Beata Beatrix by D.G. Rossetti(courtesy of the Tate Gallery, London)
Beatrice Rappaccini, daughter of the infamous scientist Signor Giacomo Rappaccini in 16th Century Padua, Italy, is a beautiful, kind, and innocent young woman. She has been isolated from all society and friendship by her father's diabolical knowledge of botanical poisons and his experiment upon her. Signor Rappaccini raised rare poisonous plants in pursuit of medical knowledge and infected his daughter with their poisons so that her very touch or breath can be fatal to another. Beatrice has an interlude of happiness when she falls passionately but chastely in love with a science student, Giovanni Guasconti, who is renting rooms next door to Rappaccini's marvelous but deadly garden. Although aware that Beatrice's touch or breath is deadly to flowers raised elsewhere, insects, and lizards, Giovanni becomes enamored of Beatrice's sweetness, gaiety, and extraordinary beauty. Soon he realizes that he, too, has become infected with the poisons. If he stays with Beatrice in the garden, he, too, will be deadly to all other humans, animals, insects, or plant life. Cruelly, Giovanni accuses Beatrice of infecting him. His heartlessness, plus her father's evil plan to make his daughter deadly to all other living creatures, destroy Beatrice. She dies after taking a supposed antidote developed by Rappaccini's rival, Signor Pietro Baglioni, who has attempted to use Giovanni to get the upper hand in the rivalry with Rappaccini.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "Rappaccini's Daughter" in 1844 for his collection
of short stories Mosses from an Old Manse (1846, 1854). He was then forty-years-old
and had been married to Sophia Peabody for two years. Some readers consider
"Rappaccini's Daughter" to be an allegorical tale, but offer different interpretations
as to the meaning of the allegory. Melissa Pennell has noted that "from a psychological
perspective, critics explore the story's reflections of Hawthorne's personal
anxieties about women in his life and about the nature of masculinity" while
"feminist critics have examined its treatment of the images of woman, especially
in light of gender roles in the nineteenth century" (58). Richard Millington
suggests that the story offers a critique of the diseased masculinity of the
nineteenth century that plays itself out in the destruction of female characters.