Beatrice’s Inner Strength: A Feminist Approach to Rappaccini's Daughter
by Clifford J. Kurkowski
In reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dark tale, Rappaccini’s Daughter, one immediately begins to question the seductive relationship between Beatrice and Giovanni, and the loving relationship between herself and her father. Beatrice is an interesting character because she has several distinct female qualities; she is intelligent, beautiful, sinister, maternal, and seductive, all dominant female characteristics not often seen in one character in mid-19th-century literature. Beatrice is also able to guard her emotions well and is careful who she lets into her world but at the same time, she falls for Giovanni very quickly and is willing to sacrifice her life for his. Several times during the reading I questioned Hawthorne’s intent in creating a character like Beatrice. She is vile and sinister yet beautiful and seductive, and, at the same time, I question why Hawthorne created a character like Giovanni, who I consider to be an emotionally weak male that falls for a sinister yet intelligent young woman that is his polar opposite. In researching what critics have said about this triangular relationship between Beatrice, Rappaccini, and Giovanni several arguments have noted that Beatrice can be seen as a woman who is being pulled apart between the love of a father and the love of a man. In addition, she is not able to make her own choices in life because dominant males control her world. This triangular relationship seems to be very sinister because all three people want something out of each other and they would stop at nothing to get what they want. For example, Giovanni creates a relationship with Beatrice when he knows that there will be problems but he still wants to covet Rappaccini’s beautiful daughter. While Rappaccini, on the other hand, wants eternal happiness for his daughter but at the same time has made her poisonous that she cannot experience true happiness with other men. Beatrice plays a duel role, first as a seductress trying to find love in an enclosed environment and second, she turns out to be the victim of a cruel experiment her father created. When one analyzes the text a question does come to mind: what is Beatrice’s true desire? Clearly, the text points out that Giovanni and other men in Padua fall madly in love with the beautiful Beatrice because of her beauty, intelligence, and maternal instincts but why does she want Giovanni? With her beauty couldn’t she have had any man?
When we read a tale like Rappaccini’s Daughter it is difficult to understand all the symbolism, allegories, and Transcendental rhetoric imbedded in the story as readers we come up with questions that we may or may not be able to answer. In order to stay focused on the story one must, as Wolfgang Iser put it, “consistency-build” when one reads. This is crucial when reading a text like Rappaccini’s Daughter because it is a “dynamic interaction in which the active reader is constantly responding to the meanings he produces in this interaction” (48). In other words, there are many ways that a reader may analyze this particular text but the reader needs to bring in everything that he or she has learned and focus one main reaction. This main reaction will produce “meaning and significance” for the reader and bring about a clear interpretation. My choice is to focus on Beatrice so I can determine what kind of woman she is and to find out whether or not Beatrice died a meaningful or meaningless death.
At the beginning of the story, Beatrice is noticeably a caring but guarded individual, she wanders through the garden like some beautiful goddess, tending to the different plants as if they were her children, and she also bides her time by caring for her father and defending his work. After she meets Giovanni, something changes within her and the plot of the story begins to take a sinister route. Beatrice falls in love with Giovanni and allows him to enter into her secluded but private life, while Rappaccini closely monitors her progression into love. Giovanni, of course, has always had an interest in Beatrice ever since he saw her from the balcony one morning tending to one of Rappaccini’s poisonous plants. Here I question what Giovanni actually sees in Beatrice, is it her beauty, or did he see some maternal elements in her as she tended to the plants. This questioned is posed because we need to know if Giovanni is looking at Beatrice on a physical level or soulful level. Several times throughout the story, Professor Baglioni warns Giovanni that Rappaccini and Beatrice are dangerous but still, blinded by love and desire, Giovanni shrugs off all the warning signs. Giovanni continues his pursuit for Beatrice’s love and begins a relationship with her, later on he finds out she has poisoned him, not intentionally, but because she does not know she is infected with the disease herself. After a difficult confrontation with Giovanni, Beatrice offers to take the antidote first and spare Giovanni’s life in case the potion did not work. Here, we question whether Beatrice is considered a tragic hero who was unable to separate herself from her father’s jealousy and self-righteous bidding of protecting her from the evils of men yet saves the man she loved by sacrificing herself.
