New Englanders, as people coming from the old world but looking for something new in the new world were preoccupied with such questions as: what is truth and knowledge, where they come from, what should be the source of human self-exploration, whether it was meant to be God, science or society. Nathaniel Hawthorne is considered to be a quintessential New England writer, and he was also preoccupied with these themes – where truth about a human being was coming from, whether science was meant to be the answer or religion. He aimed at understanding until which extent science, with its exploration of new experimental frontiers, could co-exist with universal morality. Instead of choosing one source of knowledge, he offered a balanced approach to human self-exploration – a balance between mind, heart and spirit.
From the transcendentalist perspective, although religion in its pure essence of Puritanism was not the answer because it left a person a mere tool in God’s hands, science was rejected because it deprived an individual of his spirituality and common experience of self-reliance, proclaimed by Emerson. In this regard, an individual was viewed as a source of knowledge, judgments and subsequent moral actions. Transcendentalists believed that an individual gains knowledge from within common human subconscious knowledge of right and wrong. Hawthorne rejected this idea, he considered that an individual left alone is likely to be driven by his pride and not subconscious, common knowledge of right and wrong. Transcendentalists believed that human nature was just and moral initially and was ruined by society and its wrong organization. In his short story, Hawthorne argued that without society an individual would have no understanding of morality and norms of behavior. Just as Dr. Rappaccini, he would act outside human values, but within personal motivations for actions.
The aim of the present research is to explore the description of the “man of science” through the close reading of Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”. In this regard, the aim is to show how the author reflects anxieties New Englanders of the nineteenth century felt towards exploration of science and its morality. Separate attention is paid to the display of Hawthorne’s critical and sometimes conflicting attitude towards the Transcendental movement as a whole.
First of all, it should be outlined that time when the story was written and when New England ideas development was characterized by the struggle of two forces for human souls and minds – industrial revolution embodied in science and religion embodied in Puritanism. It is not surprising that one could not tolerate the other and people had to choose between. On the other hand, there those who modified one and criticized another, or adopted some bits from both. Nathaniel Hawthorne belonged to the last category. The main message of his attitude was that anything conducted by a human being should be treated with caution especially when the matter is human desire to play God. In this regard, the main character of the short story – Dr. Rappaccini is the best example of scientist who crossed the line. From Hawthorne’s perspective, the line between allowed and not allowed was not simply in human capacity to create, but rather to look into scientific actions from the point of the final results rather than initial intentions. In this regard, although, often, scientists cannot predict what the consequences of their experiments might be, they still need to assess their actions in respect to the surrounding environment – human society. In other words, in order to stay within limits of humanity, the scientist needs to remain human and Rappaccini like many other failed to do this:
“… he cares infinitely more for science than for mankind. His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment. He would sacrifice human life, his own among the rest, or whatever else was dearest to him, for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard-seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge” (Hawthorne).
In this regard, what Hawthorne and New Englanders criticized the most in science was its final aim, which was not gaining knowledge for the sake of improving human life, but rather for the sake of science and knowledge itself. The case would be too simple, if Rappaccini’s attitude was as his rival Prof. Baglioni had described above. Rappaccini was doing his science, not for the sake of simple accumulation of knowledge, but for a single purpose – the creation of a super-human – a human being that would exceed capabilities of a normal individual and would gain strength unknown and not experienced before. In this regard, he experimented and poisoned his daughter and her partner in order to bring man-centered perception of reality to its peak – supremacy of a human being over nature, which is gained through an ability to create and improve life beyond laws of nature:
“My science, and the sympathy between thee and him, have so wrought within his system, that he now stands apart from common men, as thou dost, daughter of my pride and triumph, from ordinary women. Pass on, then, through the world, most dear to one another, and dreadful to all besides” (Hawthorne).
