“Rappaccini’s Daughter” depicts numerous differences between how men and women interact with the world around them. All the men (Giovanni, Baglioni, and Rappaccini) have professions, while the women (Beatrice and Lisabetta) manage their households. Men have formal educations, while women have knowledge that they have learned from going about their daily lives. Male characters get to move throughout the city, while the two female characters are only spotted at home. Sexism seems to underlie all of these social differences, and Hawthorne’s story shows how men marginalize women, particularly in the way that all of the story’s men refuse to see Beatrice as a whole person. Instead of regarding women as individuals in their own right, male characters repeatedly reduce women to one trait or function, which leads to Beatrice’s tragic death.
All of the story’s male characters objectify Beatrice, turning her into a prop for their own lives. Rappaccini, for example, views his daughter as a science experiment. While she is his only daughter and his professional assistant who shares his passion for gardening, Rappaccini does not treat Beatrice as a person with desires and interests that are independent of his own plans for her. Without her consent, he infuses her body with poisons from his plants, which means that she can tend the more noxious plants without getting sick (thereby helping advance his experiments). However, this also means that she cannot be close to other people, because her body poisons them. While Beatrice abhors her condition (she would rather have been “loved, not feared”), Giovanni treats her like an object he can manipulate, rather than a person whose wishes he must respect.
Baglioni, likewise, thinks of Beatrice only as Rappaccini’s accessory. While Baglioni admits that he has never met Beatrice, he relies on rumors to characterize her to Giovanni, saying that she is beautiful and that she has learned enough of Rappaccini’s sinister science to be a professor herself. This might seem a complimentary description of Beatrice’s beauty and accomplishment, but Baglioni means the description to be sinister—after all, women did not become professors then, so Baglioni is implying that something is amiss with her, just like something is wrong with her father. Furthermore, since Beatrice is the subject of one of her father’s experiments, Baglioni realizes that by manipulating Beatrice’s body (to try to rid her of poison), he can advance his own interests: he wants to ruin the experiments of his professional rival Rappaccini. Therefore, Baglioni comes up with an antidote for Beatrice, which he instructs Giovanni to give her without regard to whether it might be dangerous. This doctor’s disregard for Beatrice’s health leads to her death, which—perversely—is a success for Baglioni in terms of ruining Rappaccini’s experiment. Here, too, Beatrice’s life is merely a prop.
Giovanni’s treatment of Beatrice is more complicated, as he is genuinely interested in who she is as a person, but he still never comes to understand her, even though she is straightforward about her nature. At times, Giovanni seems to see that Beatrice is a wonderful person who is too innocent and naïve to deceive anyone, but throughout most of the story, Giovanni struggles with doubt, wondering if she is secretly evil. These doubts are egged on by Baglioni’s sexist depiction of Beatrice as a femme fatal, a weapon Rappaccini has constructed to ruin Giovanni’s life. Ultimately, Giovanni disregards his personal experience with Beatrice and gives into his suspicions, viciously accusing her of evil and breaking her heart. The reader’s clearest sense that Giovanni does not understand who Beatrice is comes immediately afterwards, when he hands her the vial thinking that she will drink it, be healed, and marry him. However, the narrator criticizes his wrongheaded idea of “an earthly union and earthly happiness…after such deep love had been so bitterly wronged.” Giovanni does not understand that she could never be happy with him after he betrayed her—in this moment (as in the rest of the story), he is not considering her feelings, only his own interests.
Throughout the story, Hawthorne leads readers to expect that Beatrice is some kind of treacherous fallen woman who is going to ruin Giovanni’s life through sexual allure. When it comes down to it, however, Beatrice is the only good character, and all the men have doomed her either by buying into the sexist idea that she must be secretly evil, or by manipulating her body as though she were a pawn in their own lives, rather than a human being worthy of respect in her own right. In other words, the story’s narrative is consumed by Giovanni’s obsession with whether or not Beatrice is going to hurt him, when in fact all three of the story’s men fatally wound Beatrice (Giovanni emotionally, Rappaccini through the experiment, and Baglioni with the antidote). These men fret so much over how to characterize her (is she “angel or demon” “beautiful or terrible”), but ultimately nobody but Beatrice understands who she is.
Gender Quotes in Rappaccini’s Daughter
Yes, my sister, my splendor, 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.
“I do so bid you, signor,” she replied. “Forget whatever you may have fancied in regard to me. If true to the outward senses, still it may be false in its essence; but the words of Beatrice Rappaccini’s lips are true from the depths of the heart outward. Those you may believe.”
“I have been reading an old classic author lately,” said he, “and met with a story that strangely interested me. Possibly you may remember it. It is of an Indian prince, who sent a beautiful woman as a present to Alexander the Great. She was as lovely as the dawn and gorgeous as the sunset; but what especially distinguished her was a certain rich perfume in her breath—richer than a garden of Persian roses. Alexander, as was natural to a youthful conqueror, fell in love at first sight with this magnificent stranger; but a certain sage physician, happening to be present, discovered a terrible secret in regard to her.”
It is not yet too late for the rescue. Possibly we may even succeed in bringing back this miserable child within the limits of ordinary nature, from which her father’s madness has estranged her.
Incapable as he was of such high faith, still her presence had not utterly lost its magic. Giovanni’s rage was quelled into an aspect of sullen insensibility. Beatrice, with a quick spiritual sense, immediately felt that there was a gulf of blackness between them which neither he nor she could pass.
“Yes, poisonous thing!” repeated Giovanni, beside himself with passion. “Thou hast done it! Thou hast blasted me! Thou hast filled my veins with poison! Thou hast made me as hateful, as ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself—a world’s wonder of hideous monstrosity! Now, if our breath be happily as fatal to ourselves as to all others, let us join our lips in one kiss of unutterable hatred, and so die!”
Ought not, then the desert of humanity around them to press this insulated pair closer together? If they should be cruel to one another, who was there to be kind to them? Besides, thought Giovanni, might there not still be a hope of his returning within the limits of ordinary nature, and leading Beatrice, the redeemed Beatrice, by the hand? O, weak, and selfish, and unworthy spirit, that could dream of an earthly union and earthy happiness as possible, after such deep love had been so bitterly wronged as was Beatrice’s love by Giovanni’s blighting words! No, no; there could be no such hope. She must pass heavily, with that broken heart, across the borders of Time—she must bathe her hurts in some fount of paradise, and forget her grief in the light of immortality, and there be well.
As he drew near, the pale man of sciences 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 paused; his bent form grew erect with conscious power; he spread out his hands over them in the attitude of a father imploring a blessing upon his children; but those were the same hands that had thrown poison into the stream of their lives. Giovanni trembled. Beatrice shuddered nervously, and pressed her hand upon her heart.
“I would fain have been loved, not feared,” murmured Beatrice, sinking down upon the ground. “But now it matters not. I am going, father, where the evil which thou hast striven to mingle with my being will pass away like a dream—like the fragrance of these poisonous flowers, which will no longer taint my breath among the flowers of Eden. Farewell, Giovanni! Thy words of hatred are like lead within my heart; but they, too, will fall away as I ascend. Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?”
Just at that moment Professor Pietro Baglioni looked forth from the window, and called loudly, in a tone of triumph mixed with horror, to the thunder-stricken man of science,—“Rappaccini! Rappaccini! and is this the upshot of your experiment!”