Long ago in Padua, young Giovanni Guasconti comes to study medicine at the local university. Because he doesn’t have much money, he finds housing in a rundown building that once housed a great family of aristocrats. Giovanni recognizes the family’s coat of arms hanging on the entrance and remembers that one individual from the family features in Dante’s Inferno as a permanent resident of Hell. The homesick Giovanni sighs and looks around his humble abode.
This passage highlights medicine and morality as topics that will feature later in the story. Because Giovanni has come to study medicine, readers understand that he is interested in both science and healing. The allusion to Dante’s Inferno also lets readers know that questions of right and wrong will likely be addressed, since the works of Dante explore morality and the afterlife. The previous residents’ connection to hell also sets the tone that something dark and immoral may happen here.
Dame Lisabetta is an elderly resident of Giovanni’s new home. Noticing that he finds the chamber gloomy, she encourages Giovanni to look out the window for sunshine—outside, he sees a garden. Giovanni asks Lisabetta if the garden belongs to their building, but she replies that it she is happy it does not belong to this house because of what grows there. The garden belongs to Giacomo Rappaccini, a famous doctor who blends plants to create “medicines as potent as a charm.” She adds that Rappaccini’s daughter can sometimes be seen tending the “strange flowers.”
This is the first time readers learn about Rappaccini’s garden, and immediately Dame Lisabetta regards it as abnormal and unappealing. She equates medicine with magic, calling the results of the garden “potent as a charm.” This passage demonstrates that local residents are skeptical of the way this doctor is interfering with nature, even though the plants are ostensibly for healing and science.
Gazing down into the garden, Giovanni notes that the property appears to have been the “pleasure-place of an opulent family” long ago. Though its marble features have gone to ruin, a fountain still runs with fresh water. Giovanni senses that the fountain has an eternal spirit that keeps singing across generations. Around the pool grow plants that seem to need extra water. One shrub in particular sits in the middle of the pool and has extremely beautiful purple flowers. Another plant “wreathed itself round a statue of Vertumnus.”
Giovanni observes that the garden seems simultaneously rundown and vibrant, with the new plants growing amid the wreckage of the old statues. The sense of timelessness, combined with the lush plants, conjures thoughts of the garden of Eden, a Biblical paradise from which Adam and Eve were expelled for the sin of knowledge. This is an ominous association, since Rappaccini—a scientist—is a professional seeker of knowledge.
As Giovanni gazes down, a “tall, emaciated, sallow, and sickly-looking man” emerges. This is Giacomo Rappaccini. He is “beyond the middle term of life,” with “a face singularly marked with intellect and cultivation, but which could never, even in his more youthful days, have expressed much warmth of heart.” He proceeds to scrutinize each plant, but he cautiously avoids touching or smelling them. Giovanni compares Rappaccini’s gardening, the “most simple and innocent of human toils,” with that of Adam in the garden of Eden. How strange, Giovanni thinks, that a man cultivating what appear to be poisonous plants should be the modern Adam.
Both Rappaccini and his garden are represented as corrupted versions of the natural order: Rappaccini is sickly and sinister, and while his garden appears healthy, something still seems amiss: why would he inspect the plants so closely while remaining careful not to touch or smell them? Giovanni quickly concludes that the plants are somehow malignant, and that the perversion of turning the innocent pastime of gardening into a dangerous and sinister project is not just disturbing in itself, but also in its implications for mankind (as Rappaccini is the new Adam, and Adam is the ancestor of modern man).
When Rappaccini reaches the purple flowers hanging beside the fountain, he puts on a mask. However, he still hesitates to move closer and he calls for Beatrice, his daughter. To Giovanni, she seems as if she could be “the human sister of those vegetable ones, as beautiful as they…but still to be touched only with a glove.” Rappaccini informs her that this plant has become too poisonous for him, so she will have to care for it on her own henceforth. Beatrice embraces the plant, saying “my sister, my splendor,” and she vows to serve it in exchange for “thy kisses and perfumed breath.”
