Friday, October 14, 2016

Adventure classics – Rational or romantic – what is evil?

“Rappaccini’s Daughter”

by Nathaniel Hawthorne
image: wikimedia commons

Last Friday’s Halloween horror post about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” ended with the beautiful Beatrice, daughter of maniacal scientist Rappaccini, hopelessly in love with Giovanni Guasconti, a young student who had himself fallen in love by watching her in her father’s enchanted garden.

Rappaccini effectively was the literary descendent of one of Romanticism’s earlier villains, Dr. Frankenstein, the personification of the era’s distrust of rationalism and intellectualism, and a man willing to sacrifice even those he loved in the pursuit of scientific progress. It was a character type the 19th century loved to hate, even while the century reaped the benefits of scientific advancements in industry and medicine.

By the end of the century the cold-blooded scientific investigator would become transform into both the villains of such H.G. Wells tales as “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and the loveably eccentric Sherlock Holmes, about whom an acquaintance said, “I can imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest (poisonous) vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence. . . but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects.”

Deadly flowers: wikimedia commons
 Beatrice is the human personification of that deadly vegetable poison. Her whole physical being has been so saturated by the poisonous plants of her father’s garden that one touch from her can kill those less habituated.

As her beloved Giovanni gradually realizes the nature of her dilemma, he seeks the counsel of Pietro Baglioni, a physician/professor at the university where he is supposed to be studying. Baglioni had warned Giovanni earlier about the unpleasant rumors swirling around Rappaccini and his daughter.

Now Baglioni finds evidence of Beatrice’s deadly influence in Giovanni, including the deathly sweet fragrance that clings to him, and which is also a symptom of Beatrice’s inner sickness. And to his shock, Giovanni realizes he has also acquired some of Beatrice’s other effects. If the progress of their love affair continues unchecked, they will be isolated from all other beings by their mutual deadliness.

Even as Giovanni desperately searches for an antidote to their joint poisoning, he wonders whether Beatrice is truly as good and innocent as she seems or whether – although the thought seems blasphemous to a besotted lover – she has been infected morally as well as physically by the evil of her surroundings.

At times, Hawthorne’s awareness of his characters as symbols rather than people threatens to overwhelm participation in the story. I haven’t found any hint that Hawthorne ever acknowledged the influence of one of his contemporaries, Edgar Allan Poe, however much Poe’s beautiful, sometimes deadly, oftentimes dying women seem reflected in Hawthorne’s work.

 But Poe was certainly aware of Hawthorne. In nonfiction prose more pointed than his fiction (and carrying a less than sweet scent of sour grapes), Poe wrote in an 1847 review about “the strain of allegory which completely overwhelms the greater number of his subjects. . . The deepest emotion aroused within us by the happiest allegory, as allegory, is a very, very imperfectly satisfied sense of the writer’s ingenuity in overcoming a difficulty we should have preferred his not having attempted to overcome.”

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues an October of Halloween horror with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. . . What – you expected to learn how Beatrice and Giovanni’s story ended? You’ll have to read it for yourself. For this copyright-expired work, try a free online version.)

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