“Rappaccini’s Daughter” – the Irony
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” the reader finds numerous ironies, many of which are explained in this essay.
Morse Peckham in “The Development of Hawthorne’s Romanticism” gives an explanation of how Hawthorne uses historicism in his early short stories [“Rappaccini’s Daughter” was in Twice-Told Tales in 1836] for an ironic effect:
The Romantic historicist used the past for a double, interconnected purpose. On the one hand it was a means for separating oneself from society. . . .He can be aware of the failure of the institution to fulfill its avowed intentions and its social function. . . . ...view middle of the document...
Giovanni in his room can hear the water gurgling in Dr. Rappaccini’s garden, from an ancient marble fountain located in the center of the plants and bushes; of particular interest to Giovanni is “one shrub in particular, set in a marble vase in the midst of the pool, that bore a profusion of purple blossoms, each of which had the lustre and richness of a gem.” The doctor, scientifically examining the plants in a detached and cautious manner as if “walking among malignant influences,” shows fear towards the large plant. At this point he summons his daughter `’Beatrice! Beatrice!’''
From his window Giovanni sees approaching the doctor’s daughter “beautiful as the day, and with a bloom so deep and vivid that one shade more would have been too much.” Her abilities are exceptional because it is apparent to Giovanni that “she handled and inhaled the odor of several of the plants which her father had most sedulously avoided.” Beatrice exhibits an especially close relationship to the purple gem plant, which Rappaccini is too fearful of tending anymore: ``Yes, my sister, my splendour, it shall be Beatrice's task to nurse and serve thee; and thou shalt reward her with thy kisses and perfumed breath, which to her is as the breath of life.'' That a girl of extrodinary beauty should show such affection to an extremely noxious and evil plant furthers the irony in the tale.
Today Giovanni makes his rounds of the university, meeting: “Signor Pietro Baglioni, professor of medicine in the university, a physician of eminent repute to whom Giovanni had brought a letter of introduction.” When, in the course of dinner with the professor, Giovanni inquires of his neighbor, Dr. Rappaccini, Baglioni responds in a foreboding manner, saying that the medical student should be careful not “to imbibe erroneous ideas respecting a man who might hereafter chance to hold your life and death in his hands.” And later the professor adds: “His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment.” This emphasizes an ongoing enmity between the two doctors – an irony?
It is Rappaccini’s theory that all medicines derive from substances called vegetable poisons; the doctor’s garden is set up to produce such vegetable poisons. The reader detects internal conflict in this very hypothesis – that poisons can be used as medicines. And according to Baglioni, the application of his “poisons” results in more failures than successes. Clarice Swisher in “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography” says that “Biographers and critics of Nathaniel Hawthorne must deal with opposites – determination and self-doubt, imagery of light and dark, flowers and weeds – paradoxes. . . . This paradoxical approach of the author is possibly the cause of such an abundance of irony. . . .”(13)
The professor sheds light on Beatrice also: “I know little of the Signora Beatrice save that Rappaccini is said to have instructed her deeply in his science.”...