Two things stand out when readers first see Beatrice—her loving disposition and her similarity to the purple shrub. It is surprising that the plant, which seemed so poisonous to Rappaccini, would not harm Beatrice. This suggests that Beatrice has a unique relationship with poison. She is also uncommonly kind to the plant, calling it her “sister” and embracing it. Her father does not comment on her affectionate touches but instead gives her instructions he would give to a research assistant.
Giovanni continues to ruminate on the striking resemblance between Beatrice and the purple flowers, and that night, he dreams of the two being the same entity in different forms with “some strange peril in either shape.” Waking, Giovanni thinks his imagination is distorting the matter, so he pulls back his curtains and gazes into the sunny garden, which looks “real and matter-of-fact.” Neither Rappaccini nor Beatrice is in the garden, so he cannot verify whether they possess strange traits, but “he was inclined to take a most rational view of the whole matter.”
Giovanni’s dreams further reinforce a link between Beatrice and the hybrid plant. However, he resists jumping to conclusions because, especially as a scientist, he values being rational. Even though readers later discover an important link between the flower and Beatrice, Giovanni disregards his correct intuition in favor of his rational doubts.
That day, Giovanni visits Professor Pietro Baglioni, “an ancient friend” of Giovanni’s father. The professor is “an elderly personage, apparently of genial nature, and habits that might almost be called jovial.” At dinner, Giovanni inquires about Rappaccini, and Baglioni reacts gravely. He concedes that Rappaccini is Padua’s most talented scientist “with perhaps one single exception” but he warns that 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 single grain” of knowledge. Baglioni further claims that Rappaccini uses the garden to distill poisons “more horribly deleterious than Nature.”
Baglioni is characterized here as a well-intentioned man: he is “genial” and “jovial” and, besides, he is Giovanni’s family friend, which means his character has been vouched for. Therefore, Baglioni’s criticism of Rappaccini seems credible, and readers are inclined to take seriously his assertion that Rappaccini’s obsession with science causes him to disrespect human life. This gives depth to the sinister appearance of the toxic plants, and it’s also important that Baglioni is not suggesting that the plants make helpful medicine (as Dame Lisabetta did), but rather horrible poison. This undercuts the one possible defense of the garden, that it might save human lives.
The narrator notes that Baglioni and Rappaccini are professional rivals, and that Rappaccini is widely considered the superior party. When Giovanni mentions Beatrice, Baglioni teases that this must be why Giovanni was asking about the family. He says that Beatrice is rumored to be beautiful, yet she is rarely seen. He adds that she is said to know much of science—“she is already qualified to fill a professor’s chair. Perchance her father destines her for mine!”
While Baglioni appeared wholly credible at first, the narrator subtly gives Baglioni an ulterior motive for his dislike of Rappaccini: professional rivalry and even jealousy. Notably, he even feels threatened by Beatrice, suggesting that she might someday take his job. It’s worth remembering Baglioni’s jealousy of Rappacini and Beatrice while evaluating the morality of his later actions.
Walking home from dinner tipsy, Giovanni buys a bouquet. At home, glancing down at the garden, Giovanni again sees Beatrice, who looks so radiant that shadows brighten around her. For the first time, he notices that her face has an “expression of simplicity and sweetness.” Drawing near the purple shrub, she says, “Give me they breath, my sister…for I am faint with common air.” She plucks a flower from it.
Beatrice is more beautiful and seemingly healthier than any other character in the story. Her demeanor also gives the sense of moral goodness—she brightens the shadows, which metaphorically evokes goodness casting out evil. However, her inability to live in “common air”—and the implication that she needs poisonous air to survive—seems to be at odds with her goodness, as needing poison to survive might indicate an evil and corrupt nature.
Just then, a lizard or chameleon crawls by Beatrice’s feet as liquid drops from the flower’s stem. The creature “contort[s] itself violently” then dies. Beatrice “crosse[s] herself, sadly, but without surprise” and tucks the flower into her neckline. While Giovanni sits doubting what he just saw, an insect is attracted to Beatrice. As she looks at it “with childish delight,” it falls down dead and she crosses herself again. Giovanni’s handsome face draws Beatrice’s gaze at last, and he throws his bouquet at her. She thanks him. As she departs, Giovanni thinks he sees the flowers fading in her hands.
