Tag Archives: American literature

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

Some Are Like My Own

“Some Are Like My Own”: Vicarious Experiencing Of the Grief Process in Emily Dickinson’s Poem #561


“Some are like my own” demonstrates a conscious effort on the part of the poet to establish, in the reader’s mind, inevitability and empathy in the speaker’s evaluation of grief. She accomplishes this by a skillfully crafted incorporation of devices which carry the receptive reader through the actual grief process. These devices can be better evaluated by dividing the poem into three distinct movements: Questioning (stanzas 1-6), Definition (stanzas 7-8), and Resolution (stanzas 9-10).

Dickinson uses, within the threefold movement, several techniques to pull the reader into a relationship of identity with and confidence in the speaker. She poses her questions in the first person, not only heightening the question’s intensity, but also sharply focusing our attention and sympathy as we become the speaker. We become the song while the song lasts. Unconsciously, the reader is identifying with the speaker early in the poem when she asks, “I wonder if It weighs like Mine — “. Thus the reader’s own questioning prepares him/her to accept the speaker’s resolution. In addition, her avoidance of didactic rhetoric subtly enlists the reader’s participation. S/he feels no need to defend or stand at a distance; s/he draws close, opening heart and mind. She has established proximity. The most effective device she draws upon to develop confidence in the speaker is her skepticism. She measures every grief “With narrow, probing, Eyes — “(2). The reader sees that the speaker can be trusted. No one will accept a naive evaluation of an emotion as intense as grief. If she had said ‘I know’ instead of ‘I presume'(39), s/he would balk. Knowing that an exact measurement or indicator of the presence of grief would be purely subjective, our speaker does not say, “The Grieved — are many — “(25) and leave it at that —  as though she had stated a new emotional axiom. She convinces us of her exposure to and awareness of grief’s illusive symptoms by adding, “I am told — “(25). Now the reader says, ‘She’s honest. I’ll go on with her.’ These are subtle but effective devices with which to win her poetic pilgrims. She wants to engage in such a way that she holds us until the end. Having evaluated her use of several of these techniques, let us move on to the threefold movement of the poem to see how else she draws the reader into direct experiencing.

The first major movement, questioning, is comprised of three types: questions of dimension, duration, and direction. In the first type, dimension, she says, “I measure every Grief I meet”(1); “I wonder if It weighs like Mine — Or has an Easier size.”(3-4). As the speaker thus evaluates the experience, these terms of dimension subtly move us to see how large her grief seems to her “Is theirs as big as mine?” she asks. Not only will the reader look for comparisons between the speaker’s grief and that of those s/he observes; but s/he internalizes the questions and begins to expand his/her consciousness, thus embracing a fellow sufferer and recognizing his/herself. Her questions are so basic and universally asked that on a subliminal level, memory is being affected. One of the first observations a person makes in his experience of grief (assuming he has experienced it) is that, at the time s/he was going through it, no one else’s’ grief mattered; to her/him, s/he owned the biggest. This is not something that people easily admit, so that Dickinson’s humble “I wonder if . . . ” endears the reader to her even more. She has empathized with the memory of grief that her reader may have exhumed as he was carried along by the poem. After having questioned dimension, the speaker directs the reader’s attention to the next and most effective type of questioning, that of duration.

She asks, in reference to the duration of their grief, if “They bore it long — Or did it just begin — “(5,6). She begins to break down finite time and the emotion of grief, into a homogeneous One, in an effort to convince the reader of the eternity of her grief: “I could not tell the Date of Mine — “(7). It is important to note that Dickinson sees grief as a form of pain, “It feels so old a pain — “(8), because her view of pain is endless.

Pain — has an Element of Blank —

It cannot recollect

When it begun — or if there were

A time when it was not —

It has no Future — but itself —

Its Infinite contain

Its Past — enlightened to perceive

New periods — of Pain. (#650)

She goes further to show us that grief absorbs time and time becomes grief: “Pain — expands the Time — Ages coil within . . . Pain contracts — the Time — “(#967). We understand the expansion but what of the contraction? If she has convinced or moved the reader to recall an experience of grief or extreme pain, s/he will remember how quickly time, space, the world, the universe — everything, was reduced to the confines of that experience; nothing existed but the pain. In stanza 5, she is deliberately ambiguous in order to establish another example of the two becoming one:

I wonder if when Years have piled —

Some Thousands — on the Harm —

That hurt them early — such a lapse

Could give them any Balm —  (stn.5)

Thousands of years or thousands of griefs? Or is she showing us that they are indeed the same? Time here, to the sufferer, becomes insignificant; stretching in both directions — past and future — it becomes “Centuries of Nerve”(22). Grief has become a timeless state of being for the speaker.

