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Literature / Rappaccini's Daughter

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"The truth is, our worshipful Dr. Rappaccini has as much science as any member of the faculty—with perhaps one single exception—in Padua, or all Italy; but there are certain grave objections to his professional character."
Professor Pietro Baglioni

In 1844, Nathaniel Hawthorne published the Short Story "Rappaccini's Daughter" in the December issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. It was republished in Mosses from an Old Manse, Hawthorne's short story collection, in 1846. A curiosity of the story is that the first two paragraphs have nothing to do with "Rappaccini's Daughter" and instead are used to discuss the fictional author M. de l'Aubépine, with "aubépine" being "hawthorn" in French.

Giovanni Guasconti comes from South Italy to Padua to attend its university, where Pietro Baglioni, a friend of Giovanni's father, works as a professor of medicine. Giovanni rents a room in Dame Lisabetta's house from which he has a rare view into the garden of Giacomo Rappaccini, a renowned doctor. Rappaccini's passion is poison and the garden is filled with plants Rappaccini cultivated himself. Of greater interest to Giovanni is the lovely Beatrice, the doctor's daughter. He ignores warnings from Baglioni to stay far away from the Rappaccini Household and a romance blossoms between him and Beatrice. Giovanni does notice that things tend to die around Beatrice and that she always maintains a distance from him, but he chalks it up to an overactive imagination until Baglioni outright tells him that Beatrice is highly poisonous. Incidentally, Giovanni's starting to emanate a strange odor too, so Baglioni gives him an antidote for the both of them. Giovanni confronts Beatrice about the deceit and she vows that she had no intention to or knowledge of any of it. She drinks Baglioni's antidote without hesitation, but rather than curing her it kills her because the poison is too much part of her.

As referenced within the text of "Rappaccini's Daughter", the main source of inspiration behind the tale are the poisonous female assassins of Indian legend: the visha kanya. The specific story referenced is the one written down by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy.

As one of Hawthorne's most successful stories, it's been adapted to stage, opera, television and more multiple times. "Rappaccini's Daughter" also has a presence in modern pop culture in the form of the DC Comics villain Poison Ivy, whose character was based on both Rappaccinis. The Marvel Comics villain Monica Rappaccini similarly owes her existence to Hawthorne's story.

Tropes found in "Rappaccini's Daughter" include:

  • Acquired Poison Immunity: Rappaccini's lifelong obsession with poison inspired him to nourish his daughter with poison from birth. The result is that Beatrice is poisonous herself and also immune to the vegetable poisons she's been fed on. A short but promising romantic interaction between Beatrice and the student Giovanni prompts Rappaccini to lure Giovanni to his garden repeatedly so that he becomes like Beatrice and can stay with her.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Baglioni states several times that Rappaccini cares for absolutely nothing but feeding his knowledge. He's killed multiple animals in pursuit of his poisons and would risk a human's life if it meant he could learn something from it.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The first two paragraphs of the story do not deal with "Rappaccini's Daughter", but with its supposed author M. de l'Aubépine. "Aubépine" is "hawthorn" in French. Many of the titles ascribed to this M. de l'Aubépine similarly are (loose) French translations of Hawthorne's work.
  • Breath Weapon: There are two ways Beatrice's poison is transmitted: she can touch another and she can breathe on another. Her breath has the extra quality of richly smelling like a delicate flower, so it attracts would-be victims.
  • Creating Life Is Bad: Rappaccini is a few times described as an undesirable alternative to Nature and to God. Almost all plants in his garden are his creation and are imbued with an artificialness that upsets humans and animals alike. They are also all highly poisonous, to the point that the aged but protectively dressed Rappaccini can't fully attend to them or he might fall dead on the spot.
  • Downer Ending: Beatrice dies at the end of the story when the antidote proves fatal to someone who is as infused with poison as she is. With her at her impromptu deathbed are her father, who forced the poison on her in the first place, and her suitor, who just minutes before went off on her and whom she accuses in her final utterance of always having been more poisonous than she ever was. Baglioni, observing the proceedings from a tower window, uses Beatrice's death to mock her father.
  • Family of Choice: Because she's been made poisonous from birth and kept from society, Beatrice has created a sisterly bond with the shrub with the gem-like purple flowers that sprouted the day she was born and which very poison she'd been nourished with. The shrub is all she has besides her father.
  • Flowers of Romance: Giovanni twice buys a bouquet for Beatrice, both times as a gesture of affection but the second time with an ulterior motive. The first time, he throws it to Beatrice down in her garden below as a means of introduction. She accepts the bouquet, but rushes inside with it because she knows her touch will cause the flowers to wither. Giovanni notices, but believes he's mistaken. The second time he has a strong suspicion Beatrice is poisonous and wishes to test it by giving her another bouquet. To his horror, it withers in his own grasp.
  • Garden of Evil: Rappaccini's garden is both this and a Garden of Love. All of the plants that make up the garden are there for their poisons, which is Rappaccini's one true passion. Only a handful of the plants are natural, the rest are the result of Rappaccini's cultivation and hybridization. Giovanni notes that while all of them are gorgeous, there's an equally omnipresent and off-putting unnaturality to them.
  • Garden of Love: Rappaccini's garden is both this and a Garden of Evil. Giovanni and Beatrice become infatuated with each other when they meet in her father's walled garden rich with gorgeous plants. They meet each other many times there and only there, which unbeknownst to Giovanni is because Beatrice cannot be anywhere else without being a danger to her environment. Beatrice effectively is part of the garden.
  • Gilded Cage: Beatrice is the daughter of a famed doctor and therefore lives a life of luxury. She also has full access to a phenomenal garden, a specific luxury within the walls of the city. But she can't ever so much as step outside her home unless she is willing to risk killing another, because she is highly poisonous.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: Beatrice, a woman of stunning beauty and grace and the daughter of one of the most respected doctors in the country, dresses in hues similar or equal to those of the plant with gemlike purple flowers. She sometimes picks one of these flowers to add to her dress to breathe from it, but coincidentally also complementing her look like nothing else can — or so Giovanni declares. Beatrice's association with purple goes even deeper, such as that her touch leaves a human's skin purple and that her voice reminds Giovanni of "deep hues of purple or crimson".
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Beatrice never intended for Giovanni to become like her. She only wanted to enjoy his company, feel what love is like, and then let him return to live his life as humans do. She is distraught to learn that Giovanni's become a creature of poison too and that this was her father's plan all along.
  • Kiss of Death: Beatrice is poisonous, and won't let her suitor kiss her because she knows that would kill him. After spending enough time with her, however, Giovanni also becomes poisonous.
  • Mad Doctor: Giacomo Rappaccini puts his knowledge of poisons to good use by reworking it into cures for the patients that come see him. He's an excellent doctor, yet the good he does is but the societal function of the sinister aspects of his character. The poison research comes first, lives later, no matter whose.