From Hawthorne’s perspective, although, until a certain extent, it may be seem that Rappaccini wanted to improve a human being and put his beloved daughter above weakness and harmful effect of poison, the reasons for all his actions were his pride and a desire to compete with nature and God. In this regard, Hawthorne followed New Englanders in their suspicion to science as means of human pride and anti-social individualism, which was directed towards dictatorship rather than personal freedom of choice. It should be outlined that although, just as transcendentalists, Hawthorne believed in freedom of human will, he considered that it still had its limits. In this regard, human will and freedom were to be limited by potential harm this will could cause to another individual and, until an extent, it could confront the freedom of another person.
From one perspective, Rappaccini’s actions might be viewed as those based on good intentions, not a Christian notion of good intentions, but as scientifically purified, rationale for improving someone for a better survivability, and what can be a better survivability than a strong, poisonous venom in blood. This might have been the contemporary justification of Rappaccini’s actions. On the other hand, from the point of morality, he did not only conduct inhuman action for the sake of unknown results, but also did that without consent of his victims. In this regard, Hawthorne criticizes Rappaccini’s immorality in two aspects. First of all, although Beatrice was his daughter, he had no moral right to change her nature the way he considered it to be appropriate. Although Victorian model of female behavior was not long gone in the New England, female emancipation was on its way and women were no longer viewed as subjects of their families and husbands. In this regard, Hawthorne showed that old ways of treating women were wrong. From the allegorical perspective, the very attempt to change female nature the way it was would result in destructive and harmful consequences. In this regard, if Beatrice did not preserve at least her soul untouched by her father, she could turn into some kind of lady vamp – destructive and vengeful. In this regard, experimentations with female nature are of particular danger. From Hawthorne’s perspective, the result of such alterations would inevitably be death.
Another moral aspect of the experiment with Beatrice is that by conducting an experiment without her consent and simply deciding her fate, Rappaccini was exchanging his role of a father for the role of a maker and god. In this regard, Hawthorne tries to show how an individual trying to play god loses his human characteristics and subsequent social roles. Instead of giving his child comfort and protection in the society they lived in, Rappaccini had excluded his daughter from that society and limited her life within the garden. Furthermore, instead of protecting her from any other violator in her life, he created an emotional and physical vacuum around her. From the psychological perspective, it can be argued that his main rationale for doing this was not a desire to protect his daughter and make her superior and stronger to other human beings; he wanted to gain that kind of immortality himself. Since he could not achieve that himself, he gave those gifts to his daughter as a continuation of himself. In other words, Rappaccini is a classic case of narcissism and dominance of personal ego over common and rationale opinion.
Another crucial moral dilemma of the story is the extent until which a human being has the right to interfere into the spheres of nature and God. In this regard, Hawthorne had a very curious position, arguing that human genius is capable of more horrible acts than nature or God could ever imagine. The main reason for this would be unlimited possibilities with the amount of gained knowledge and no guidance or authority to stop the process if something went wrong. In this regard, Hawthorne made emphasis on the lack of universal perception of good and evil in science, which is driven by ideas and final targets without evaluation of potential undesired consequences and collateral damages scientific exploration would cause. He writes:
“these he cultivates with his own hands, and is said even to have produced new varieties of poison, more horribly deleterious than Nature, without the assistance of this learned person, would ever have plagued the withal” (Hawthorne).
Although, in Hawthorne’s time, his society could already benefit from the advantages of the industrial revolution, intelligence was observing the lack of spirituality in society and dehumanization of science. In this regard, Hawthorne shows that new technologies and science in general could not provide an exact answer to how people should live and that universal mode of inter-human behavior – morality, was crucial for entering the realm of progress and new scientific discoveries. Hawthorne argued and warned his audience that creations of science are not authentic, that they only copy the existing reality and aim at distorting it according to scientists’ will. Describing plants in the garden, he writes that “the production was no longer of God’s making, but the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty” (Hawthorne).
