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Reading Group #28 ('Rapaccini's Daughter')

Gothic Literature

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Feb 28, 2012, 11:43am Top

Here's a link for anyone without a Hawthorne collection (if you have The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, it contains 'Rapaccini's Daughter'):


Edited: Feb 28, 2012, 8:01pm Top

Ooo..I'm looking forward to reading this. Never have yet, but recently encountered it as the first entry in the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, which peaked my curiosity. Maybe a form of proto-Weirdness? Guess I'll find out.

Mar 2, 2012, 6:54pm Top

I only read this a year ago, in the Tartarus Press collection The Snow Image and other Stories of the Supernatural, but the details have already gone. I find reading a big single-author collection, I can come away with a sort of composite image of the author, but the individual stories go out of focus a bit. I prefer thinking that to blaming it on middle age, anyway.

From what I remember, there's a fairytale (or twisted fairytale) feel to the story, and an echo of E.T.A. Hoffmann (the Hoffman that was source of Offenbach's opera). There's also this puritan America's distrust of corrupt old Europe, and a decadent or proto-decadent feel (the exotic,poisonous flowers)... I wonder if this puritan fear actually fed into the decadent movement at the end of the 19th Century? Europe taking it on and reflecting it back, so to speak?

I'll read the story again and see if any of these notions sharpen up at all, or just look silly.

Edited: Mar 3, 2012, 2:32pm Top

I've just read this and found it quite delightful. It has an ornateness of style that seems to chime quite well with Rappaccini's overblown flower garden and I quite wallowed in it.

I saw the ending coming but I don't think that's necessarily a fault - for me it had a bit of a Greek-tragedy kind of feel to it.

I don't think I can say anything else without spoilers so I'll leave it a week or so; but, I'm sensing quite a bit of depth and I think it will stand repeated readings and pondering.

ETA - For me, at least, it's quite original, too.

Edited: Mar 3, 2012, 4:08pm Top

Does anyone know which Paduan was 'a partaker of the immortal agonies' in Dante's Inferno (assuming there was only one - depends on how Dante regarded Paduans, I suppose)?

ETA - The reason for the question is that I'm wondering if the mention of Dante's Inferno plus the use of the name 'Beatrice' points to some significant element of referencing of Dante. I've never read Dante so I wouldn't spot it for myself (another one of those 'always meant to' works).

Mar 3, 2012, 5:57pm Top

>5 alaudacorax:

Paduan - I've had a look through the notes at the back of the Everyman edition - I didn't see any likely candidates.

Edited: Mar 4, 2012, 5:15am Top

Canto XVII 64-73:

E un che d'una scrofa azzurra e grossa
segnato avea lo suo sacchetto bianco,
mi disse: Che fai tu in questa fossa?

Or te ne va; e perche' se' vivo anco,
sappi che 'l mio vicin Vitaliano
sedera` qui dal mio sinistro fianco.

Con questi Fiorentin son padoano:
spesse fiate mi 'ntronan li orecchi
gridando: "Vegna 'l cavalier sovrano,

che rechera` la tasca con tre becchi!".
Qui distorse la bocca e di fuor trasse
la lingua, come bue che 'l naso lecchi.

From the Norton translation (Gutenberg):

And one, who had his little white bag marked with an azure and pregnant sow,(5) said to me, "What art thou doing in this ditch? Now get thee gone, and since thou art still alive, know that my neighbor, Vitaliano, will sit here at my left side. With these Florentines am I, a Paduan; often they stun my ears shouting, "Let the sovereign cavalier come who will bring the pouch with the three goats."(6) Then he twisted his mouth, and stuck out his tongue, like an ox that licks his nose.

(5) Arms of the Scrovigni of Padua.

(6) One Giovanni Buiamonte of Florence, "who surpassed all others of the time in usury," says Benvenuto da Imola.

My Italian edition with comments by Eugenio Camerini explains that this must be Rinaldo Scrovigni. He is residing in the circle of the usurers.

