Seducing Transcendental Narrative Perspectives in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

“The Proper Point of View“

Seminar Paper, 2005
19 Pages, Grade: 1,0
Anonym (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Giovanni Guasconti
2a. The Emersonian Representative
2b. Giovanni’s Readings of the Garden

3. The Seduction of the Reader
3 a. The Adoption of Giovanni’s ‘Moonlight Readings’
3b. The Deception through the Narrator

4. Rejection of Transcendental Symbolism

5. Conclusion

Occasionally a breath of Nature, a raindrop of pathos and tenderness, or a gleam of humor, will find its way into the midst of his fantastic imagery, and make us feel as if, after all, we were yet within the limits of our native earth. We will only add to this very cursory notice that M. de l'Aubepine's productions, if the reader chance to take them in precisely the proper point of view, may amuse a leisure hour as well as those of a brighter man; if otherwise, they can hardly fail to look excessively like nonsense.

(Hawthorne 1313)

1. Introduction

As with every text in literature, a single consistent: reading is never possible.

However, Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1844 story "Rappaccini's Daughter" has caused quite a sensation about its topicality, and many attempts to reconcile different critical approaches have been thwarted. Whereas, still today, some critics see religion, in particular the Fall of Man, as the story's major issue, others oppose with their ideas about stereotypical womanhood or Hawthorne's supposedly harsh criticism of science. Till the present: day, as Fogle states, an "accurate definition of its elements is next to impossible" (92).

The question of whether these so radically contradicting analyses of the story root in Hawthorne's use of allegory is justified. As with every allegory, it needs a deeper examination to encode the story's secondary meaning in order to understand the different layers of the text. With this, it seems quite obvious that: contradicting readings arise. I argue though that it is not predominantly Hawthorne's use of allegory which causes such an amount: of different viewpoints; instead, these differences mainly root in the skilful use of deviating narrative perspectives which lead the reader to confusion about the meaning of "Rappaccini's Daughter".

By taking into account the interaction between the author, the narrator, Giovanni, and the reader, I furthermore argue that Hawthorne entraps the latter to make the same errors as Giovanni and the narrator make within the story: Reading nature symbolically and committing the "sin of synecdoche" by substituting, "in moral and rhetorical terms," the part as a symbol of the whole (Haviland 280). Doing this, then, "steal[s] away the human warmth" and denies access to "the proper point of view" (Hawthorne 1313). The analysis of the different narrative perspectives is crucial as it demonstrates how "Rappaccini's Daughter" calls into question the ideas of the Transcendentalists, in particular of Emerson, who presented a philosophical concept: to his contemporary reader which claimed to allow a total perspective on the world. This reader-oriented approach proves how the narrative structure of the text works to ironically deconstruct Emerson's doctrine by pointing out that spirit and nature have nothing to do with one another; instead, reading nature as a symbol of spirit does not lead to human enlightenment but to monstrous behaviors and fatal catastrophes. According to "Rappaccini's Daughter", then, Emerson's concept described in "Nature" does not work in practise.

2. Giovanni Guasconti

2a. The Emersonian Representative

When Giovanni Guasconti is introduced as a student of literature who is familiar with "the great: poem of his country" (Hawthorne 1314), namely with Dante's Divine Comedy, "Rappaccini's Daughter" immediately suggests that it "possesses the potential to manifest ideals" (Jones 156). With Dante in mind, Giovanni is described as being highly sensitive of "reminiscences and associations" (Hawthorne 1314), and a character named Beatrice, who both he and the reader believe to recognize as an allusion to the great: poet, is taken worth of being allegorized. Furthermore, the moment Giovanni looks out of the window, he starts searching for signs how to read and interpret nature as a symbol of spirit. This procedure of reading his surroundings symbolically "demonstrates the process of Transcendental symbolizing," described in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Nature" (Hazlett 51).

