Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In “Rappaccini's Daughter,” Hawthorne tells the tale of a botanist who has raised his daughter as a rare flower in a clinically-controlled setting.
The protagonist, a young suitor named Giovanni, notes that just as Dr. Rappaccini avoids handling his exotic plants (and it is true that some plants are damaged by contact with the oils in human skin), Beatrice goes out of her way to touch and caress them. Rappaccini even gives over to Beatrice the care of flowers which are poisonous to ordinary mortals—even himself—and they flourish under her care.
Early in the story Beatrice's way with flowers seems merely evidence of a “green thumb.” Beatrice, however, seems as dependent on the plants as they are upon her; in one case, she takes the branches in her arms and tells the plant “Give me thy breath, my sister, for I am faint with common air.” Since we have already learned that Dr. Rappaccini has an extraordinary interest in cultivating plants which produce concentrated “vegetable poisons,” this should definitely make us wonder about Beatrice. Our fears are deepened when insects that have the bad fortune to buzz around her fall dead at her feet, and regular flowers wilt in her hands. And they are confirmed when Giovanni discovers that the mere touch of her hand has stained his wrist, like the pressing of the petal of a flower.
As he spends more and more time with Beatrice, Giovanni becomes not only immune to her deadly fumes, but begins to turn poisonous himself; soon he, too, can kill insects with his breath. His friend Baglioni convinces him that not only has Beatrice been raised as a living scientific experiment, but now Giovanni is becoming one too. Baglioni gives him a powerful antidote against poison, with the suggestion that he administer it to Beatrice. The idea is to change her nature back to that of a normal mortal; but when she drinks it, she rapidly sickens and dies. Her nature was not merely tainted by poison, it was imbued with it; and, as Hawthorne notes, “as poison had been life, so the powerful antidote was death.”' Hawthorne's moral in “Rappaccini's Daughter” is that mortals are very wrong in thinking they can improve upon natural creation; as in the case of the Biblical Adam and Eve, who sought to be like God, the penalty for such hubris is death.
This story can be found in the collection entitled Selected Tales and Sketches.
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