Mar 4, 2012, 7:03am Top

#7 - It looks like I was off down a blind alley - I don't see that an usurer really relates to our tale. Probably the references to Dante were just to build up the general atmosphere of 'Italy long ago'?

Mar 5, 2012, 10:03am Top

It seems to me that Hawthorne doesn't want us to empathise or sympathise with any of the male characters. Beatrice seems the only one for whom he has warmth. It seems a story without a hero, yet Beatrice seems more damsel in distress than heroine.

And having written that, I have to admit that I haven't followed the thought through, yet (haven't, yet, got round to re-reading it). I find it an intriguing line of thought, though.

[POSSIBLE SPOILER] Actually, thinking about it a bit more, Beatrice seems, perhaps, damsel in distress and heroine in one. She's quite a strong character, but in a quite passive way - a Christian saint/martyr kind of figure.

Edited: Mar 6, 2012, 4:32am Top

Is anyone else wondering if Hawthorne was deliberately writing a sort of 'negative image' or parody of Shakespeare's The Tempest?

Incidentally, if The Tempest isn't 'Gothic Shakespeare', nothing is.

Mar 18, 2012, 6:29pm Top

This story from 1844 appears, to me at least, to look both backwards and forwards. The setting is late-medieval or renaissance Italy, and the basic story is suggestive of the Italian prose tales that Shakespeare sometimes used as a basis for his plays (the comedies and late plays).

Overlaid on this, I still detect a resemblance to (perhaps an influence by) E.T.A. Hoffmann - specifically in the ostensibly perfect but unattainable woman, a figure familiar Offenbach’s "The Tales of Hoffmann", which adapts Hoffman’s stories at the same time as making him the hero.

Perhaps it is suggestive of “Gothic” Germany that Giovanni has travelled North, away from the strong Naples sunlight and towards the (relative) gloom.

Something else that I doubt would be in an original Italian tale, is the author’s making comments on the characters’ moral state, and right at the end, Beatrice’s dying judgement on Giovanni, “Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?”. This suggests the influence of Hawthorne’s Puritan inheritance.

One the other hand this story looks forward because Rappaccini uses science rather than magic to achieve his ends; indeed, this story has been described as science fiction. Also, the exotic and dangerous plants (with their heady perfume) seem to anticipate a motif of decadent fiction from the end of the 19th Century.

I’ve only read Hawthorne’s short fiction (and of that, only what was collected by the Tartarus Press for their Hawthorne volume), but I of course know enough about his other work, especially The Scarlet Letter, to know he did not accept his Puritan inheritance unquestioningly. Is this why he is clearly sees Beatrice as a wronged innocent, rather than as the “Accursed one” of Giovanni’s accusation (although Giovanni would of course be Catholic).

Pondering on this, I was struck by the passages where Beatrice is revealed to have a breath like the perfume of the poisonous plant, e.g. “... while she spoke there was a fragrance in the atmosphere around her ... It might be the odor of the flowers”. I was reminded of Dracula’s brides, “The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood”.

Beatrice is, in fact, a sort of pseudo-vampire (she doesn’t drink blood or prey on the living, but she has been turned into a sort of “anti-life”).

The recent BBC Radio Three programme made the point that, whilst Stoker’s anxieties are popularly supposed to be centred around sex, this has only been the view since the 1950s. Stoker was a religious man, an Irish Protestant, and he was brought up to believe that the greatest disaster that could befall man was to lose his soul to the Devil. This is the most pressing of all anxieties underlying Dracula (I paraphrase Paul Murray’s introduction to Bram Stoker Series #1: Four Romances).

By pure coincidence, whilst writing this I channel-hopped to a French-language channel showing a 1981 film version of La dame aux camélias, in which the main character (who is dying from TB - is that right?) drinks the blood of a freshly-killed cow or calf in hope of a cure. The parallels - infection, death, blood-drinking, are striking.

