Set during the Age of Enlightenment—a movement that glorified science and reason—“Rappaccini’s Daughter” is the story of three scientists: the young medical student Giovanni, his family friend and fellow doctor Baglioni, and Baglioni’s arch-rival, the “famous doctor” Rappaccini. Given that all three characters are doctors, one might think that their life’s work would be to use scientific processes to heal others. However, as each of these men tries to impact and understand the world through science, each of them causes only destruction. Their collective failure to use reason to arrive at truth or virtue suggests the limitations of science as a way to understand the world and shows the terrible human cost of rationality.
Rappaccini is the story’s most obvious embodiment of the danger of science and rationality. Described as a “true man of science,” Rappaccini’s life’s work is to experiment on plants, which are said to produce “medicines that are as potent as a charm.” However, Rappaccini’s plant-based potions are also rumored to have sinister effects, and Rappaccini himself is said to have perverse motives. Baglioni tells Giovanni, for instance, that Rappaccini “cares infinitely more for science than for mankind” and that “He would sacrifice human life” to gain even the tiniest bit of scientific knowledge. Baglioni’s comment not only paints Rappaccini as sinister, but it also implies that science can be harmful if it is not tempered by morality and human empathy.
As it turns out, Rappaccini’s experiments do harm someone: his only daughter, the beautiful Beatrice who tends her father’s garden. As the story progresses, Giovanni discovers that the plants are poisonous to everyone except Beatrice, whose body—by Rappaccini’s design—contains the same poisons and is therefore immune. At the end of the story, Rappaccini reveals his belief that he has done a service to Beatrice by endowing her with “marvellous gifts,” such as her ability to kill people and creatures with her poisonous breath. But Beatrice herself feels that her father has irreparably and unjustifiably condemned her. She tells him she would rather be “loved” than “feared” and that her death will cleanse her of the “evil” he has imbued in her. In other words, Rappaccini’s own “patient” condemns his scientific experiments on her as being harmful and morally reprehensible.
Rappaccini’s use of science for sinister ends is bad enough, but Hawthorne also shows that scientific pursuits lead the story’s other two scientists—Baglioni and Giovanni—astray. Baglioni, for instance, treats science as a professional competition, rather than a way to serve others. While at first his desire to keep Giovanni away from Rappaccini seems fueled by his concern for the young man, Baglioni’s professional rivalry with Rappaccini is actually his motivating force. When he first finds out that Giovanni is familiar with Rappaccini, for instance, he vows to protect Giovanni from coming “to any harm.” However, he immediately adds that he’s frustrated by the “insufferable impertinence” of Rappaccini trying to steal Baglioni’s own protégé, Giovanni. Baglioni seems more upset by Rappaccini’s supposed infringement on his own sphere of influence than by the potential harm Giovanni might suffer. Hawthorne again shows Baglioni’s ulterior motives when he gives Giovanni an antidote that will allegedly cure Beatrice of her poisonous nature. Though this seems to be an attempt to help Beatrice and Giovanni, Baglioni later chuckles to himself that “We will thwart Rappaccini!” Baglioni’s focus, then, is on ruining Rappaccini’s experiment out of professional animus, not saving Beatrice. And, in fact, the antidote actually kills Beatrice instead of curing her. Whether or not this was Baglioni’s intention, he doesn’t seem to care that his “medicine” has killed a patient. Instead, after witnessing Beatrice’s death from a hiding place, he calls out to taunt Rappaccini. Baglioni’s behavior shows that science is not motivated wholly by reason—jealousy and revenge drive scientific pursuits as much as a quest for objective knowledge. Furthermore, this illustrates that science, when uncoupled from morality and compassion, can lead to harm.
While Giovanni is not as depraved as Rappaccini or Baglioni, science also leads him to immorality, as he uses reason to arrive at inaccurate and harmful conclusions about reality. For Giovanni, this revolves around his scrutiny of Beatrice. Despite his intuition that Beatrice is lovely and good, Giovanni has doubts about her nature after observing her deleterious effect on insects and flowers, and he worries that “those dreadful peculiarities in her physical nature” may correspond to a “monstrosity of soul.” Giovanni ultimately decides, based on a pattern of living things dying in her presence, that Beatrice is evil. However, while his observations are correct (she does have this effect) and his inference is rational, he is wrong. Beatrice is not evil; she is an innocent victim of her father’s experiment whose heart is pure. Science, then, has led Giovanni to the wrong conclusion, and this conclusion leads Giovanni to accuse Beatrice of being evil. This accusation wounds her deeply enough that she loses the will to live.
It’s Beatrice who emerges as the story’s most virtuous character, and it’s significant that Hawthorne depicts her in explicit opposition to science. When Giovanni says that he has heard she has deep scientific knowledge of medicinal plants, she scoffs, saying, “I know no more of them than their hues and perfume…Signor, do not believe these stories about my science.” Furthermore, she questions the notion that anyone could arrive at truth through rationally deducing it with scientific observation: “If true to the outward senses,” she says, “still it may be false in its essence”— in other words, she argues that scientific observations do not always reveal inner truth. Giovanni’s belief in science, though, ultimately leads him to conclude that she is in fact exactly what she appears to be. This conclusion leads to the innocent Beatrice’s death, which embodies the death of virtue and humanity in the face of pure reason.
Science, Reason, and Humanity ThemeTracker
Science, Reason, and Humanity Quotes in Rappaccini’s Daughter
It was strangely frightful to the young man’s imagination to see this air of insecurity in a person cultivating a garden, that most simple and innocent of human toils, and which had been alike the joy and labor of the unfallen parents of the race. Was this garden, then, the Eden of the present world? And this man, with such a perception of harm in what his own hands caused to grow,—was he the Adam?
Giovanni knew not what to dread; still less did he know what to hope; yet hope and dread kept a continual warfare in his breast, alternately vanquishing one another and starting up afresh to renew the contest. Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal regions.
For some purpose or other, this man of science is making a study of you. I know that look of his! It is the same that coldly illuminates his face as he bends over a bird, a mouse, or a butterfly, which, in pursuance of some experiment, he has killed by the perfume of a flower; a look as deep as Nature itself, but without Nature’s warmth of love. Signor Giovanni, I will stake my life upon it, you are the subject of one of Rappaccini’s experiments!
“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.”
At such times he was startled at the horrible suspicions that rose, monster-like, out of the caverns of his heart and stared him in the face; his love grew thin and faint as the morning mist, his doubts alone had substance. But, when Beatrice’s face brightened again after the momentary shadow, she was transformed at once from the mysterious, questionable being whom he had watched with so much awe and horror; she was now the beautiful and unsophisticated girl whom he felt that his spirit knew with a certainty beyond all other knowledge.
“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.
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.
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!”