Emerson claimed that: "every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact" (134); for him, nature functions as an expression of spirit: Everything is "emblematic [...], the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause [...] unlocks a new faculty of the soul" (138-9). Emerson furthermore remarked that "differences could be reconciled in an organic whole," the so called Oversoul' (Haviland 281). "Rappaccini's Daughter" portrays a seemingly sympathetic observer who tries to solve the mystery of Beatrice Rappaccini and the garden, as a character who fully represents Emerson's ideas. However, the text, as its outcome reveals, also shows with Giovanni exactly these character traits, which, according to Van Leer, "Hawthorne feared in his contemporaries" (Hazlett 67).

2b. Giovanni's Readings of the Garden

When Giovanni observes the garden, he, according to his conventional habit of transcendental analysing, reads all objects literally and assigns them to their spiritual meanings. The first object he examines is a marble fountain which stands right in the center of the garden. It is described as being "so wofully shattered that it was impossible to trace the original design from the chaos of remaining fragments. The water, however, continued to gush and sparkle into the sunbeams as cheerfully as ever" (Hawthorne 1315). First difficulties in reading an unequivocal spiritual meaning into the examined object seem to appear. Whereas the fountain is chaotically shattered, the water wells out as if it represents an "immortal spirit, that sung its song unceasingly, and without heeding the vicissitudes around it" (Hawthorne 1315). Jones describes the fountain as a "threshold symbol" which questions the relation of form and content: and fractures the "promise of meaning extended by Rappaccini's fountain" (Jones 156).

The contrast between inner and outer appearance, between the real and the ideal, is definitely present; however, Giovanni ignores the shattered design because he has a particular way to gaze at the world. "The symbolic language of Nature is sung to those who favor an imagined ahistorical animism and who do not heed the chaos of reality whose original design cannot be known" (Haviland 289). What the reader finds here is a straight transcendental way of reading the world. Emerson describes Nature as being wholly good; according to him, the spectator will recognize this, if he looks at the world through the right angle (Haviland 288). In exactly this Emersonian way, Giovanni looks at the fountain and the garden in general, though the latter is everything but natural.

The second object: Giovanni analyses is an enormous shrub whose "profusion of purple blossoms" are so "resplendent that it seemed enough to illuminate the garden, even had there been no sunshine" (Hawthorne 1315). The same way he does with the fountain, Giovanni also translates the shrub into a symbol of "immortal purity and beauty" (Hazlett 49), although he subconsciously feels that "this beauty did but conceal a deadlier malice" (Hawthorne 1316). When Beatrice enters the garden, he immediately associates her with the poisoned shrub. "Though he knew not why," Beatrice makes him "think of deep hues of purple or crimson, and of perfumes heavily delectable" (Hawthorne 1316). Giovanni sees in Beatrice "the human sister of those vegetable ones" (Hawthorne 1316), but he suppresses his "fancy [which] must have grown morbid" and only assesses Beatrice's beauty, her afiection to the plants, and the "tenderness in her that was so strikingly expressed in her words" (Hawthorne 1316-7). In the very beginning of his readings, the Italian student ignores "his response to formulate a dualistic interpretation" of the world (Jones 157).

However, as Giovanni's 'moonlight reading' of the garden proves, his perceptions of Beatrice and the garden also change. When "[n]ight was already closing in," he has a dream of a "rich flower and [a] beautiful girl. Flower and maiden were different and yet the same and fraught: with some strange peril in either shape" (Hawthorne 1317). Again, there is a connection between Beatrice and a flower to be found. This time, however, Giovanni is burdened with heavy doubts about Beatrice's nature. In his vision, he questions her perfection and realizes an "untranscendental presence of evil" (Hazlett 52). As soon as the "light: of the morning" comes up though, Giovanni's view, as the narrator describes, alters anew: "But there is an influence in the light of morning that: tends to rectify whatever errors of fancy, or even of judgment, we may have incurred during the sun's decline, or among the shadows of the night, or in the less wholesome glow of moonshine" (Hawthorne 1317). He represses his visions in which Beatrice is somehow burdened with peril and feels "surprised," even "a little ashamed, to find how real and matter-of-fact an affair it proved to be, in the first rays of the sun" (Hawthorne 1317). Giovanni's transcendental attitude dominates the way of his readings. He is "inclined to take a most rational view of the whole matter" by bringing "everything within the limits of ordinary experience;" therefore, he continues to read both the garden and Beatrice "as a symbolic language to keep him in communion with Nature" (Hawthorne 1317). Giovanni refuses to believe what: he has just witnessed, and, in spite of fixing on experience, he "chooses to see only the good and [...] transforms the evil" (Haviland 287) in what he wants to see: Beatrice as a perfect woman without flaws.

