The Lovecraft Reread

Juggling Allegories: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” first published in the December 1844 issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review. Spoilers ahead.

“Yet Giovanni’s fancy must have grown morbid, while he looked down into the garden; for the impression which the fair stranger made upon him was as if here were another flower, the human sister of those vegetable ones, as beautiful as they—more beautiful than the richest of them—but still to be touched only with a glove, nor to be approached without a mask. As Beatrice came down the garden-path, it was observable that she handled and inhaled the odor of several of the plants, which her father had most sedulously avoided.”

Summary

Very long ago, Giovanni Guasconti traveled to Padua to attend university. In a run-down mansion, he takes a room overlooking a curious garden. Landlady Lisabetta says it belongs to the famous physician, Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini, who distils its strange plants into potent medicines. He and his daughter tend it themselves.

Windowsill lounging, Giovanni notes a ruined fountain still gushing water; in the midst of its pool grow magnificent purple blossoms that illuminate the whole garden. A sallow, emaciated gentleman in scholarly black appears. He tends the plants both with intimate intelligence and thick-gloved caution, donning a mask as he nears the purple-blossomed shrub. Finding even this armor insufficient, he calls out “Beatrice!” The girl who answers glows with health and energy. This, and her rich costume, make Giovanni associate her with the shrub itself, which her father consigns to her sole care. “Shattered” as he is, Rappaccini no longer dares approach their chief treasure, but Beatrice embraces it and calls it “sister.” As night falls, Giovanni feels oppressed by the garden’s exhalations. He retires to dream of a maiden and flowers equally perilous.

Next day he visits Pietro Baglioni, Professor of Medicine and his father’s old friend. The Professor regales him with dinner and wine but sobers when Giovanni mentions his neighbors. Doctor Rappaccini is great in science but lacking in humanity. His patients interest him only as subjects, and he’d sacrifice anything to further his studies. His theory is that vegetable poisons contain all medical virtues, and he’s bred plants more deadly than any Nature’s produced. As for Beatrice, her father’s supposed to have instructed her so deeply that she’s qualified for a professorship herself. Other rumors persist, but they’re not worth talking about.

Giovanni again observes Beatrice in the garden. Her beauty and the richness of her voice impress him. She breathes in the fragrance of her “sister’s” purple flowers as if it’s her only nourishment. Yet when the sap of a plucked blossom drops onto a lizard, the reptile dies. When a bright-winged insect hovers over Beatrice, her breath fells it. Impulsively Giovanni throws her the “pure and healthful” flowers he’s bought for his room. Beatrice accepts them with half-childish, half-womanly mirth and grace. As she retreats indoors, Giovanni thinks he sees his bouquet wither in her hand.

Smitten but alarmed, Giovanni vacillates between burning love and shivering horror until the two become a “lurid intermixture.” He avoids the window, goes for feverish walks in town. On one he meets Baglioni. Rappacini passes, sparing a cold salutation for rival Baglioni but staring intently at Giovanni. Baglioni declares that Rappaccini must be making a study of his young friend, an “impertinence” the Professor must foil.

At home, Lisabetta shows Giovanni a secret door into Rappaccini’s garden. He enters and meets Beatrice face to face. She begs him not to believe rumors about her. Giovanni says he’ll believe only what comes from her own lips, and she fervently asserts that her words are true “from the heart outward.” Gazing into her eyes to her “transparent” soul, Giovanni feels no more doubt or fear. Their idyll ends when he reaches for a flower from the “sister” shrub. Beatrice drags his hand away: the plant’s fatal. Next morning he notices burns in the shape of her fingers. But love, or its shallower imitation, is stubborn, and he forgets the pain in thoughts of Beatrice.

They continue to meet and declare their love in glances and words, but Beatrice never touches him again. Baglioni visits Giovanni and tells the story of an Indian prince who sent Alexander the Great a beautiful woman with perfumed breath. Luckily for Alexander, a learned physician warned him the “gift” had been raised from birth on poisons, until her nature was so imbued with them that she was herself deadly. Childish fable, Giovanni insists. He also denies there’s a faint, delicious, yet ultimately disagreeable perfume in his room. Baglioni may mean well, but Giovanni can’t tolerate any blasphemy against Beatrice’s character.

Even so, persists Baglioni, Rappaccini has proved the old fable. He’s used his poisonous science to make Beatrice poisonous. The only hope is for Giovanni to give her a silver phial Baglioni’s brought, containing an antidote to neutralize the most virulent toxins.

Giovanni buys another fresh bouquet. He’ll see for sure whether it withers in Beatrice’s hand. He observes in his mirror that his features have acquired new beauty, superabundant life. Then he notices the test-bouquet has withered in his own hand. He tries his breath on a spider. It dies. Rappaccini’s turned him into a creature as deadly as his accursed daughter!

