Rappaccini’s Daughter

Rappaccini’s Daughter Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Nathaniel Hawthorne's Rappaccini’s Daughter. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born to Nathaniel Hathorne and Elizabeth Clarke Manning on Independence Day in 1804. He was also a descendant of John Hathorne, the only judge in the Salem witch trials who never apologized for his participation. In his early twenties, Hawthorne legally changed his last name slightly, adding the “w” so he would not be associated with his great-great-grandfather. He attended Bowdoin College, Class of 1825, but reported that he preferred getting into scrapes over paying attention to his studies. In 1842, Hawthorne joined a transcendentalist utopian community at Brook Farm—not because he agreed with the movement but in order to save up for marriage. Hawthorne wed Sophia Peabody in 1842. By all accounts, they enjoyed a happy union. Together they had three children named Una, Julian, and Rosa. He published his first work in 1828 and his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, in 1850. Hawthorne was part of the Romantic literary movement, which emphasized the importance of the individual and the subjective experience. He was the contemporary of many American literary giants, including Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe. In addition to writing, Hawthorne held a number of political positions, such as U.S. consul in Liverpool, England while his former classmate, Franklin Pierce, was president of the United States. After experiencing chronic stomach pains, Hawthorne died in his sleep on May 19, 1864 during a vacation in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
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Historical Context of Rappaccini’s Daughter

After the rise and fall of the Greco-Roman Empire, Italy fell into the Middle Ages (500-1300 A.D.), where long-cultivated skills were lost and access to new information was increasingly limited. Italians turned to the Catholic faith as a respite when the Black Plague and other mysterious diseases regularly killed city dwellers overnight. It was during this period that Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy, which explores realms of the afterlife according to Christianity. During the Italian Renaissance (1400-1600s), artists and prominent thinkers began to revisit the ideas of the Greco-Roman Empire. Modern science was born during the Enlightenment (1600-1800s), when prominent thinkers began to prize reason, skepticism, and a scientific approach to gaining knowledge. Hawthorne’s short story explores the clash between Enlightenment-era reason and the Middle Ages faith mindset.

Other Books Related to Rappaccini’s Daughter

Rappaccini’s Daughter relies on the popular Indian trope of Visha Kanya, young women assassins whose bodily fluids are poisonous. References to Visha Kanya date as far back as the 4th century B.C. during the reign of Maurya Emperor Chandragupta. The name Beatrice comes from Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s famous epic, Divine Comedy, written in the 14th century A.D. The poem’s exploration of hell, purgatory, and heaven mirrors the discussion of purity and corruption that Hawthorne explores in this short story. Due to the Italian setting and tragic ending, Rappaccini’s Daughter reminds readers of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as well as Othello. Romeo and Juliet features death by poison as well as misinformation. Othello includes a protagonist who doubts the good intentions of his lover. Authors after Hawthorne continued to use Northern Italy as the setting for works that address moral decline, including Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
Key Facts about Rappaccini’s Daughter
  • Full Title: Rappaccini’s Daughter
  • When Written: 1844
  • Where Written: Concord, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1844
  • Literary Period: Romanticism
  • Genre: Tragedy
  • Setting: Padua, Italy
  • Climax: Rappaccini’s daughter drinks the supposed antidote and dies.
  • Antagonist: Rappaccini
  • Point of View: Omniscient third person

Extra Credit for Rappaccini’s Daughter

Role Model. Nathaniel Hawthorne was very well respected in his own time. In fact, Herman Melville thought so highly of Nathaniel Hawthorne that he dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne.

Stranger Than Fiction. The idea of a poisonous woman may seem far-fetched to modern minds, but the true story of Gloria Ramirez, “The Toxic Lady,” bears a striking resemblance to Hawthorne’s tale. In 1994, multiple hospital workers became ill after coming into contact with this patient’s body. Autopsy results could not explain what had gone wrong, though speculation continues to this day.