓽 𝔀𝓱𝔂, 𝓽𝓱𝓲𝓷𝓴 𝓸𝓯 𝓭𝓮𝓮𝓹 𝓱𝓾𝓮𝓼 𝓸𝓯 𝓹𝓾𝓻𝓹𝓵𝓮 𝓸𝓻 𝓬𝓻𝓲𝓶𝓼𝓸𝓷…”

Close up of Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch | © Generally Gothic

Light

Throughout the narrative, Hawthorne plays with a [heavy] handful of metaphors. Images of light and dark appear repeatedly, in reference to one character then another, in reference to ignorance and enlightenment, to beauty and malice. Which recurring themes and symbols did you notice? What, if anything, do you think Hawthorne was intending to convey through metaphor?

“𝓘𝓽 𝓲𝓼 𝓪 𝓭𝓻𝓮𝓪𝓶! […𝓢]𝓾𝓻𝓮𝓵𝔂 𝓲𝓽 𝓲𝓼 𝓪 𝓭𝓻𝓮𝓪𝓶!”
Hawthorne explores light and dark through the contrast of day and night. The latter exposing horrors of the mind, nightmares and madnesses. The former revealing the perceived truth, beauty, and love of reality, of Rappaccini’s garden, and of Rappaccini’s daughter. Whilst the psyche is an entirely gothic landscape and holds great potential for terrifying uncertainty, Giovanni’s youth worked against him. We are constantly reminded that he has “a quick fancy,” a temperament capable of rising “to a higher fever-pitch,” and that he is imaginative. By flitting back and forth in his fear and love of Beatrice, I understood him to be a capricious teen, blinded by beauty. Blinded by the light. Whilst this may read as a criticism, I actually think it is one of the successes of the story – his behaviour, though foolish, was believable as an ancient Italian romantic, a Romeo figure, a male gothic heroine. Did you find Giovanni to be a reliable narrator and/or a believable character?

With Dante, and with him the Bible, on the mind, the garden shares great parallels with Eden, Beatrice and the purple flower with the forbidden fruit. In this case, perhaps metaphors of light and dark can be understood as the battle within one, and in the wider world, of good vs. evil. The battle between ” 𝓹 𝓸𝓲𝓼𝓸𝓷𝓮𝓻 𝓡𝓪𝓹𝓹𝓪𝓬𝓬𝓲𝓷𝓲, 𝓪𝓷𝓭 𝓱𝓲𝓼 𝓹𝓸𝓲𝓼𝓸𝓷𝓸𝓾𝓼 𝓭𝓪𝓾𝓰𝓱𝓽𝓮𝓻.”

© Generally Gothic

Language

“𝓕𝓵𝓸𝔀𝓮𝓻 𝓪𝓷𝓭 𝓶𝓪𝓲𝓭𝓮𝓷 𝔀𝓮𝓻𝓮 𝓭𝓲𝓯𝓯𝓮𝓻𝓮𝓷𝓽 𝓪𝓷𝓭 𝔂𝓮𝓽 𝓽𝓱𝓮 𝓼𝓪𝓶𝓮, 𝓪𝓷𝓭 𝓯𝓻𝓪𝓾𝓰𝓱𝓽 𝔀𝓲𝓽𝓱 𝓼𝓸𝓶𝓮 𝓼𝓽𝓻𝓪𝓷𝓰𝓮 𝓹𝓮𝓻𝓲𝓵 𝓲𝓷 𝓮𝓲𝓽𝓱𝓮𝓻 𝓼𝓱𝓪𝓹𝓮.”

The language of the garden pervades the story like a creeping weed. Despite his flowery narrative voice, Hawthorne fails to create a vivid image of the garden, save that one curious plant. Perhaps this is intentional, to demonstrate how wholly Giovanni’s attention is (and the readers’ attention should be) absorbed by the power of the purple flower and the woman who tends it… Perhaps Hawthorne is too focused upon the atmosphere, weighty with anarchonism rather than the perfume-poisoned air whose scent I feel ill-equipped to imagine.

There are glimpses of a powerful villain worthy of the gothic/scifi crossovers that I so love (think H. G. WellsThe Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein (1818)), but Giovanni is not afforded the language of science to satisfyingly flesh him out. I found this ironic as the young man is presumably in Pedua to further his own scientific education. Particularly following our recent science-laden read-along of H. G. Wells’ ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’, I found the absent development of the single character named in the story’s title a little disappointing. What did you make of Rappaccini, as villain, and as a character overall?

“[𝓛]𝓸𝓿𝓮 𝔀𝓱𝓲𝓬𝓱 𝓯𝓵𝓸𝓾𝓻𝓲𝓼𝓱𝓮𝓼 𝓲𝓷 𝓽𝓱𝓮 𝓲𝓶𝓪𝓰𝓲𝓷𝓪𝓽𝓲𝓸𝓷, 𝓫𝓾𝓽 𝓼𝓽𝓻𝓲𝓴𝓮𝓼 𝓷𝓸 𝓭𝓮𝓹𝓽𝓱 𝓸𝓯 𝓻𝓸𝓸𝓽 𝓲𝓷𝓽𝓸 𝓽𝓱𝓮 𝓱𝓮𝓪𝓻𝓽.”

Were I to pick a quote from ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ to sum up my experience of reading it, it would be the one above – no depth of root was struck into my heart.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not in the habit of giving rated reviews, but if I did, this would get an ambivalent “meh” out of 10. I would implore you instead to try The House of the Seven Gables by the same author because, although no specific ‘nature’ moments or threads spring to mind, I loved this novel so much that it transcends the need to fit my monthly theme… 🦇Nature is Gothic🦇, by the way!

What is your favourite quote from the short story? Is there a particular section that best sums it up for you?
Please join the debate here, or on Instagram. I’d love to know what you thought of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’.

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