Another coincidence is that a dramatisation of Rappaccini’s Daughter was broadcast this weekend (on BBC Radio 4 Extra). As well as rewriting the ending - so Giovanni’s outburst is not so blasting to Beatrice’s love, and she does not pass her dying judgement on him - the adapter (Martin Wade) adds a final paragraph which poses the questions that were in my mind after reading the story: “what happened to the father and does Giovanni survive? When he cursed the father did he curse Baglioni too, for killing when he promised to cure? Did he suspect he had been part of Baglioni’s plan, as well as Rappaccini’s? Alas, I cannot tell you. All that I know, I have described.”

Mar 21, 2012, 4:29am Top

Time to move on, I think (but, as usual, feel free to keep the discussion rolling). Our next selection is Stevenson's 'The Body Snatcher.' New thread is up.

Mar 21, 2012, 8:55am Top

Still not got round to a second reading of this. I suspect I have way too many books on the go!

Edited: Mar 23, 2012, 2:16pm Top

I've just pressed the wrong sodding button and lost three or four paragraphs of laboriously written post. Start again.

I re-read this last night and, if anything, I found it even more delightful than I did in #4. I'm finding it quite intriguing on a number of levels.

Once again, as with our reading of Poe's King Pest, I find myself wishing I knew more about the author and the cultural and political background to his writing. I suspect that, if not actually an allegory, the story would, for the contemporary reader, have had resonances with then-current concerns with the status of women in society.

In fact, it may well be an allegory. The two sources in the OP miss out the first two paragraphs to the story - a sort of 'preamble' by Hawthorne concerning his fictional originator of the story. The first paragraph contains a pretty strong implication that the story is an allegory. They're included in the Project Gutenberg version, but I've found a link to the two paragraphs in isolation if anyone wants it - http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=HawRapp.sgm&images=images/mo....

I think I'll post thus far in case I cock up again.

Mar 23, 2012, 2:15pm Top

When I mentioned The Tempest in #10, I'd forgotten Hawthorne's "... not unlike what the maiden of a lonely island might have felt conversing with a voyager from the civilized world ...", which was probably what brought Miranda & co to my mind in the first place.

Re-reading, it seemed pretty clear to me that Hawthorne had The Tempest in mind when writing this. However, it's years since I've seen or read it so I don't know what light a greater familiarity with it might throw. I might come back on that one.

Edited: Mar 24, 2012, 6:18am Top

There seem to be pairings and parallels and possible symbols in the story that seem to run through my fingers whenever I feel I'm getting a grip on them.

For instance, I feel there is something eluding me about the pairing of Beatrice and her sister-plant. Mention has been made above about this story being classed as science fiction, but I'm sure Hawthorne intended a slight whiff of the supernatural about this pairing. But what does it mean? What's it for?

And what about the fountain? I feel sure that Hawthorne had some definite intention in making it so completely ruined - he repeatedly draws attention to its state. But is it symbolic of Rappaccini's deficiencies as a father, or of Beatrice as a ruined girl in some way, or of both, or of neither?

Saying that the fountain and the plant symbolise Rappaccini and his daughter doesn't really seem to work; but the plant and the fountain are clearly seen by Hawthorne as very important.

'Intrigued, but baffled' is my state at the moment.

Edited: Mar 23, 2012, 2:43pm Top

And I still haven't figured out how I could press the 'backspace' button and end up on the LT homepage with my carefully-composed post disappeared to the outer darkness.

ETA - I did NOT press the wrong button - the damned machinery did the wrong thing off its own back!!!

Edited: Mar 24, 2012, 7:06am Top

#2 - ... encountered it ... in the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction ...

I was a little bemused by this until I looked more into it and read about the Wesleyan University Press and the Wesleyan University online. I'd had visions of preachers handing out books of sci-fi to their congregations after services or something. It's a little disappointing to be disabused.

Mar 24, 2012, 12:11pm Top

> 14-18

This may confuse matters, rather than elucidate them, but here are some further thoughts:

The garden - a walled garden - has been used allegorically since Classical times. Here's a quote from C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: "In some writers it means Love; in Guillaume {de Lorris' Roman de la Rose} it is changed slightly and made to mean the life of the court, considered as the necessary sphere or field for love's operation. But, of course, its classical and erotic models only partially account for it. Deeper than these lies the world-wide dream of the happy garden - the island of the Hesperides, the earthly paradise, Tirnanogue."

