042: History of Despair in Hawthorne’s Short Stories

Really inventive title, right?

This is indeed the 42nd history post on the site. A few are unnumbered, but you can hit up the tags, it’s right there. Anyway, our double-header today is on Hawthorne short stories!


It’s been a while since I did anything on Hawthorne, so I figured it was time again. But instead of his novels, which require arguments about whether they ARE SF/F before one discusses them, I wanted to talk about some of his short fiction. You might be surprised by what’s in there.

For example, when I taught “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in gen. ed. lit., nearly every semester someone brought up Poison Ivy (the character, not the plant. Or the rash, even). Basically, in Italy a widower happens to be a crazy alchemist and chemist. He raises this flower for its useful properties, but it is incredibly toxic. So, naturally, he exposed his daughter to it over the course of her life, meaning that by the time she is a young adult she is also toxic, and can handle the flowers safely. A tourist from the rural party of Italy (where this story takes place) falls in love with her, gets caught by one of Rappaccini’s rivals at the nearby college, and receives from him a potion that would supposedly help cure the woman of her, uh, poisonousness.

Instead the dude becomes poisonous as well. The dude gets mad at the lady, as though this were her fault in some mysterious way. Oh, and the potion, when she takes it? Yeah, it kills her. Rappaccini is pleased when the dude is poisonous, believing he has given his daughter the greatest gift — she is powerful, terrible as well as beautiful.

The moral tale here isn’t complicated: as she dies, the lady tells the dude he was more poisonous than ever she had been. But the ending is where this story, weird enough, gets fucking intense. The rival doctor shouts from a nearby balcony; “Just at that moment, Professor Pietro Baglioni looked forth from the window, and called loudly, in a tone of triumph mixed with horror, to the thunder-stricken man of science: “Rappaccini! Rappaccini! And is this the upshot of your experiment?”

What the ass?

What the actual ass?

If Baglioni knew what was going to happen, why was he horrified? If he didn’t, why does he feel triumph? The story is way more complicated that its simple moral implies. Something in there, something freaky makes a claim about the entirety of human nature, even providing an exception to crush like a flower (the daughter, of course). I’m not sure I have an answer (the question being: what the hell is the story saying?), but I think it wouldn’t be possible to do this story without the quasi-magical scientific experiments. The human mind encounters the mysterious here, but another human has understood and manipulated the principles involved. Rappaccini did this, but no one else understands. The youth is mystified, the scholar is jealous, and the daughter grew up with it. It’s a fact, not something to wonder about. Only the human heart is worth consideration for her, and hers was the same as her lover’s. Rappaccini’s heart is tender toward his daughter, so until her death she hardly considers the horrible things he has done.

But what about the scholar, I have to ask, what about him? That mingled sense of horror and triumph ends the story, it’s the feeling you’re left with when you finish. You can’t avoid it, it’s right there. Is that just the feeling all human endeavor engenders from a distanced onlooker? Are we damned souls wandering the earth until we kill each other?


Double header part two:

If you got a collection of Hawthorne stuff with “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in it, it probably also has “The Birthmark.” This story is simpler, but is about similar things. In this one another scientist is obsessed with perfection, and believes his wife is almost perfect. But she has a birthmark on her face. So he does some weird experiment to get it off. And he does. And her soul goes with it.

Can you hear me blinking in confusion over here? I don’t think my microphone would pick it up.

Seriously, what in the hell? And I’m speaking as someone who likes the story, over here. Again, there’s a simple moral here: the wife becomes literally perfect, and as such is no longer human, or mortal, so she passes on into heaven like Enoch or Elijah (yes goddamit I looked up those names, but I remember Enoch’s story — just not his name [yes I’m being more vulgar than usual because the first source was an awful evangelical explication of the passages that makes a bunch of terrible assumptions in like three paragraphs — how do you even manage that?]). But again it is a scientist who’s doing the weird experimenting.

Darwin’s theories of evolution didn’t exist yet — that is not to say evolution wasn’t a scientific theory, but that no one had any real evidence or solid deduction supporting it. So one of the traditional “mad scientist” origins isn’t important here. But we’re still getting mad scientists — from Hawthorne, who doesn’t usually appear to bother himself about this mess.

This is of course the real reason I wanted to talk about these stories (aside from how they’re both fucking insane). Hawthorne isn’t concerned about science, but about the delimited nature of humankind. These two stories send humankind “down” and “up” — down into the animal/vegetable kingdom and up into the angelic hierarchies. To do either thing, or to be either thing, is to be not human. And Hawthorne was convinced of humankind’s basic inability to grasp the universe or the god behind it. Scholars call him, along with Poe and a few others, “Dark Romantics.” They made use of Gothic tropes, but usually in a bid to show the world as basically inexplicable — not because it has no explanation, but because humans can’t and won’t get it. Think of Poe’s array of bewildering stories that all see as though they should have another paragraph before they actually end.

Fantasy is often a vehicle for wonder — see the title of this very site. But it can sometimes be the vehicle of a heightened despair. I mean, you know. Kafka.



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