This scene further confuses readers about Beatrice’s nature. She shows her love for the reptile and insect alike, even though they are small, insignificant creatures, which suggests her kindness. However, this scene also seems to affirm Giovanni’s hypothesis that Beatrice and the plant are poisonous. So it’s not clear here whether Beatrice is good or evil, but her deleterious effect on the bouquet that Giovanni throws suggests that their burgeoning love is doomed.
In the following days, Giovanni avoids looking at the garden as though “something ugly and monstrous would have blasted his eyesight” there. The narrator remarks that this is foolish—he should either leave Padua immediately or “rigidly and systematically” accustom himself to the ordinary sight of Beatrice. Instead, he is leaving room for his “imagination to run “riot” and creates “a wild offspring of both love and horror.”
Giovanni’s avoidance of the garden seems at odds with his scientific rationalism: instead of trying to examine the garden to learn the truth, he seems not to want to see the evil he anticipates finding there. The narrator’s remark that he needs to either fully see the garden or flee Padua further suggests that something sinister is happening and that Giovanni might be endangered by his fixation on Beatrice.
On a walk to clear his mind, Giovanni stumbles upon Baglioni. Giovanni is not eager to talk, afraid Baglioni will guess his secret, but the professor persists. As they converse, Rappaccini passes them and gazes at Giovanni carefully with “a look deep as Nature itself.” Baglioni tells Giovanni to be on guard—that look suggests he is the subject of Rappaccini’s latest experiment. The youth resists the advice, but Baglioni says to himself that he will protect Giovanni using “the arcana of medical science.” Besides, Baglioni thinks to himself, it is “too insufferable an impertinence” for Rappaccini to “snatch the lad out of my own hands” for an experiment. In light of this, he hopes to “foil” Rappaccini.
Rappaccini looks at Giovanni in a way that suggests the young man is the subject of an experiment first and a human second, which seems to corroborate Baglioni’s claim that Rappaccini disregards humanity in favor of science. Baglioni’s vow to protect Giovanni seems, at first, goodhearted. However, Baglioni’s motives become once again more complex, as his desire to protect Giovanni becomes inextricable from his desire to “foil” Rappaccini’s experiment and his jealousy that Rappaccini might be influencing a young man who was supposed to be Baglioni’s protégé.
Upon Giovanni’s return home, old Lisabetta tries to attract his attention, smiling wildly but failing to catch his eye. She grabs him and announces that there is a secret entrance to Rappaccini’s garden. He turns to her, surprised as though “an inanimate thing should start into feverish life.” He pays her a gold piece to show him the way.
It’s a little odd that Dame Lisabetta, an old woman who has presumably lived here for a long time, is only just now discovering an entrance to Rappaccini’s garden, and it’s also odd that—after saying she is glad that the sinister garden doesn’t belong to their own house—she is encouraging Giovanni to visit the garden. This suggests some kind of interference, perhaps Rappaccini’s.
After entering the garden, Giovanni resolves that seeing Beatrice is a matter of necessity—“It mattered not whether she were angel or demon; he was irrevocably within her sphere.” He does not question whether this impulse is noble. Giovanni wanders the garden, examining the flowers. He only recognizes a few and knows these ones are poisonous.
Giovanni does not care whether his actions are moral or immoral because he is drawn into the garden by his love of Beatrice. It seems dangerous that he is unable to resist his impulse to see Beatrice, even as it brings him physically closer to the poisonous plants.
Beatrice emerges. Before Giovanni can make an excuse for why he is there, her smile puts him at ease. Giovanni asks if the rumors are true that she knows the science behind the garden’s strange flowers, but Beatrice insists that she does not possess any advanced scientific knowledge, and nor does she want to. She encourages him to judge her by what he sees and not by rumors. Recalling the effects he has seen her have on living things, Giovanni begs that she instruct him to base judgments only on what she says, not on what he sees.
Whenever Beatrice is physically present, her kindness and good character shine through. It’s notable, too, that Beatrice—who will eventually prove to be the story’s most moral character—does not possess scientific knowledge and wishes not to be associated with science. This suggests an incompatibility between morality and science. Furthermore, Giovanni asking Beatrice for permission to trust her instead of trusting his senses demonstrates that he is open to the possibility that truth is not always something one can grasp via reason and direct observation. Sometimes, trust may be required.