In a rage he confronts Beatrice. She confesses her father created the “sister” shrub, with which she’s grown since the day of her birth and its sprouting. Their kinship has estranged Beatrice from humankind.

And now, says Giovanni with “venomous scorn,” Beatrice has made him a fellow monster. She protests she’d never have done this—it was her father’s science. Giovanni remembers Baglioni’s antidote. Let them take it and purify themselves.

Beatrice takes the phial—she’ll try the antidote first. As she drinks, Rappaccini comes out to give his “children” his blessing. He’s made Beatrice a bridegroom blessed with the same marvelous gift as her, to vanquish any enemy with a breath. Why should they repine? Would she rather be weak like other women?

Beatrice says she’d fain be loved than feared. Never mind—the unholy experiment has made Baglioni’s antidote her poison. Death will purify her. As for Rappaccini, the true taint’s been in his nature, not hers.

She perishes at her lover and father’s feet. Baglioni leans out Giovanni’s window and shouts in triumph mixed with horror: “Rappaccini! And is this the upshot of your experiment?”

What’s Cyclopean: Rappaccini, quoth Baglioni, is a “vile empiric.” That’s now my go-to insult for anyone who doesn’t use proper human subjects protections in their research.

The Degenerate Dutch: Racial stereotypes are few this week (Giovanni is said to have a “ardent southern temperament”), but some of the gender assumptions are just fascinating. One of the “wrongs” that Baglioni does Beatrice is to accuse her of being educated.

Mythos Making: Creatures from a reality inimical to ours, horrible and yet strangely tempting, cause chaos merely through the slightest contact with ordinary humans. Sound familiar?

Libronomicon: The story is ostensibly a translation from a work by “M. de l’Aubépine.” “aubépine” is French for the hawthorne tree, if you were wondering. Aubépine’s work’s translate neatly into some of Hawthorne’s as well, making his critique of the author (or possibly just of the author’s reception among critics) more bemusing.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Giovanni never goes so far as Lovecraft’s narrators in assuming his unwelcome perceptions hallucinatory—instead he takes the simplest route and just ignores them.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

I first read this story in my high school English textbook. First reactions now: well, that certainly embedded itself in my hindbrain. I remembered little of the plot or themes, but for over two decades have carried vivid images of the luxurious, deadly garden—and the beautiful, deadly woman. I was desperate for dangerous women, and loved without reservation Medea, the head lizard lady from V, and the parade of female assassins who peopled my own stories. Beatrice’s doom sounded like a fine idea: “to be as terrible as thou art beautiful,” isolated from the world’s evils alongside an equally monstrous companion.

Did I mention my crush on Rogue a couple of years later?

Now, I see both flaws and clever complexity that overlooked in the youthful flush of unreasoned response to a femme fatale. (Did I mention my crush on Poison Ivy?) Hawthorne’s doing something delightfully deconstructive with his literary references. I do appreciate a good take-down of assumptions about monsters. One of the biggies in the 1800s was the idea that the physical body reflected one’s spiritual state. We haven’t exactly gotten past this, as witnessed by several hundred disabled villains. Still, fewer churches preach the accuracy of Jekyl and Hyde’s psychophysiognomy.

Beatrice is beautiful, but also poisonous. Hawthorne’s readers would expect her poison to reflect hidden evil. This is reinforced by a seemingly straightforward religious allegory. Beatrice maps easily to Eve, Giovanni to Adam, and the rendezvous-enabling landlady to the serpent. Plenty of poisonous fruit around with which a temptress could tempt, don’t you think?

But wait. If the garden is Eden, why is it all poisonous? If Beatrice is a blameworthy temptress, why name her after Dante’s virtuous muse? And why is the wise old professor an academic rival of Rappaccini’s? Suddenly we’re looking at a vase instead of a pair of faces: Eden’s poisonous only to the fallen, Beatrice is Adam—and Giovanni, urged to swallow easy “redemption” by the bitter and fearful Baglioni, is Eve. Baglioni’s “antidote” would let B&G share worldly pleasures, rather than accept their innocent isolation in the Garden…

This, of course, makes prototype mad scientist Rappaccini an extremely ambiguous creator god.

Amidst of this allegorical juggling, I’m less delighted by Beatrice than I once was. I dislike conflating virtue with ignorance, and uneducated “innocence” is usually rather more valued in women. Funny that. Baglioni suspects Beatrice of being after his university slot; the first indication of his unreliability is that her botanical knowledge is nil. But why shouldn’t she be beautiful, dangerous—and thoroughly versed in medieval genetic engineering techniques? Personally, if a guy is turned on by talking to a grown woman “as if to an infant,” I take it as a bad sign.

More pleasantly, woven through the Bible/Dante references are a bunch of Shakespearean Easter eggs. Nothing overt—but Hawthorne’s clearly playing with Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed love, albeit with one of the families relatively cooperative. Outside of Dante, the libeled innocent in Much Ado About Nothing is also a “Beatrice.” Giovanni imagines his chaste girlfriend as someone hearing about the world for the first time after being raised on an island. Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!

