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Sin and Evil in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne Essay

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Updated: Mar 14th, 2022

Nathaniel Hawthorne is characterized as a writer deeply concerned with the Puritan values instilled in him as a result of his upbringing in nineteenth century New England. Although the area was no longer dominated by the Puritans of the past, many of the same ideas still surfaced and became the primary themes of Hawthorne’s novels and short stories. In the short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, Hawthorne examines the concept of sin and evil as he tells a relatively simple story of a young man and the young woman he falls in love with. In this story, Dr. Rappaccini is a mysterious sickly man who keeps a garden filled with unearthly beautiful flowers that contain deadly poison. In this environment, he has brought up his lovely daughter, who has become a deadly poison herself. Giovanni Guasconti is the young man who comes to Padua to study and falls in love with the girl and the garden he sees from the window of his apartment. These three characters, Dr. Rappaccini, Beatrice and Giovanni, each represent a different face of sin and evil within the story.

From his first introduction, Dr. Rappaccini is presented in terms intended to link him with concepts of evil. He is described as a “tall, emaciated, sallow and sickly looking man, dressed in a scholar’s garb of black” (Hawthorne). Although his face appears intelligent and well-educated, his expression is further described as one that “could never, even in his more youthful days, have expressed much warmth of heart” (Hawthorne). As more is learned of him, it is discovered that his life study has been dedicated to producing the most deadly poison in the world. His studies have not prevented him from conducting cruel experiments on even those who might be expected to have been most precious to him, like his own daughter. Professor Baglioni tells Giovanni that Dr. Rappaccini’s 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 dear to him, for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard-seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge” (Hawthorne). His willful imprisonment of his daughter by making her poisonous and attempted kidnapping of Giovanni through the same methods prove Rappaccini’s evil nature in that he is willing to destroy life for no purpose other than because he can.

In Beatrice, Hawthorne illustrates the concept of original sin. Although Beatrice is pure and good in every way, she is also a potent poison that kills upon the touch of her breath. In her second appearance in the story, the girl is seen to pluck a flower from the most beautiful bush in the center of the garden and drops of liquid fall from it onto a lizard’s head at her feet, killing it almost instantly. “Beatrice observed this remarkable phenomenon, and crossed herself, sadly, but without surprise” (Hawthorne). In this action, Beatrice is seen to be as pure and pious as the next girl, but still deadly in her most innocent actions. Not able to be tainted by anything other than the flowers in her father’s garden, Beatrice has become deadly in life as the Bible indicates woman is deadly to the soul. This is described more clearly when she encounters an insect that flies into the garden from outside: “while Beatrice was gazing at the insect with childish delight, it grew faint and fell at her feet; – its bright wings shivered; it was dead – from no cause that he could discern, unless it were the atmosphere of her breath” (Hawthorne). Her touch on Giovanni’s hand on his first visit to the garden results in small purple handprint on his skin that causes a “burning and tingling agony in his hand” that Giovanni still fails to relate directly to the lady: “Giovanni wrapt a handkerchief about his hand, and wondered what evil thing had stung him, and soon forgot his pain in a reverie of Beatrice” (Hawthorne). While she is considered evil because of her deadly effect on other creatures, she is also seen to be pious and kind-hearted in her concern over others.

Giovanni, on the other hand, is presented as a normal human being whose inner poison is brought out to greater effect as a result of his association with Beatrice. Although this love he has for her is innocent, with not even the fabric of her dress ever brushing against him, Hawthorne seems to be indicating that all human relationships are tainted with the concept of sin in this relationship between the two young people. The beginning of Giovanni’s taint of evil in the form of poison is first indicated when he is visited by Professor Baglioni, who suspects the truth about the Rappaccini family. Baglioni asks Giovanni about the strange odor in his room. “It is faint, but delicious, and yet, after all, by no means agreeable. Were I to breathe it long, methinks it would make me ill” (Hawthorne). From this hint, Giovanni begins to notice other signs that he is becoming as poisonous as the lady he loves as fresh flowers he bought from a nearby market begin to wither in his presence and his breath, after trying twice, manages to kill a spider working in his window. Upon making this discovery, Giovanni accuses Beatrice of having made him poisonous on purpose despite his own knowledge of her innocence. The narrator makes the comment that Giovanni’s memory of Beatrice’s true nature “had Giovanni known how to estimate them, would have assured him that all this ugly mystery was but an earthly illusion, and that, whatever mist of evil might seem to have gathered over her, the real Beatrice was a heavenly angel” (Hawthorne). However, Giovanni is not able to estimate his feelings and he begins shouting accusations at her that are not justified. “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” (Hawthorne). In Beatrice’s death, though, the contrast between the evil imposed on her and the evil adopted by Giovanni is brought forward. She says, “Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?” (Hawthorne). While Beatrice carried the original sin of birth in the form of her poisonous body, Giovanni carried this same sin within his very soul.

Through this story, then, Hawthorne compares the concepts of original sin, as it is either acknowledged and lived with as well as possible (in Beatrice) or as it is denied and kept hidden (as in Giovanni), against the concepts of evil, as it is present in Dr. Rappaccini. Beatrice is considered evil because her original sin in the form of poison is immediately evident on those she comes into contact with, but her soul remains pure, innocent and dedicated to good. Giovanni is considered neutral at the beginning of the story because he is so much like everyone else, but the fact that he becomes poisonous to the soul of the lovely girl illustrates that his attempts to hide the idea that he was also tainted with sin has only made his sin the greater of the two. Finally, Dr. Rappaccini, in his avid devotion to developing his highly toxic daughter, can be seen as an example of actual evil in that he is willing to doom those he loves to eternal isolation and sadness for the sake of his own pleasure and knowledge.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Name of book. Name of Editors (Eds.). Place of publication: Name of publishers, date of publication: page numbers of story.

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