Analyzing Beatrice as tragic hero is important because, in order to control the destiny of two men Beatrice must sacrifice her life for Giovanni and punish her father for his misdeeds, which, in turn, gives Beatrice a dominant male characteristic. This is not a rare occurrence in mid-19th-century literature but it is unusual that Hawthorne would give a female character distinct male qualities in order to control fate. In an essay by Richard Millington called “The Meanings of Hawthorne’s Women” he believes that
Hawthorne uses his admirable or formidable female characters to represent an adequately complex and comparatively free relation to life. Such a relation would, of course, include a healthy sexuality (sexuality understood by Hawthorne, I think, as a particularly complex emotional terrain and a key target of a culture's ordering schemes). But I think the key issue for Hawthorne, and the heroic possibility at once evoked and mourned or yearned for through the bleak careers of his heroic women, is that of a more freely chosen, more adequately imagined, more powerfully ethical life. (1)
In other words, Millington is suggesting that Hawthorne created Beatrice to go against the male dominated characters in literature in order to show that women could think and can be considered more “powerfully ethical” characters then their male counterparts and that female characters could also be “heroic.” If we are able to bring ourselves to think in this manner then we can look at Beatrice as a tragic heroic figure in literature and not martyr.
If we looked at Beatrice as a martyr, then the text would have offered substantial evidence that Beatrice sacrificed further for Giovanni and her father, but the text did not. Instead, the text offers a hero’s last words as Beatrice lays before her father’s feet
“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 with in 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?” (20)
In this passage, Beatrice tells her father that he made a mistake by not letting her have a chance at real life. In a sense, she is sort of punishing him with her death to show her father that his struggle to keep her pure was in vain. As Beatrice draws her last breath, she is also telling Giovanni that he made a mistake of loving her for her physical beauty instead of her inner beauty. This passage shows that Beatrice is partly vindictive but at the same time, she is teaching both men that she is sacrificing herself for a better good.
Shifting our focus from victim to hero, we now need to understand why Beatrice sacrificed her life for Giovanni and we need to question whether her death was meaningful or meaningless. In Margaret Hallissy’s essay, “Hawthorne’s Venomous Beatrice” she believes that Giovanni is physically attracted to Beatrice but cannot get past her outer beauty and move on to her inner spiritual beauty. To Hallissy, Beatrice is trying to save Giovanni by asking him to look at her in a spiritual and moral sense not in a physical sense. Hallissy states that
venomous women in particular have long been the embodiment of fear for moral evil and physical destruction. Venomous women have been equated with sexual excess and are believed to threaten men both physically and morally. Beatrice explores the paradoxes and ambiguities, which surround female sexuality. Beatrice represents the homeopathic strand of this tradition, defined by Sir Thomas Browne, which makes her both a sexual seductress and a spiritual savior (234).
With Hallissy stating that “venomous” women can be seen as having “sexual excess” thus threatening men “physically and morally” would explain why Giovanni falls so quickly for Beatrice and why Rappaccini tries to protect his daughter by poisoning her. Giovanni is enamored with Beatrice’s beauty, more than likely, he is lusting after her, but he is only looking at her in a physical sense and not at her inner beauty. The “sexual excess” is too much for Giovanni, he has to act, and that is why he goes into a relationship with Beatrice so he can satisfy his lust for her. He tries to be the dominant male by being aggressive with his needs, but Beatrice seems to know better and in the end is more dominant when she drinks the antidote before Giovanni. Hallissy contributes Beatrice’s “venomous” nature as vindictive in respect to her relationship with Giovanni and her father.
It is viewed that Rappaccini poisons his daughter because he is afraid that she will be exposed to the “evil” of men, he is being a protective father who is trying to raise his daughter correctly and he does not want her to be used by men. Rappaccini says
What mean you, foolish girl? Dost thou deem it misery to be endowed with marvellous gifts, against which no power nor strength could avail an enemy? Misery, to be able to quell the mightiest with a breath? Misery, to be as terrible as thou art beautiful? Wouldst thou, then have preferred the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none? (20)
Though Beatrice may not see this yet or understand it, her father, in an odd way, is trying to make her an independent or modern woman. Rappaccini may have been a man stuck in the past, but he had a vision of the future for women, which is very important for Beatrice, if she were to continue her father’s work. Part of the reason that Beatrice is seen as a tragic hero is because of the way Rappaccini has secluded her from the outside world and not being able to live her life the way she wants to and is not able to enjoy the world around her. In fact, part of the reason why she falls so quickly for Giovanni is because she is not used to having men fawn over her and give her attention. She does keep her guard up with Giovanni through out the tale but at the end she does let him know how she really feels about their relationship and he is told that she knew all along he looked at her physical beauty first.