Humanist Lovecraft cheerfully plays with biblical references—but doesn’t generally come to the same conclusions as Hawthorne. The inhabitants of his garden likely would be monstrous, driving knowledge-seeking explorers mad with unwelcome revelation. Actually, one of the big commonalities between the Lovecraftian and Christian myth cycles is that mistrust of knowledge. Howard’s romanticization of youth and innocence, and suggestion that too much curiosity will bring the searcher to a dread fate, still hint of Eden. It’s just that where Hawthorne settles for warped earthly plants, the Mythos adds poisonous mushrooms and the taint of strange Colors.

 

Anne’s Commentary

For the past two weeks, poor Science has been taking a drubbing, hasn’t it? First there’s Violet Carver, who (on cultural/religious grounds) rather despises the discipline, yet recognizes its power to further her Dagon-ordained goals and assist her landlocked sister. Rappaccini, on the other hand, is said to worship nothing but Science. He’s supposedly all Head and no Heart, while Violet only pretends to this state of mind. Both trample all over biomedical ethics by neglecting to obtain informed consent from their human subjects. In fact, they don’t bother to tell their subjects that they are subjects. Beatrice is the focus of experiment from birth. Violet’s friends learn about her side project only when they’re literally shackled to their fates. Guys, this is so not cool. Next thing we know, you’ll be joining Joseph Curwen and Herbert West for a leisurely brainstorming lunch.

And where, I wonder, is Beatrice’s mother during all this? Sounds like she died in childbirth or soon after, for Beatrice seems to have no memory of her. Maybe Rappaccini slipped her a deadly postpartum “restorative,” foreseeing objections to his intrafamilial experimentation. Or maybe, more interestingly, she died of natural causes, with the famous doctor fighting to save her to no avail. Or maybe she was on the way to market when banditti made off with her. In either case, Rappaccini might well have resolved that his daughter wouldn’t be weak like other women – note how he chastises her at the end of the story for not appreciating the great gift he’s given her, to be able to dispatch enemies with a breath.

Then there’s the ruling theory Baglioni ascribes to his rival, that the greatest medical virtues lie in poisons, if only they can be teased out from those bothersome lethal effects. If Baglioni’s right, Rappaccini’s achieved his greatest success in Beatrice, for the poisons on which she lives give her superlative vigor and glowing beauty, may even have penetrated to her soul, rendering her pure rather than tainted – way too pure for shallow Giovanni, and too self-respecting, too. Giovanni’s too into himself to realize this girl’s not forgiving him for that venomous (yes) spate of verbal abuse.

I don’t know the specific story of Alex the Great and the Indian prince, but ancient Indian lore tells of the Visha Kanya, young women bred as assassins from a very early age. Their bodily fluids (some say their very touch or gaze) were rendered poisonous by a careful regimen of poisons countered by antidotes, until the immune assassin was in her own person a deadly weapon.

Now for some botanical rambling. Not only am I a sucker for femmes fatales, I’m a sucker for herb gardens. Especially medicinal herb gardens. Especially medicinal herb gardens that feature those intriguing plants both poisonous and, in the right formulation and dosage, beneficial. I’ve grown foxglove, the source of digitalis, and angel’s trumpet, the source of scopolamine, and aconitum (aka wolf’s bane, mousebane, women’s bane, and Queen of All Poisons.) I’d grow a nice little patch of deadly nightshade except it’s a pestiferous weed as well as the source of atropine. Nightshade’s fancy name is Atropa belladonna, which delights me no end. Belladonna is Italian for “beautiful lady,” and deadly nightshade earns this species name because women would squeeze the juice of its black berries into their eyes to dilate the pupils. I guess Italian men preferred ladies with the brilliant ebony gaze of the dangerously intoxicated. What with her constant sniffing of “Sister’s” perfume, Beatrice’s eyes must have been permanently dilated. Could be why even callow Giovanni could peer through their windows into her soul?

As for the “sister” shrub, I note that angel’s trumpet, wolf’s bane and deadly nightshade can all have purple flowers. If I had to cast one known plant as “Sister,” I guess it would be the angel’s trumpet, with its spectacular nodding blossoms. Still, I picture the deadly specimen as a fuchsia bush with particularly large blooms in ultraviolet and deep velvety aubergine. Maybe with black stamens and pistils, the latter welling honey-thick drops of corrosive sap onto small unwary creatures, whose twitching bodies it then seizes in its tendrils to drag up to its rootstock maw.

Yeah, I’d grow that plant.

 

Next week, because Gods of H.P. Lovecraft is such an excellent anthology and there are way too few stories out there about the Great Race of Yith, we read Rachel Caine’s “The Dying of the Light.”

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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