  • Mad Scientist: Giacomo Rappaccini is constantly working on creating new plants to create new poisons or improve on old ones. He puts his knowledge and poisons to use to fashion new medical treatments, but this is not his primary goal. His primary goal is simply to acquire knowledge and he'd sacrifice anyone for more of it — himself, his patients, and his daughter.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Beatrice is Doctor Giacomo Rappaccini's daughter. His area of expertise is vegetable poisons and he's cultivated several new species of flora just to get new poisons. Even Beatrice is subject of his experiments, having been exposed to a particular potent poison since birth. Now, it's part of her and her touch and breath are deadly. It is left ambiguous how much of his knowledge Giacomo passed on to Beatrice — Baglioni is certain Beatrice is educated enough to have a seat at the university while Beatrice claims she only assists her father on occasion. Both have reason to not be truthful.
  • Missing Mom: Beatrice's mother is nowhere to be seen and isn't mentioned either. Considering that Giacomo experimented on her from birth, Death by Childbirth may be in effect.
  • Poisonous Person: Beatrice Rappaccini has been fed poison from the shrub with gem-like purple flowers and now is poisonous herself. She can be around others without doing harm only if she doesn't touch them or breathe nearby them.
  • Revive Kills Zombie: Beatrice Rappaccini has grown up in a poisonous garden and, as a result, is now poisonous herself. In desperation to have her in his life, Giovanni gives her an antidote so they can be together. But giving an antidote to a person who is poison is not going to cure them; it's going to kill them.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Like a visha kanya, Beatrice has been made poisonous by being fed gradually greater doses of poison since the very day she was born. So how then does Giovanni become poisonous? He spends one hour a day in the garden for a few weeks and except for one small incident he never makes physical contact with Beatrice. If inhaling the odors was enough, then Giacomo Rappaccini would be expected to be poisonous by now too, yet he isn't. There is a possible answer in the story, but it's such a mundane moment that it's impossible to tell if it's intentional. When Giovanni first makes use of the secret entrance, which he suspects Rappaccini himself told Lisabetta about, he "[forces] himself through the entanglement of a shrub that wreathed its tendrils over the hidden entrance". It is the one plant Giovanni is confirmed to have touched (while it's implied he's not touched any other) and it follows that he walks through the shrub's tendrils twice every day from then on. And there's no reason to believe the shrub would be exempt from the many claims that all of the plants in Rappaccini's garden are part of his research and mostly his creation. Giovanni has evidently undergone a different transformation process than Beatrice and the shrub at the hidden entrance may have played a part in that.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Giovanni becomes physically poisonous just his feelings or mistrust and doubt toward Beatrice reach their peak and he comes to see her as a monster rather than an innocent victim of her father.
  • Shout-Out: There are several.
    • Giovanni spots an armorial bearings above the entrance of the building he hires a room at. He recognizes it as belonging to the family of which one ancestor "had been pictured by Dante as a partaker of the immortal agonies of his Inferno". The Paduan family is not named in the Inferno, but is deduced to be the Scrovegni family and the particular ancestor is Reginaldo degli Scrovegni.
    • Baglioni says he read a story about a poisonous woman that was sent by an Indian prince to kill Alexander the Great. This is a reference to a tale written down by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy.
    • Baglioni claims the antidote he gives Giovanni could counteract even the poisons of the Borgias, the infamous Italian family known for poisoning their enemies left and right.
  • Signature Scent: The scent from the shrub with the gem-like purple flowers is the same scent as Beatrice's breath carries. It is the scent of their poison and equal amounts attractive and deadly. Later, Giovanni also becomes infused with poison and his breath gains the same scent.
  • Soulful Plant Story: Poisonous plants are the source of the story's horror, which manifests strongest in Beatrice and the shrub with gem-like purple flowers. Beatrice, while not quite a Plant Person, is repeatedly compared to the other plants in the garden and to plants in general. She dies at the end of the story.
  • The Symbiote: Beatrice and the shrub with the gem-like purple flowers are essentially one. Beatrice needs the shrub's scent as nourishment, as she quickly grows "faint with common air". To this end, she plucks one flower at a time from the shrub to stick to her dress so she can take the scent with her. In return, Beatrice cares for the plant so that it may prosper.
  • Talking to Plants: Beatrice is the human sister to her father's most precious floral creation. They've grown up together and early in the story Giacomo, whose health is affected by age, makes Beatrice the plant's sole gardener. Beatrice talks a lot to the plant, as sisters are wont to do.
  • That Poor Plant: Beatrice is so poisonous that ordinary plants wilt when she touches them. Giovanni later finds himself having the same effect on such plants.
  • The Ugly Guy's Hot Daughter: Beatrice is Giacomo Rappaccini's daughter. She's as beautiful and radiant as he's withered and unsettling.
  • Unreliable Expositor: Much of the information given regarding the workings and intentions of the Rappaccini Household comes from Pietro Baglioni. The narrative explains that he's on the losing side of a "professional warfare of long continuance" with Giacomo Rappaccini and that his claims are not entirely trustworthy.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Lisabetta is the one who shows Giovanni the secret entrance to Rappaccini's garden, which was the start of Giovanni's transformation. The story provides no objective information as to how Lisabetta knew of the entrance or why she showed it to Giovanni, but Giovanni at the time wonders if it's all a trap; that Rappaccini himself told Lisabetta about it with the expectation she'd pass it on and coax him into the doctor's hands.