As they continue talking, Giovanni intuits from her naivety that Beatrice has never left the garden. They talk and walk through the garden together until they pass the purple flowers. Giovanni reaches to pick one in exchange for the bouquet he threw to Beatrice, but she grabs his hand saying, “Touch it not!” His hand thrills at the touch, and she swiftly disappears. Giovanni notices that Rappaccini has been watching them.
That Beatrice has never left the garden strengthens the parallel between her and Eve, who had also never left the garden of Eden before she was expelled. This further suggests that Beatrice is morally good. Beatrice’s warning not to touch the flower confirms that Rappaccini’s interference with nature has resulted in dangerous plants. Rappaccini’s analytical gaze gives the reader a sense of foreboding. He seems to be up to no good.
That night, Giovanni’s fantasies of a poisonous woman fade away, replaced with thoughts of the virginal beauty whom he has just met. His wrist throbs and shows marks where Beatrice touched it, but soon he forgets the pain. The two begin to meet daily at an appointed hour.
The fact that Giovanni has pain where Beatrice touched him strengthens the reader’s suspicion that Beatrice is poisonous, just like the purple shrub. However, after experiencing Beatrice’s good character, Giovanni is less concerned about her physically poisonous qualities.
As their affections grow, they exchange glances and words of love but “no seal of lips, no clasp of hands, nor any slightest caress such as love claims and hallows.” On occasions when Giovanni tries to touch Beatrice, she pulls away and becomes somber. In response, his feelings for her would “grow thin and faint as the morning mist,” giving his doubts “substance” until she smiled again. Then he thought that “she was now the beautiful and unsophisticated girl whom he felt that his spirit knew with a certainty beyond all other knowledge.”
Whenever Beatrice draws away from his touch, Giovanni interprets it as evidence of her sinister nature. However, Beatrice is presumably protecting Giovanni from harm, as she knows that she is poisonous, which would actually testify to her good character—she is prioritizing his wellbeing over her own desire for him. This shows that Giovanni is trying to use reason to assess the situation, but reason is leading him to the wrong conclusion (that Beatrice is evil), which suggests that science and reason do not always lead to truth.
Days later, Baglioni pays Giovanni a visit at his home, which irks Giovanni because he wishes to “tolerate no companions except upon condition of their perfect sympathy with his present state of feeling” about Beatrice. Baglioni tells a story about Alexander the Great, who received a beautiful Indian woman from a rival only to discover her breath was poisoned. Baglioni states that Rappaccini may have created a similar monster using science. Baglioni notices a floral, vaguely poisonous scent in the air, but Giovanni dismisses this. Baglioni hands Giovanni a vial, suggesting that Giovanni return Beatrice to normalcy by having her drink this antidote.
Baglioni’s story about the Indian woman suggests that he thinks of Beatrice as her father’s accessory: she is a tool or weapon that can be used against others, but she is not herself a person worthy of consideration. Therefore, the antidote that he gives Giovanni may be well-intentioned, but it may also be part of his attempt to foil Rappaccini’s experiment, an intention he previously expressed. The poisonous floral scent in the air suggests for the first time that Giovanni has been corrupted by the garden.
Baglioni’s visit revives Giovanni’s doubts about Beatrice. Giovanni buys a bouquet, reasoning that if the flowers wilt in her hands, then she is surely evil. On his way to see her, Giovanni admires himself in a mirror—“a vanity to be expected in a beautiful young man, yet, as displaying itself at that troubled and feverish moment, the token of a certain shallowness of feeling and insincerity of character.” Giovanni sees that he is more handsome than ever, but he also notices that the flowers he is holding have already wilted. To test whether he is poisonous, he breathes on a spider and it dies.
Giovanni buys the bouquet with the intention to do an experiment to discover Beatrice’s true nature. Not only does this evince a lack of trust in her, it is also an example of science’s flaws, as readers later learn that Beatrice is good natured, despite her effects on living things (so the experiment would have led Giovanni to the wrong conclusion). His impulse to admire himself in the mirror at this critical moment suggests he is self-centered, not selfless like Beatrice.
