“Rappaccini’s Daughter” first appeared in the December 1844 issue of the Democratic Review, the same organ in which most of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales were published. Since then, anthologized frequently, the story has become one of Hawthorne’s best-known. But the preface that appeared upon original publication rarely accompanies the story any more, despite its brevity – only two longish paragraphs – and despite the fact that, even though it is written in a tone of ironic deprecation, it is a remarkably concise, candid, and accurate statement of Hawthorne’s evaluation of his own work. I can offer no explanation of the neglect the preface has fallen into (other than by remarking that its author omitted it upon republication, and most anthologists prefer the last version of any given work that was produced under that author’s direction since they believe it indicates his final and most mature intention), but I shall comment upon the particular nature of the preface itself and speculate upon why it was appended to “Rappaccini’s Daughter” rather than to some other tale.
In the preface Hawthorne claimed that “Rappaccini’s Daughter” was a translation of “Beatrice; ou la Belle Empoisonneuse” (The Poisoned Beauty) by M. de la Aubepine – a transparent fiction, since aubepine is merely the French word for a hawthorn bush. In the second paragraph, in which several of his own early tales were attributed to Auberpine, Hawthorne presented a satiric parody of learned criticism of his own fiction. Many of Hawthorne’s early short stories were published either anonymously, or under a pseudonym, or under a formula such as “by the author of ‘The Gentle Boy.’” In the preface, some of these stories are given French titles which, as often as not, are not direct translations from the English but rather “disguised” in some manner, referring to their themes or other characteristics. And some of the material claimed for Auberpine seems entirely fictitious, such as the so-called “folio volume of ponderous research into the religion and ritual of the old Persian Ghebers;” this seems to be a fugitive reference to Hawthorne’s studies of American Puritanism, for which of course he is best known – but perhaps too much significance should not be attached to this speculation, since The Scarlet Letter was still some 15 years in the future.
Hawthorne baldly Frenchified the Democratic Review into “La Revue Anti-Aristocratique.” This was probably a partisan shot by a Democratic Party stalwart (who supported himself financially through his political appointments, certainly not through his writing) aimed at the crusty old Whig, John Quincy Adams. This former president (and son of a president), a member of one of the most influential political dynasties in American history, when commissioned to contribute to the young journal, had pointedly refused, claiming that the title of the periodical was self-contradictory since literature is of necessity aristocratic by nature. Any subsequent student of American literature, and particularly of 19th-century American literature, would surely scoff at Adams’ claim. Like Auberpine/Hawthorne, most major American authors have occupied “an unfortunate position between the Transcendentalists [the intellectuals] and the great body of pen-and-ink men who address the intellect and sympathies of the multitude.” Nearly all major American authors of the early period courted a mass audience, writing what Graham Greene would call “entertainments,” which nonetheless often included searching, uncompromising examinations of human character and society. Until after World War II, when most of the novelists and poets of note were university professors, very few of the first-rate American writers could accurately be described as members of a self-consciously intellectual, elitist tradition. (Oddly enough, the major exception was Henry James, a great admirer of Hawthorne’s work who wrote a book-length study of his literary technique.)
In the preface Hawthorne also claimed that Aubepine’s (and thus his own) name was “unknown to many of his own countrymen as well as to the student of foreign literature.” In the case of Hawthorne, at least, the statement was only partly true. Certainly his name was unfamiliar since his early work, which includes many of his best tales (which were, incidentally, well reviewed at the time), were of unknown origin. But by March 1837, when Twice-Told Tales appeared under his own name, his identity was no longer secret; and that collection of stories was praised by various literati including the very influential Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The second, expanded, edition (December 1842) was favorably reviewed by, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, who made it a point to complain about Hawthorne’s unjustifiable lack of celebrity. But this absence of fame was personal, not critical; almost from the first, “the author of ‘The Gentle Boy’ was regarded as being in the front ranks of American writers, though he attained little commercial success until The Scarlet Letter appeared in 1859.
