Rappaccini’s Daughter . . .


Rappaccini’s Daughter:  Coming to Terms with Hawthorne’s Presuppositions?

The Bible provides the necessary context to fully understand Nathaniel Hawthorne’s intent in writing “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” That Hawthorne took for granted that his audience would recognize the biblical typology present in his story is evident by use of numerous biblical allusions. Hyatt Waggoner wrote, “Moral and religious concerns, in short, are almost always central in Hawthorne’s work. . . ”[emphasis mine][i] The most significant and easily identifiable allusions is that of the Atonement.

Beatrice, for Hawthorne is a type of the Christ and the Holy Spirit, who are theologically one and the same, yet functionally different:[ii] the Spirit calls (Jn. 6.44), and reveals truth (Jn. 14. 16, 17, 26).  Jesus creates (Col. 1. 15-20) and atones (Jn. 17. 3). An understanding of this relationship and these allusions is essential to discerning the same relationship in the story.  In Proverbs we read, “…then I  (the Christ: see Col. 1. 15-20) was the craftsman at His (God’s) side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world.”  (Prov. 8. 30,31)

Rappaccini calls to Beatrice, “I need your help”[iii] and she affectionately aids her father in caring for his creation.  This closely resembles the relationship of God and Christ (Col. 1. 15-29).  Baglioni tells us,  “Rappaccini is said to have instructed her deeply in his science…she is already qualified to fill a professor’s chair.  Perchance her father destines her for mine.” (p. 119)  It seems that some self-interest is insinuated here more than concern for Giovanni.  The Christ, too knew all that the Father knew (Jn. 3. 34.).  The many ‘throne’ images present in the bible, in reference to the risen Christ need hardly be mentioned, so one will suffice (Eph. 1. 20ff).

If we see Baglioni as Satan and Rappaccini as the traditional rather than the true God of the Bible, then much more opens up to us.  Baglioni’s situation and statements take on new meaning.  His competition–” …there was a professional warfare of long continuance between him and Doctor Rappaccini…”(page 119)–rings familiar in the battle between God and Satan (Eph. 6. 11-14. compare: Isa. 14. 12-15 to Rev. 12. 7-13). Note that Baglioni and Rappaccini are both physicians to the physically ill;  but curiously Baglioni says, “Has my friend Giovanni any disease of body or heart that he is so inquisitive about physicians?” (page 118)  This question takes on a greater significance when seen in light of  Hawthorne’s journal entry, “ A physician for the cure of Moral Diseases”,[iv] listed with other ideas for possible stories.  Assuming these are his ‘physicians of the heart’, opposed to one another, the charge–“His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment.” (page 118), enlists an interest in the terms and nature of the experiment.  On the surface, would not the choice of man to accept or reject what God says about him appear to be an experiment of cosmic proportions?  Would not God indeed appear as an old and heartless scientist?

To Hawthorne, inheriting a Calvinist point of view,  would not the Armenian doctrine of ‘free will’ reduce the atonement to an experiment? Baglioni is by no means finished, “He would sacrifice human life (Rom. 6. 23.), his own (Jn.1) among the rest, or what ever else was dearest to him (Beatrice?) (Jn.  3.16; Rom. 3.24, 25)…” (page 118).  This statement points to God’s provision through atonement; yet, it is presented in a tone that suggests the kind of contempt that Satan expresses towards that provision. He is really accusing God of murder. In addition, Baglioni’s concern that Rappaccini not “…snatch the land out of my hands.” (page 124) is a curious way for a mere acquaintance to express his concern for Giovanni. Again he displays a self-interest.  The biblical parallel says,  “Surely he will save you from the Fowler’s snare…” (Ps. 41.3; see also Ps. 25.15; 2 Tm. 2.25, 26.)  These scriptures reveal what the Bible sees man’s position, in relationship to Satan, to be.  Baglioni indicates elsewhere throughout the text that Giovanni is “the son of an ancient friend” (page 118).  It is odd that he considers a relationship with Giovanni’s father (which could only be a generation old) to be “ancient” unless maybe Giovanni represents more than just himself. Granted, these are small clues; but clues that Hawthorne fully expected his reader to recognize and or deduce.