Despairing at his accursed state, Giovanni goes to meet Beatrice, “the only being whom my breath may not slay! Would that it might!” However, when he encounters her, Beatrice’s angelic presence stuns him. Relying on her “quick spiritual sense,” Beatrice asks what is the matter.
Giovanni is letting his reason lead him to believe that Beatrice is evil, even though she has never been anything but virtuous in his presence. Giovanni’s limitations make it impossible for him to really understand who Beatrice is. Beatrice’s empathy and intuition, by contrast, immediately let her know something is wrong with Giovanni, showing that she sees him for who he is, even if he cannot see her.
Giovanni asks where the purple shrub originated, and Beatrice says her father made it. “It was my sister, and I loved it with a human affection,” she says, but she laments that its effect alienated her from society. Once she has acknowledged her condition, Giovanni lashes out, cursing her for making his body poisonous like hers. When she is puzzled by Giovanni’s words, he says, “Dost thou pretend ignorance? …Behold! This power have I gained from the pure daughter of Rappaccini.” He mocks her, treating her with “fiendish scorn.” To prove his condition, he kills a swarm of insects with his breath.
Rappaccini’s interference with nature harms Beatrice by isolating her from other people and making her lonely. Giovanni assumes that just because she is infected, she must be complicit in Rappaccini’s experiment. This is not true, so Giovanni’s cruelty towards her is unjustified. He lets his reasoning lead him to immoral behavior whose cruelty is even worse in light of the fact that Giovanni is Beatrice’s only friend and she has always been kind and careful with him.
Beatrice protests that her father, not she, must have done this to Giovanni. With this, Giovanni’s wrath subsides and he considers that perhaps since they are estranged from all other people, they should cling to each other. He also reserves hope that the antidote will restore them both to health. The narrator chides Giovanni’s folly, thinking that all could be made well after his betrayal of Beatrice’s pure and now broken heart. He offers her the vial, and she says, “I will drink; but do thou await the result.”
Immediately after being horribly cruel to Beatrice, Giovanni thinks about himself—how he can secure the most happiness in the future—rather than considering Beatrice’s pain. He can only see her as an instrument to his own happiness, rather than as a person who deserves happiness herself and may have been hurt. Nevertheless, Beatrice offers to risk drinking the antidote before Giovanni does so that his life will be safe even if the potion is dangerous. Unlike Giovanni, Beatrice demonstrates selfless love.
At this point, Rappaccini emerges and “seemed to gaze with a triumphant expression at the beautiful youth and maiden, as might an artist who should spend his life in achieving a picture or a group of statuary and finally be satisfied with his success.” He explains that he planned to make the two “most dear to one another and dreadful to all besides!” Yet Beatrice considers her father’s blessing a “miserable doom.” Rappaccini retorts that it is a blessing to have defenses against evildoers, but Beatrice says that she “would fain have been loved, not feared.”
Rappaccini objectifies both Giovanni and Beatrice, treating them as objects he can manipulate instead of as independent individuals. He explains that his intentions have always been loving (he made Beatrice poisonous to protect her from people, and he made Giovanni poisonous so she would have a companion), but by interfering with nature, Rappaccini has actually been cruel—Beatrice does not want these defenses because she values love more.
Beatrice vows to leave “the flowers of Eden,” says goodbye to Giovanni, and asks him, “Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?” She drinks the antidote and dies. From Giovanni’s window, Baglioni leans out and cries “loudly, in a tone of triumph mixed with horror…‘Rappaccini! Rappaccini! And is this the upshot of your experiment!’”
Beatrice’s last words to Giovanni suggest that he is morally corrupt. Ironically, he was so concerned about finding out whether Beatrice was evil that he did not stop himself from acting immorally. Furthermore, Baglioni’s final reaction shows his own moral issues: instead of reflecting on his own role in Beatrice’s death, he shames Rappaccini, his professional rival, for the harmful experiment. The fact that Baglioni reacts with horror shows that he has appropriate moral intuitions, but those are corrupted by his desire to see Rappaccini suffer.