To explain Aubepine’s failure, Hawthorne described the Frenchman’s writings as “sometimes historical, sometimes of the present day” and sometimes seeming to have “little or no reference to time or space.” This lack of specificity was the result of the author being too content with minimal verisimilitude, which Hawthorne slightingly referred to as a “counterfeit of real life,” a mere “embroidery of outward manners.” To compensate for the lack of naturalistic detail, he emphasized “some less obvious peculiarity of the subject.” Nevertheless, even though Hawthorne admitted that the work was “too remote, too shadowy, and [too] unsubstantial” in its “modes of development,” he declined to acknowledge that it was “too refined” for the ordinary reader. He maintained that the stories “occasionally” permitted “a breath of Nature, a raindrop of pathos and tenderness, or a gleam of humor” to enter, thus letting the reader feel, after all, that they “were yet within the limits of our native earth.” But then, even while denying their creator’s over-intellectualism, Hawthorne also refused to admit that the tales were “altogether destitute of fancy or originality,” thus re-emphasizing his own position between the multitude and the Transcendentalists (of whom, of course, he had many close associates).
In apology, he candidly allowed that the tales were marred by an “inveterate love of allegory,” a trait which “Rappaccini’s Daughter” exemplifies. As Hawthorne explained, it was the allegory which gave his plots and characters “the aspect of scenery and people in the clouds” and which seemingly deprived his conceptions of human warmth. But we may also say that it is allegory which gave Hawthorne’s fiction its rich psychological texture. We must bear in mind, however, that allegory is not an algorithm with elements in stable relationships to each other. To consistently apply some equation to any literary metaphor and then to take it to its logical conclusion is, too often, to miss the point, perhaps with ridiculous results. So if one argues for instance that Rappaccini acts sometimes as a vehicle for Hawthorne’s own ambivalence toward art and artists, and by extension that Rappaccini’s garden or some particular plant is described in a manner that seems to confirm that attitude, this should not be taken to mean that every passage has a similar import. Allegory is more akin to alchemy than chemistry, since its creative use allows elements to be freely transformed in order to achieve a variety of emotional, not mathematical, effects.
But why did Hawthorne find it necessary to add a personal (though camouflaged) statement about his art to the particular example of it he called “Rappaccini’s Daughter”? Admittedly, with its dexterous use of allegory, its careful balance of ambivalences, and at the same time its sensitive (perhaps even sentimental) play on popular feeling, the story is one of his most craftsmanlike productions. In many ways the tale is a classic example of Hawthorne’s writing strengths and weaknesses. But is there any underlying motive for the appended apologia?
For instance, is the story more than usually personal? James R. Mellow claimed (in Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times) that the tale represented an artistic transformation of an incident that Hawthorne had experienced in 1837 concerning the editor of the Democratic Review itself and Hawthorne’s fruitless wooing of Mary Crowninshield Silsbee. But Mellow’s argument, while ingenious, seems overly fanciful. The story simply does not strike one as being particularly grounded in its creator’s biography. And even if an autobiographical basis for the story were accepted, that would not explain the addition of the preface.
However, an author's personal connection to a story need not imply a merely biographical link. Among the multiple levels of interpretation the tale affords – including the one most manifest, that it is a cautionary tale about the dangers of human manipulation of natural phenomena – it may be regarded at least in part as a kind of allegory concerning the nature of Hawthorne’s identity as a writer and his discomfort in that role. And hence a preface was added, to make explicit the role of Hawthorne’s fiction while still disguising his own identity.
In the first place, the story’s central imagery is all floral. One should note in passing that Hawthorne’s name is botanical in origin, a detail which is further underlined by his choice of Aubepine as his alter-ego. There may also be something that concerns Hawthorne changing his name’s spelling, despite the fact that the “Hawthorn” family was prominently connected with the early affairs of his birthplace. But the point is that he changed it from one artificial variant of the hawthorn bush to another, while yet failing to achieve its genuine spelling (or nature), since it is actually a mayflower shrub. This coincidence may or may not be related to the :Frankenstein Complex” theme which “Rappaccini’s Daughter” manifests, but which is of a piece with Hawthorne’s core attitude toward the mixed nature of literary transformation.
It seems unnecessary to link all of the symbology of Rappaccini’s garden to Hawthorne’s conception of the dual (good-and-evil) role of the artist, a conception which is reflected in many of his works. But even Hawthorne, speaking through Giovanni, specifically notes that the garden serves “as a symbolic language to keep him in communion with nature,” although in the course of the story it represents the puzzling, ambiguous nature of artifice. Rappaccini transforms his pure, innocent daughter into a deadly monster in order to protect her from danger; his rival, Baglioni, unwittingly brings about her death by concocting an antidote to cure Giovanni, his friend’s son; Giovanni is apparently doomed as well, since his alternatives are either to live in the poisonous garden forever or commit suicide by taking the antidote that killed Beatrice. Everyone except Beatrice operates under mixed, often even unstated or ambiguously pronounced, motives, in a tangle of ill-fated behaviors. In the end, Beatrice, the natural, simple child of nature polluted, is the victim of two scientific creators, who themselves act under their different versions of unenlightened beneficence in pursuit of knowledge. Hawthorne piles irony upon irony in his exploration of the dark recesses of the human soul.
