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In his lecture "The Meanings of Hawthorne's Women," Richard Millington poses a literary experiment considering how "Rappaccini's Daughter" might differ had it been written by Margaret Fuller.

"Let me begin with a thought experiment: let us imagine that 'Rappaccini's Daughter' was written by Margaret Fuller. This minor revision of literary history might have two kinds of consequences. The first would be interpretive. Whatever overlay of mystification about the story's meaning that has accrued over long years of interpretive labor-that it is a story about science, say, or an allegory of Christian salvation-would vanish in a minute. The tale would emerge definitively-as it perhaps already emerges in the readings of its most clear-eyed interpreters-as an excoriating critique of the diseased masculinity that is one of 19th-century America's main contributions to present-day American culture. Instructed by her other writing-'The Great Lawsuit,' say-how easy it might be to see: that the actions of all the male characters are driven by a poisonous mix of fascination and horror about female sexuality; that this horror yields from the start a willingness to erase Beatrice as a human being and reduce her to the object of an experiment-a reduction that at once implies and produces her death; that this reduction of Beatrice to object is the characteristic maneuver of both paternal and erotic feeling in the story, and typical of the emotional repertoire that defines masculinity within it; that this mix of emotions finds its characteristic expression in a voyeurism compounded of loathing, aggression, and self-hatred; that, in short, 'Rappaccini's Daughter' knows everything about our gender system that feminist film studies has discovered in the past couple of decades, and that it is, in sum, 19th-century American literature's most powerfully feminist short story. A second effect of our imaginary discovery of the true author of Hawthorne's tale would, I imagine, be a striking revision of our literary-historical landscape, with 'Rappaccini's Daughter' emerging as a kind of mid-19th-century 'The Yellow Wallpaper' and Fuller, freed from the prison-house of her allusion-ridden prose-style, achieving her full prominence and power on course syllabi throughout the nation. My point in conducting this experiment in counterfactual literary history is to express with some drama the paradox I want to explore today: what does it mean that Hawthorne-apparently no friend to the hunger for new possibilities and patterns of life felt by the century's emerging feminist thinkers-seems to have written the most powerfully feminist fiction of the American 19th Century?"



Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10508/


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