My paperback copy of Lewis's book reproduces, as its cover, a miniature of a walled garden, with an ornamental fountain at its centre, from a Flemish manuscript of the Roman de la Rose. Reading Hawthorne's story brought it to mind and led me to the above passage.

However, the walled garden also signifies the Garden of Eden. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable notes that "The Greeks borrowed this word {paradise} from the Persians, among whom it denoted the enclosed and extensive parks and pleasure grounds of the Persian kings. The Septuagint translators adopted it for the garden of Eden..."

If I was right to suggest Puritanism was an important part of Hawthorne's mental make up (even as something to react against), then it's not unreasonable to look to the Bible, when searching for his sources of inspiration.

Brewer's let me down here, but wasn't Eden supposed to be the source of the four major rivers known to the writers of Genesis (the Nile, and, um,...) If this source (the source of life, or continuing life, really) was depicted in medieval times as a fountain at the centre of a garden, then depicting a broken fountain in the story could signify or at least hint at a taint or corruption in the garden. Rappaccini is, then, even more obviously a man playing God, Giovanni and Beatrice an unwilling Adam and Eve. The plant/sister is the Tree of (anti-)life, maybe.

Re. #18, I understand Rowan Williams is a fan of the work of Arthur Machen.

Mar 24, 2012, 12:24pm Top

Oh, and the introductory preamble - Richard Dalby's introduction to the Tartarus Press edition describes this as "satirical", and points out that M. Aubépine is "Mr Hawthorn". It's more ruefully self-deprecating than satirical, I would have said (unless the satire is that he doesn't think that about himself, but reviewers have said similar things about him?)

Mar 25, 2012, 2:08am Top

#19 - The Garden of Eden! That hadn't occurred to me; but, now you've mentioned it, my reaction is 'of course!' Yet another aspect to think about - I'm seeing this story as very layered.

Having written the above line, I googled the story, intending to check a few things, and stumbled upon this round-up of the lit-crit on 'Rappaccini's Daughter' - http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng372/rappcrit.htm

I haven't time for more than glance-through at the moment, but there look to be some interesting angles included - well worth reading.

Mar 25, 2012, 1:42pm Top

> 21

Wow, thanks for posting that link. It's interesting, none of those learned interpretations is obviously wrong, but they can't all be right.

Mar 28, 2012, 5:48pm Top

Without that preamble I would have been happy NOT to look for allegorical meanings. We could have said that Hawthorne had stumbled on/was using archetypes, and that there was an unconscious similarity to figures of myth/fable/drama/ etc, without any one resemblance being the single correct interpretation.

Similarly, we could have said that of course, writers can't escape their environment and - given who Hawthorne was, and where and when he was living - guilt and sin and Transcendentalism and Shakespeare and whatever else were bound to creep in, whether he tried to keep them out or not.

It's just a question of how much weight to put on that preamble...

That's enough on this story, for now, though.

Apr 11, 2012, 2:09pm Top

This is what I get for dropping out of sight -- y'all read one of my all time faves, and I missed it! I have loved Rappacini's daughter since we first read it in high school (one kid slapped his desk for a tempo and did an impromptu rap about Rappachini's daughter). I always found Beatrice's depth, awareness, and sadness interesting. And I found the feckless Giovanni and the complacent Rappachini to be very true to human nature. I enjoyed reading your posts about it :)

Apr 11, 2012, 4:30pm Top

#24 - Actually, I think there's a lot more to be got out of this one - a marvellous story.

As houseful indicates in #23, it's difficult to work out whether some of the religious imagery used is deliberately allegorical or just the automatic product of Hawthorne's religious background and mindset.

I've found it a story that gives me much more to think about than it actually tells - if that makes sense. It's certainly one that stands up to multiple readings.

Incidentally, I did re-read Shakespeare's The Tempest in the light of this; but, while Hawthorne seemed to have it in mind when he made the story, I don't think he intended any particular application.