Through it all, the reader is fascinated by the figure of Rappaccini, Hawthorne’s strange double who can often be seen “at work gathering the strange flowers that grow in the garden.” His motives ultimately prove as unfathomable and tragic as those of the others, but it is his unwholesome alteration of nature that proves to be the undoing of his hopes. Psychically he bears a remarkable resemblance to another memorable Hawthorne character, Roger Chillingworth. In the light of how we think a penetrating author must dissect his characters, compare a revealing passage in a) “Rappaccini’s Daughter” with one in b) The Scarlet Letter:
a) Nothing could exceed the intentness with which this scientific gardener examined every shrub which grew in his path: it seemed as if he was looking into their inmost nature, making observations in regards to their creature essence…. [italics mine]
b) So Roger Chillingworth – the man of skill, the kind and friendly physician – strove to go deep into his patient’s bosom, delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and probing every thing with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker in a dark cavern. Few secrets can escape an investigator, who has opportunity and license to undertake such a quest, and skill to follow it up.
The symbolic connection between the story and its biological imagery is made in its first paragraph, though in a typically masked, allusive manner. The young man Giovanni Guasconti takes lodgings in a rundown edifice which was formerly the palatial residence of a now-extinct family of Paduan nobles, one of whose members “had been pictured by Dante as a partaker of the immortal agonies of the Inferno.” The only Paduan in Dante’s Hell is Jacomo da Sant’ Andreo, who is found in Round III of Circle 7 (described in Canto 13, itself highly redolent with botanical symbols). His sin: being a notorious arsonist and destroyer of property; his punishment: being eternally pursued and rent limb from limb by vicious bitches, reassembled, pursued, rent again. But the sin and the punishment are not the allegorical focus of the scene. The vital aspect is where his dismemberment takes place. Dante consigned those who killed themselves to the Wood of the Suicides, where they existed as (haw?) thorny trees whose leaves fed the Harpies, woman-faced birds that defiled everything they touched (like both Jacomo and, in a sense, Hawthorne’s Beatrice); whenever the suicide-trees were damaged, by the Harpies or otherwise, their blood and words would flow. Pursued by the hellish bitches – thematically related to the Harpies and again, in a sense, to Beatrice – Jacomo tried to hide in the Wood, and in the ensuing scuffle a bush was damaged. “O Jacomo da Sant’ Andrea!” the broken, bleeding bush cried (in John Ciardi’s translation), “what have you gained in making me your screen? What part had I in the foul life you led?” In conjunction with the anguish expressed in the last line of Hawthorne’s story, upon the death of the innocent Beatrice (“and is this the upshot of your experiment?”), this could serve as an underlying, covert, theme for the work as a whole. (This reference, indeed, is reinforced by the name Hawthorne chose for the doomed maiden, since Beatrice was explicitly Dante’s muse.)
Once the reader understands the reference to the Sant’ Andrea family, the connection is further underscored by the detail that the most spectacular flower in Rappaccini’s garden, the one central to the story’s plot, is itself nourished by a fountain “sculptured with rare art, but so woefully shattered that it was impossible to trace the original design from the chaos of remaining fragments;” this aspect leads Giovanni to speculate that the garden had once been the “pleasure place of an opulent family.” Jacomo, of course, was infamous for the wasting and willful destruction of his and others’ property.
“Rappaccini’s Daughter” is a multilayered allegory constructed upon many scaffolds, some of which Hawthorne was conscious, some of which he was probably unaware, and some which have been only invented by his readers. But Hawthorne saw fit to grace this story with a statement of authorial principles and indirect self-criticism. If we choose to interpret the tale partly as an ambiguous examination of artistic intention and the often unexpected results of creative effort, we can also reach an understanding of why the story (which relies on a biotic imagery which may have had deep connections to Hawthorne’s own identity) was introduced by such a preface, that was so revealing despite Hawthorne’s attempts at misdirection.