Nina Baym, author of “Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as Feminist” says that Beatrice’s male qualities is an attack on men’s behavior in order to show men like Rappaccini and Giovanni that women were going to punish their male dominated actions and reward them with nothing. Baym states
many of the stories we most value and most often teach compose a sustained analysis of-and a powerful attack upon-male behavior. Again and again, in nascent form in stories like "Wakefield" and "Young Goodman Brown," in full flower in "The Minister's Black Veil," "The Birth-Mark," and "Rappaccini's Daughter, Hawthorne stages encounters between men and women. In these encounters, male characters-their underlying anxiousness and aggression disguised as ambition or obsession-refuse the invitation to full, complex, and humane life offered by their female counterparts. These acts of neurotic refusal punish-and even kill off-the women and yield to the male characters the utterly empty lives they seem all along to seek. This pattern of cowardly or sadistic male refusal of the richer possibilities of life represented by women continues, in fuller and more complex form, in the novels. What had perhaps seemed a set of psychological flaws in the stories emerges as a fully social phenomenon in the novels, a kind of cultural symptom. As he creates female characters who are not simply containers for positive values but exemplars of a full and subversive alternative life-Zenobia, Miriam, pre-eminently Hester-Hawthorne, via his implicit repudiation of male flight from such women, indicts the thinness and rigidity of a society that seems at once to induce and endorse such poisonous evasiveness. (22)
Baym’s statement is important because it tells us that Beatrice is a character that is trying to bring the male characters to another level of existence but because of culture, the male characters cannot get to that next level. Being the tragic hero, Beatrice has to suffer because she cannot free herself from the male dominated culture that surrounds her. Her death accentuates her existence in a male dominated society and is consider a “positive value” but it goes beyond that, because Beatrice is asking readers to look beyond her beauty and look into her soul.
By analyzing Beatrice we find that she is a very complex character; on one hand she is trying to find love with a shallow man who is interested in her beauty then what is inside of her. She yearns to be loved and once she finds it, she is not sure if she can accept it, but she is willing to blindly sacrifice her life for Giovanni. On the other hand, Beatrice is more independent then we are lead to believe though she is watched closely by her father, Beatrice is still able to think for herself
“Are there such idle rumors?” asked Beatrice, with the music of a pleasant laugh. “Do people say that I am skilled in my father’s science of plants? What a jest is there! No; though I have grown up among these flowers, I know no more of them than their hues and perfume; and sometimes, methinks I would fain rid myself of even that small knowledge. There are many flowers here, and those not the least brilliant, that shock and offend me, when they meet my eye. But, pray, Signor, do not believe these stories about my science. Believe nothing of me save what you see with your own eyes.” (12)
In the passage above, we are skeptical of Beatrice’s statement because there is an understanding that Beatrice lives in an enclosed environment with her father. In such an environment, one would think that Beatrice would learn about her father’s experiments with plants since she cares for them like her children on a day to day basis. Beatrice wants to show the man she now begins to care for that she is able to think for herself yet, she has an inkling of the rumors that surround her and she understands that men in town have judged her because of the association she has with her father. One does not know for sure if the rumors are true, only Beatrice knows herself what is true and not true. Beatrice’s statement sounds flirtatious but cautious. I believe that she is afraid that she might scare Giovanni away if he suspects that she is much smarter then lead to believe. Beatrice wants to find love and if it means she has to mask her intelligence in order to keep love then she will sacrifice her morals to do so in order to get what she wants.
So what does Beatrice truly desire in life? After analyzing her character we have an understanding that Beatrice is looking for love. She has been in an enclosed environment with her father for so long that she yearns for the love of a man in order to fulfill her own womanly needs. Unfortunately, it seems that her father has other plans for his daughter. Rappaccini loves his daughter so much that he is willing to sacrafice her life by poisoning her. He wanted to make her special in his world, Beatrice would be his greatest achievement. I don’t think Rappaccini expected his daughter to take the antidote and sacrifice herself for another man. But Beatrice wanted to make a point to her father and to Giovanni. To her father, Beatrice wanted to show him that she can sacrafice her love for a man and that she was ready to move on and ahead in life. She was tired of being of being alone, enclosed, and secluded from everyone else, and most of all she was tired of her father and his teachings.
As for Giovanni, she wanted to show him that beauty is skin deep and that she was more than just a beautiful woman. Beatrice wanted Giovanni to now her inner beauty, her strengths and weaknesses, she wanted him to understand the knowledge she possesses but unfortunately, he was too blind to see. Instead, he blames her for his misfortunes and let her take her own life, more or less; he can be considered a coward for such a deed. But, in turn, it puts Beatrice in a different light; she can now be seen as a tragic hero who has suffered at the hands of two dominant male characters. She sacrificed her life to be free of her father and she tried to teach Giovanni a lesson. In essence, Beatrice had a meaningful death if her father and Giovanni understood, like Baglioni did, that Beatrice took her own life in order to bring them to a higher plane of existence.
Baym, Nina. "Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as Feminist." In Fritz Fleischmann, ed., American
Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982. 110-111.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Rappaccini’s Daughter. Photcopy handout. (16-20)
Mailloux, Steven. Interpretive Conventions: The Reader In The Study Of American Fiction.
Cornell University Press, 1982. 48-49.
Millington, Richard. “The Meaning of Hawthorne’s Women.” Online posting.