Edited: Apr 11, 2012, 5:20pm Top

Mention of The Tempest points up, for me, how difficult it can be to know what an author "actually" meant, even after literally centuries of exegesis. There's the line near the end of the play where Prospero says of Caliban "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine". Currently, on the trailer for a Shakespeare season on BBC Radio 4, there's a clip of the actor snarling this line, full of hate and disdain.

However, in an article in the theatre programme for the original run of David Hare's Racing Demon, there's a quote from an Anglican clergyman. He's talking about The Tempest and says something like 'and then Prospero said this line, "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine" and I thought, "yes, there's the perfect description of God's love"'.

I should add as a disclaimer, the foregoing was quoted from memory, and I've never seen Racing Demon (my sister saw it while she was at university).

Apr 12, 2012, 5:17am Top

Ooh - you've just reminded me - I meant to look into this 'Shakespeare Unlocked' thing I've been hearing mentioned on the radio. I heard them use the phrase 'across the BBC' - I wonder if that means we'll get the odd play on the telly?

Edited: Apr 13, 2012, 3:07pm Top

Here are a few lines from the Wikipedia entry on Mosses from an Old Manse ...

Regarding the second edition, published in 1854, Hawthorne wrote to publisher James Thomas Fields that he no longer understood the messages he was sending in these stories. He wrote, "I remember that I always had a meaning—or, at least, thought I had." He noted, "Upon my honor, I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in some of these blasted allegories... I am a good deal changed since those times; and to tell you the truth, my past self is not very much to my taste, as I see in this book." [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosses_from_an_Old_Manse ]

... they don't help much. If he can't work out the allegories, we can certainly be forgiven for floundering a bit.

Apr 13, 2012, 11:01am Top

I've been reading The Birth-Mark. Between that, this one, The Minister's Black Veil and Young Goodman Brown, I'm beginning to see a pattern, here, of male protagonists with feet of clay and saintly, passive, 'too-good-to-be-true' and pretty much pedestalised female protagonists [honestly, the spell-checker on Google Chrome has the vocabulary of a backward six-year-old - I have to learn how to disable it].

But I can't make up my mind whether Hawthorne actually does put women on a pedestal or are they simply not encompassed in his jaundiced view of mankind because they are relatively unimportant to him - men being the 'lords of creation' and, thus, his real field of interest and women, in consequence, being represented by a handy, symbolic stereotype he pulls out whenever he needs it?

The Birth-Mark is good while you are reading it but, afterwards, you can't help thinking that the wife merited her fate by being so wet. I can't say that about Beatrice, but she's just as much a passive victim.

Apr 14, 2012, 8:51am Top

Just a last few words before I give up and bury this particular bone:

I think Hawthorne's a good, enjoyable and thought-provoking writer, but I think he's a bit too astringent for a regular diet - it's the 'thought-provoking' bit that does it, I think. One can only do so much pondering on the inadequacies of mortal man without getting a bit depressed.

I think I prefer him piecemeal - just the odd story scattered here and there in a more regular diet of Poe and M. R. James and Blackwood and so on. Like a palate cleanser.

Sep 15, 2012, 12:24pm Top

When I was trying to fit this to The Tempest, how came I not to think of Romeo and Juliet?

Sep 16, 2012, 8:29am Top

#31 - For the life of me, I can't remember what prompted me to that last post, yesterday. I know I was browsing some or other LT threads. It makes a little sense, though - lovers from warring 'families', a window overlooking an 'orchard' ...

However, revisiting here has made me realise that this had turned out to be one of the handful of our reading group works so far that has ('have'?) most captured my imagination - together with The Haunter of the Dark, The Beckoning Fair One and The Death of Halpin Frayzer.

I suppose I could mention the Byron and the Poe works, as well; but I've 'kept in touch' with Poe in the decades since my first incarnation as a fan of the Gothic and I've always read the Romantic poets, so those works, much as I enjoyed them, didn't have that 'delightful new discovery' quality.

Sep 17, 2012, 5:28am Top

> 33

Sorry, can't help.

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