Rappaccini’s scientific exploration is an example of exaggeration of individual desire to create irrespective of any limitations of morality. Hawthorne argues that simple desire to create something beautiful does not give one a moral right to do anything to create that beauty irrespective of consequences. It can be argued that the main difference between human vanity in creating anything and Nature’s creation is that the second is created with a certain purpose and in harmony with the surrounding world while the first is just a selfish and sinful individual that craved to challenge the existing natural order. Such people placed their individual desires over universal morality.
From all mentioned above, it may seem that Hawthorne had much in common with ideas of transcendentalists – rejection of science, as means of gaining knowledge, importance of human will and freedom in self- exploration, necessity of the spiritual part of human life; but he also opposed various founding principles introduced by Emerson. First of all, the main hidden message in the short story is the problem of human nature. In this regard, with the whole story Hawthorne aimed at rejection and actual challenging of transcendentalist concept of self- reliance. The example of Rappaccini showed that if an individual is left to himself outside any moral and religious framework of conduct, he would do as he wishes. Although letting Rappaccini do what he wanted would correspond to his freedom of will and self-expression, as Emerson viewed it, Hawthorne showed that there was no common inter-human knowledge present in each human being, and there was no common ground each person was approaching if left alone outside social system.
In fact, Rappaccini was left to himself and his research, but there was no universal humanity or morality in his actions. In this regard, Hawthorne remained faithful to his main criticism against transcendentalists – saying that self-reliance was not enough for building humanist society, since it would inevitably lead to an excessive pride. The world of science was the most suitable for the development of pride on the ground of self-reliance, because, in the realm of science, there is no authority except for the researcher and his target. In the end, everyone and everything becomes only means to an end. The best proof of pride was Rappaccini addressing his daughter as “daughter of my pride and triumph” (Hawthorne).
Another aspect of self-reliance, which Hawthorne criticized in his story, was overwhelming reliance on individualism in contrast to a common approach. In this regard, he showed the extremes of one’s individualism, which aimed against common goodness and social benefits. In other words, an individual given complete freedom might have a temptation to do what is best for him, and since the existence of human common knowledge proves to be quite ephemeral and too idealistic in its very essence, the reality shows that complete freedom needs to be limited for the benefits of the society and individual. Since Hawthorne does not involve any authorities or social institutions in his story, one can speculate that he considered that the required limitations for individual’s freedom was meant to be imposed by institutes of morality and a common sense. In this regard, Hawthorne remained faithful to transcendentalist argument that political institutions could not provide required order or an individual regain his/hers freedom and harmonious way of living.
On the other hand, Hawthorne did not stop on showing where person can end if he is given unconditional freedom of his own. He destroyed the concept of self-reliance in its very essence. In this regard, he showed that it is not only harmful and destructive to leave an individual to self-reliance but that there is no such thing as common knowledge each person can remember and achieve on his/her own. In this regard, Hawthorne speculates on the issues of human nature, showing that it differs from person to person and that there is no common ground to look for. For instance, Beatrice’s nature is entirely different from the nature of her father and even Giovanni. She followed the life as it was given to her, with her own fears and her beliefs irrespective of what her father did to her: “though my body be nourished with poison, my spirit is God’s creature, and craves love as its daily food” (Hawthorne). Although her life was wronged by the person who was meant to be her protector, she preserved love for life and spirituality of the divine world. Although she lived her life in isolation, she managed to understand universal norms of life and morality of existence. Thus, it can be argued that she was self-reliant in Emerson’s description of the phenomenon.
On the other hand, Beatrice’s confirmation of Emerson’s concept was used in order to show the inconsistency of her example with the cases of three other males in the story. In this context, while she proves his theory right, three men prove it wrong because they cannot come to the common ground on the matter and still fight for their own interest, which are far from morality or humanism. Rappaccini is driven by his excessive pride, making his daughter “a victim of man’s ingenuity and of thwarted nature, and of the fatality that attends all such efforts of perverted wisdom” (Hawthorne). For Hawthorne, as a naturalist, everything about Rappaccini is not natural, all his motives and justifications, everything he does is artificial because it goes against laws of nature.