Modern, less theologically and biblically inclined, readers are likely to miss not only Hawthorne’s allusions, but a majority of early American writers as well.  Hawthorne in the mid 1800’s could never have predicted an American society in which less than 30% of the people within Christianity itself, had no familiarity with scriptures, not to mention those outside the church. Biblical illiteracy is not only a crucial factor in misunderstanding allegory based on scriptures, but handicaps anyone truly attempting to come to terms with early American literature and its authors. Careful exegesis of these writers has been replaced in many circles. When the reader no longer understands the world-view of the author, the only recourse is isogesis–reading into the text whatever the reader brings to it.

Throughout Hawthorne’s story, Giovanni doesn’t know how much of what he’s experiencing can be believed.  Finally in response to his suggestion of rumors about her, Beatrice admonishes him to believe nothing but that “…the words of Beatrice Rappaccini’s lips are true from the depths of the heart outward.  Those you may believe.” (page 127).  Scripture says,  “When the Counselor (Holy Spirit) comes whom I (Jesus) will send to you from the Father, he will testify about me…” (Jn. 15.26) “…the entrance of your words gives light…(Ps. 119.130) …All your words are true…(Ps. 119.160)… Your word, O Lord is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens…”(Ps. 119.89).  The narrator uses much theological language in describing Beatrice; “Brilliant….glowing…light of truth…worthiest to be worshipped …she glowed amid the sunlight…redundant with life…her feminine nature enveloped him in a religious calm…”  Hawthorne’s female characters have been offered such traits. Could he be doing something very different here?  Does he want us to see Beatrice as more than a woman?  The text offers many more examples to support Beatrice as a Christ figure but none so convincingly as the final scene in the garden with Giovanni and her father.

Beatrice tells Giovanni of “an awful doom” which was the effect of her “…father’s fatal love of science…”(page 136); the experiment, alluded to earlier, of allowing free choice.  Giovanni has received from Baglioni an antidote.  Beatrice took the vial from him, saying, “I will drink; but do thou await the results” (page 138).  Jesus, also in a garden, says “ My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch.” (Mark 14.34.).  It is interesting that Jesus addressed here his disciples, among them, John (Giovanni). As she drank, Rappaccini arrived with a “triumphant” expression.  “He spread his hands over them in the attitude of a father imploring a blessing upon his children…” (page 139).  His words are,  “My science and the sympathy between thee and him have so wrought within his system that he now stands apart from common men…”(page 139).  “In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will–to the praise of His glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”  (Eph. 1.5-6.).  Scripture states that through accepting the sacrifice of Jesus, we become “God’s children”. (Jn. 1.12-13)  Rappaccini convinces Beatrice that she has done the right thing in accepting her fatal remedy. She replied to her father, “the evil which thou hast striven to mingle with my being will pass away like a dream…” (page 139) and to Giovanni regarding his painful rejection of her. “…thy words of hatred are like lead within my heart; but they, too, wilt fall away as I ascend.” (page 139). The Christ “became sin” (2 Cor. 5.21) for mankind and suffered the full wrath of God upon him to free all who would accept his sacrifice. Those who beat him also mocked him. The weight of pain, both physical and spiritual, and the shock of total sinfulness replacing his nature of holiness, not to mention the abandonment of all his closest friends, caused him to cry out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15.34.).  Beatrice asks, “My father, wherefore didst thou inflict this miserable doom upon thy child?”  Rappaccini suggests that it is not misery at all but an endowment of extreme power and strength against which no enemy can stand.  The bible says, “…he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on the cross!  Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…”(Phil. 2.8-9).  The seeming defeat or tragedy turns out after all to be  victory.

Only a small fraction of the spiritual allusions have been presented; but not for want of them. Hopefully, if not convinced that  “Rappaccini’s Daughter”  suggests a spiritual allegory, the reader will agree that further investigation is warranted and worthwhile. In any case, Hawthorne has saturated the story in allusions tailor-made for his readers of the time.


[i]Waggoner, Hyatt.  Nathaniel Hawthorne, (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn.  Press, 1962), page15.

[ii]Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1978)  I Cor. 12. 4-6.  All further scripture references will be placed in parenthesis within the text at the end of each line or idea to which it corresponds.

[iii]Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. A. Kazin (New York:  Fawcett Premier, 1966)  page 116. All further references will be placed in parenthesis within the text at the end of each line or idea to which it corresponds.

[iv]Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  The American Notebooks in Vol. VIII of the Centenary Edition of The Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne ed. C.M. Simpson (Ohio State Univ. Press, 1972) P. 235

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