Rappaccini's Daughter: Theme & Symbolism

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

Nathaniel Hawthorne uses a number of symbols in 'Rappaccini's Daughter' to underscore the story's themes and allow readers to find additional layers of meaning in this classic short story.

A Garden of Man

The themes of ''Rappaccini's Daughter'' are as old as the biblical conflict between good and evil, yet as timely as a more contemporary concern: the effect of scientific progress on humanity.

Hawthorne explicitly establishes one of the main ideas, or themes, of ''Rappaccini's Daughter'' early in the story. When Giovanni Guasconti first sees Rappaccini's garden, he remarks, ''Was this garden, then, the Eden of the present world?''

The lush garden that Giovanni observes, unlike the biblical Garden of Eden, has not been created by God, but by Giacomo Rappaccini. The beautiful specimens in his garden are not his only creations, however, and Giovanni soon becomes attracted to Rappaccini's beautiful daughter Beatrice.

Beatrice warns Giovanni that things are not as they seem. ''Forget whatever you may have fancied in regard to me. If true to the outward senses, still it may be false in its essence,'' she says.

A Thirst for Knowledge

Beatrice's charms, Giovanni eventually discovers, are poisonous. Her father's desire to protect her from any outside force has made her untouchable and isolated from the rest of humanity. Her very breath causes a fly to wither and die, proof that her father is not a benevolent creator, but a wicked one. Rappaccini's daughter is simply another one of his scientific experiments.

Rappaccini has placed his thirst for scientific knowledge above humanity, and Beatrice is the victim. This theme is acknowledged by one of Rappaccini's colleagues, who claims Rappaccini ''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.''

As Beatrice has warned Giovanni, appearance often conflicts with reality in her father's garden. Rappaccini's prideful act of placing himself in the role of God has not created Eden. Instead, he has failed to consider the effects of scientific discovery on his own daughter, and she is denied love and eventually life as a result. The true evil exists within Rappaccini himself, while goodness is found in the character of Beatrice, who sacrifices herself by drinking poison to protect the man she loves.

'An Immortal Spirit'

Many of the symbols that appear in ''Rappaccini's Daughter'' are important reflections of the major themes of the story. Rappaccini's garden is an obvious symbol of the biblical Eden. In Hawthorne's story, however, the garden is not a place of innocence and joy. Because the scientist Rappaccini has usurped the role of God, his garden is full of poisonous specimens.

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