On the other hand, the other two characters of the story are not more appreciated by the author. Although Giovanni seems to be in love with Beatrice and can be viewed as a victim of Rappaccini, his nature and actions are not better than those of the doctor. He was attracted by Beatrice’s good looks, but he did not care for her spiritual world. When he found out about her curse, he simply blamed everything on her and condemned her in old traditions of the Salem witch-hunt: “Yes, poisonous thing! Thou hast done it! Thou hast blasted me! Thou hast filled my veins with poison! Thou hast made me as hateful, as ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself – a world’s wonder of hideous monstrosity” ( Hawthorne). In this revelation, Giovanni showed his true nature – eternal male tendency of blaming women for male own sins and weaknesses. As a humanist and a lover of the poor girl, he should have pitied her rather than started blaming her for sins of her father and mankind. He spoke of harm they could cause to other people with their poisonous breath, but he was causing pain to his beloved one even without touching her. In her last moments of life Beatrice addressed this matter, arguing that “thy words of hatred are like lead within my heart – but they, too, will fall away as I ascend. Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine? ” (Hawthorne).
Even Prof. Baglioni, although seemed to care about Giovanni and tried to rescue him from misfortune, had his own motives for acting the way he did, and his motivations were far from being humanistic or entirely selfless. Just as Rappaccini, he was a scientist, but less courageous in the research field; his main motives for help were to prove Rappaccini wrong and to win in the scientific field. His last words to Rappaccini “And is this the upshot of your experiment? ” referred to his failure in the scientific filed and did not address the very fact of girl’s death or misery or anything human (Hawthorne). Just as Rappaccini, Baglioni was entirely absorbed with his ego and the desire to be right and superior to others. His personal morality was as wicked as the one of Rappaccini and Giovanni. All of them were driven by their own desires in this or that way. None of them truly cared for another human being except themselves and their own aims in life.
Looking at the matter from the existential point of view, it can be argued that all three men had one single intention of practicing their free will towards changing another human being – Beatrice. Instead of Emerson’s idea of self-reliance towards self- improvement through humanism, each of the characters used his power to improve a weak and dependent human being according to personal perception of harmony and ideal of a human being. Until a certain extent, they all were playing gods in their manipulations of Beatrice’s nature. They all wanted to make her according to their resemblance. Rappaccini made her body poisonous just as his inner self was. Although Giovanni wanted to change her father’s deed, he also wanted to alter her inner world, to make her feel guilt of the sin she did not commit and he wanted to change her nature again. Baglioni, with all his good intentions, wanted to make her body like normal, but it was abnormal for her existence. This variety of alterations hints to one conclusion – an individual is likely to cherish his pride in this or that way, when there is no correct model of behavior is predominant in his environment.
It can be also concluded that human nature is not universal in its common human knowledge and desire for ideal morality, but it is quote universal in the desire to rule and change the world according to one’s personal perception. In other words, human nature is quite self-entered and egoistic. Only life in society and existence of morality and legal norms to limit human vanity and egoism can alter human destructive tendencies. In this regard, it does not mean that Hawthorne was a pessimist about human nature and general capabilities of humanity; rather he was a realist in the New England transcendentalist movement. He aimed at sobering of the idealistic approach of Emerson, as a corner stone of the movement.
Looking into the story as a whole, it does not come into mind that he aimed at complete annihilation of transcendentalist approach to life; he rather wanted to sober the movement a bit, suggesting that life is more complex than just taking examples to suite represented theories. Although, with each generation, human civilization was making new step towards progress, human nature remained the same – people are capable of magnificent acts of sacrifice and humanism, and also of the most gruesome deeds, which even animals would not do to each other. Thus, idealization of human nature was simply a delusion, which Hawthorne aimed to point out in his short story.
Hawthorne, Nataniel. Rappaccini’s Daughter. Sam Houston State University. Web. 7 May 2013< http://www.shsu.edu/~eng_wpf/authors/Hawthorne/Rappaccini.htm >.