Friday, October 7, 2016

Adventure classics – A puritanical fascination with evil

“Rappaccini’s Daughter”

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Once upon a time in Salem, Massachusetts, there lived a young man named Nathaniel. His Puritan ancestors included a judge from the town’s infamous witch trials, so it’s probably not surprising that when Nathaniel grew up he wrote some famous stories about dangerous women, stories such as today’s post about his 1844 story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and the terrible things another man did because of her.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
The old Puritan judge was John Hathorne. In an attempt to distance himself from this terrifying heritage, young Nathaniel added a “w” to the family name, becoming Nathaniel Hawthorne. But his cultural heritage wasn’t so easily overcome. Moral themes of sin, evil, deception and sexuality – especially the sexuality of women – would haunt his works, including his most famous, The Scarlet Letter.

But years before the Big Red Letter, Hawthorne had become working through his worries in the story about a beautiful young woman in an Italian city and the young man who loved her – or told himself he did. And the destruction that followed that supposed love.

“A young man, named Giovanni Guasconti, came, very long ago, from the more southern region of Italy. . . (and having) but a scanty supply of gold ducats in his pocket, took lodgings in a high and gloomy chamber of an old edifice. . . ”

Giovanni is already homesick, and nothing about his student housing (except possibly its cheapness) appeals to him until he looks down from the window onto a beautiful garden. His landlady informs him that the garden is the property of a famous doctor Rappaccini and his only daughter, Beatrice. As nosy as he is handsome, Giovanni spies shamelessly on the doctor, noticing that he avoids the touch and even the scent of many of the most beautiful garden flowers.

artist: Dante Rossetti
But the interest Giovanni feels in the old man is nothing to his interest in Rappaccini’s lovely daughter. And beautiful as she is, “more beautiful than the richest of (the flowers)” he can’t help noticing that she handles and inhales the fragrance of several of the plants her father most carefully avoids.

Giovanni attempts to inquire discreetly about Beatrice from one of his professors, only to be dismayed when the professor tells him Rappaccini is more zealous for science than for humanity, and has become notorious for dabbling in poisons, and that his daughter is his star pupil in the art of poisoning. Horrified, Giovanni notices that when Beatrice is in the garden, any bee or butterfly that alights on her or the flowers she gathers, is instantly struck dead. In fact, Beatrice has been so saturated in poisons from her childhood that she is now immune to their effects, but liable to innocently infect others, even those she loves.

When the great Italian poet Dante first saw his Beatrice, the single glimpse was enough to inspire him for life. Giovanni’s glimpses of his latter-day Beatrice are less spiritual. He is soon infatuated with her. And when he visits her through a secret entrance in the garden, she, isolated from society by her father’s evil instructions, soon falls in love with Giovanni.

Still, no kiss or touch can pass between the lovers without endangering Giovanni. Or so they think, until he realizes he has become so imbued with her essence that he also is toxic to fellow mortals. Is there any hope for them? Or will a supposed antidote against poison Giovanni secures prove more deadly than a garden full of nightshade?

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues an October of Halloween horror with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”)

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