This attempt, however, does not always work in practise because he "lacks the self - awareness to recognize his own interpretative confusions" (Jones 160). There are similar passages to be found, in which Giovanni is confronted with heavy doubts about Beatrice. Though he always tries to rationalize his views, Giovanni cannot: escape the signs which endanger his desired positive opinion about the woman he is craving for. After having dinner with Baglioni, for example, Giovanni returns home, "somewhat heated with the wine he had quaffed, and which caused his brain to swim with strange fantasies in reference to Doctor Rappaccini and the beautiful Beatrice" (Hawthorne 1319). At home, then, Giovanni fancies to see how a lizard is killed by the moisture of a flower, and how an insect finds death by "the atmosphere of her [Beatrice's] breath." Moreover, he imagines to witness how the "pure and healthful flowers" (Hawthorne 1320) he bought on his way home and which he gave to Beatrice as a present, are fading in her hands.

Shocked by these incidents, he questions himself about the true nature of Beatrice: "What is this being? - beautiful, shall I call her? - or inexpressibly terrible?" (Hawthorne 1320). The young Italian cannot: cope with the idea that such an outwardly beautiful and seemingly perfect: woman should be poisoned inside. According to his ideals, these are elements which cannot: be combined within one person; what he is longing for is the solution how to resolve Beatrice's differences "into a harmonious whole" (Haviland 292). But Giovanni feels "as if something ugly and monstrous would have blasted his eye­sight" (Hawthorne 1320), and his attempts to eliminate his doubts by finding reasonable explanations for his fancy, are not successful. Giovanni's "difficulty in separating her 'God- given spirit' from her 'region of unspeakable horror'" is constantly present (Fryer 47). The protagonist's struggle is described by Hazlett as a conflict between "orthodox Transcendentalism" and "heterodox Transcendentalism". In his approach, Hazlett considers Giovanni's readings of Beatrice in which he completely denies any split: between her nature and her spirit "by repressing the evidence of Beatrice's hidden physical toxicity" as orthodox transcendental; in contrary, Giovanni's readings in which "the split: between Beatrice's physical nature (beautiful body/poisonous breath) corresponds to a split: between her apparent spiritual beauty and her real spiritual toxicity" is described by him as being heterodox transcendental. Whereas the first readings reveal Beatrice as an angel, the latter ones show her as an evil, demonic character (51-2). However, no matter to which readings of Beatrice Giovanni refers to, both are essentially transcendental in view of the fact that the connection between nature and spirit is always present. He is incapable of analysing Beatrice by acknowledging the existing "gap between sign and signified in the radical literality of his interpretation" (Jones 157).

3. The Seduction of the Reader

3a. The Adoption of Giovanni's 'Moonlight Readings'

After presenting the way in which Giovanni Guasconti reads both Beatrice and the garden, the seduction of the reader through narrative perspectives, which I claimed to be the reason for the eventual interpretative confusion, is important to analyse.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Seducing Transcendental Narrative Perspectives in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”
“The Proper Point of View“
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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ISBN (Book)
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Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rappaccini, short story, point of view, Transcendentalism, Narrative, Perspective
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Anonym (Author), 2005, Seducing Transcendental Narrative Perspectives in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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