Closely related to her questions of duration are her questions of reaction to grief. In stanza 4, the speaker alters the pattern slightly. She notes rather than questions, that some who have grown patient in, or accepted their grief, “At length, renew their smile — “(14). At first, this may point the way toward a hopeful solution; but quickly she employs a metaphor that leaves us little room for misunderstanding. The smile, she ways, is “An imitation of a Light/That has so little Oil — (15,16). Thus, the smile is only a symptom of a brief and unreliable interlude between griefs. Dickinson is highly skeptical of any reprieves in pain or grief:

Music’s triumphant —

But the fine Ear

Winces with delight

Are Drums too near — (#582)

She goes on to tell us that Joy is closely related to grief, “grief and joy are done/So similar”(#329), but that joy, unlike grief, is fleeting: “In insecurity to lie/Is Joy’s insuring quality”(#1434). It becomes evident that many of Dickinson’s emotions overlap and must be dissociated in order to understand the whole. Once she has established the tentative nature of the smile or reprieve, she returns the reader to questions. She discourages from taking the easy way out of grief. After having experienced so much pain, could their brief reprieve “give them any Balm — “(20), or “would they go on aching still”(21)? She cements it in the reader’s mind that because they have been “Enlightened to a larger Pain”, they will suffer in proportion to their degree of enlightenment. Revelation begins to make the reader aware that there is little hope of taking an easy way out, if there is a way out at all. Having completed the questioning process that takes place in grief, the speaker moves on to the next major movement of the poem.

Definition is used by the poet to narrow the cause of grief and the aspects or by-products of the cause. Let me illustrate: to Dickinson’s mind, not many causes for grief are presented in this poem; rather, “the various Cause — Death — “(26,27). Yet, does it not seem that here she is speaking of more than the death that “comes but once — “(27)? Physical death does not appear to be her greatest fear because it “only nails the eyes — “(28); but, the living “Centuries of Nerve — “(22) suffered by those “Who till they died, did not alive become — “(#816) most definitely gives clarity to the intensity of suffering in prolonged grief. she develops next the types or aspects, of these two deaths, that are converted into griefs. Her “Grief of Want”(29) becomes an eternal toothache worse than death. Dickinson sees want as “a quiet Commissary for Infinity”, where “to possess, is past the instant we achieve the Joy”(#1036). “Grief of Cold”(29) is that physical cold of the corpse, but that deeper freeze of the spirit too — dead hope. She says elsewhere, “Hope it was that kept me warm — “(#768). By bringing definition into her poetic structure, she has caused the reader to experience and define types of grief which s/he may have experienced in common with the speaker. Her use of “despair” and “banishment” drives home the ‘time’ theme again. Dickinson says elsewhere that, “no man can compass a Despair”; he is too close and thus “unconscious of the width [notice dimension again]”(#477). This reinforcement of the eternity of grief gives the reader the added experience of being afloat in the poem.

Having brought the reader out to sea in what would seem a leaky and becalmed boat, she is now ready to stir up a small breeze and take the boat into a safe harbor of resolution. The poet’s resolve consists of a comparison (stn.9) and an assumption (stn.10). Only in looking at the ultimate pain, Calvary, does she find justification and reprieve from her grief: “A piercing Comfort it affords/In passing Calvary”(35,36). It is important to establish that she ‘passes’ Calvary; she does not accept it or affirm it as a means of salvation. The knowledge of this fashion trend, which is normally a part of the average reader’s schema (experience) [even in Dickinson’s day], cannot help but be subliminally, if not consciously, influential in causing the reader to sense that the resolution itself is only a temporary reprieve, soon to be out of style. With her grief having been measured and sized at the opening of the poem it is finally covered and accepted like any fashion is worn. She has brought the reader through — by means of the images and physical organization of the poem — a vicarious experiencing of the grief process. For the reader, this technique develops, believability and empathy in the speaker’s evaluation of so subjective an emotion as grief. The reader has been carried full-circle from “I wonder if It weighs like Mine — “(3) to “Some — are like My Own — “(40).

© 2009 David C Alves


[1] Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson,
ed. Thomas H. Johnson, (Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1960),
p.272-73; poem #561, line 3. All other references will be from this source.
Numbers in parentheses following quotes, are line-numbers unless otherwise
designated by ‘#’ for poem number or ‘stn’ for stanza number.

[2] (23) See also page two of
this paper — poem #650; lines 7-8. She seems to imply that we move
from pain to pain throughout life. Too many reprieves make the pain that much
more unbearable.

[3] Calvary is not of interest
to Dickinson because God’s Son died or secured salvation there; rather it
stands for her as the symbol of ultimate pain, suffering, grief and abandonment
(see poem #313

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