Two Examples of Hubris - Hawthorne’s Short Stories 'Rappaccini's Daughter' and 'The Birthmark'

Seminar Paper 2006 11 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”
2.1. Analysis of “Rappaccini’s Daughter”
2.2. Hubris in “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

3. Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”
3.1. Analysis of “The Birthmark”
3.2. Hubris in “The Birthmark”

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited
5.1. Primary sources cited:
5.2. Secondary sources cited:
5.3. Dictionaries cited:

1. Introduction

The following paper will analyze Hawthorne’s short stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birthmark” on the aspect of hubris . Both stories are concerned about science and depict the deaths of both two beautiful women who sacrifice their lives in the end.

The term ‘hubris’ derives from Greek and it stands for presumption and connotes a behavior that is too confident, shows a disproportionate pride and extreme self-confidence as well as a lack of respect for other people, originally towards the gods (The Compact Oxford English Dictionary). According to Aristotle in his Poetics, it means that the protagonist is led into a fatal event that causes great harm or damage. This is caused by a hamartia or an error which leads to divine retribution, a severe punishment, either causing disaster or failure or ending in death. The catalysts often are misjudgment or ignorance (Oxford Concise Dictionary).

The paper is structured as follows: First of all a brief summary of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is given, followed by an analysis of the story. Then an interpretation of hubris in the short story will be drawn. The same structure applies also for the short story “The Birthmark”. In the end a conclusion is drawn that summarizes the most important details about hubris.

2. Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

The short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is about a beautiful young woman Beatrice. Her father Dr. Rappaccini is a scientist and as an experiment has nurtured her with poison so that she herself is poisonous. She therefore cannot be together with other people. She lives secluded in her father’s house and garden, where lots of beautiful plants grow which are poisonous, too. A young man, Giovanni, falls in love with her. But he discovers that there is something unusual about Beatrice, he learns that she is poisonous. After they have met some times she infected him as well. To cure his love, Giovanni gets an antidote from Dr. Baglioni, also a scientist and the rival of Dr. Rappaccini. In the end, Beatrice dies after drinking the liquid, because it destroys the poison that was essential for her to stay alive.

2.1. Analysis of “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

The scientist Dr. Rappaccini is described in the story as a “tall, emaciated, sallow, and sickly-looking man” with “a face singularly marked with intellect and cultivation, but which could never, even in his more youthful days, have expressed much warmth of heart” (Hawthorne 74). He is a “man of science” (ibid. 83) and is described by Fogle as “the scientist who ignores all other values in his quest for knowledge and power”

(Fogle 92). He even

cares infinitely more for science than for mankind. His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment. He would sacrifice human life, his own among the rest, or whatever else was dearest to him, for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge

(Hawthorne 77 f.)

Giovanni asks himself if the garden is “the Eden of the present world” with “the ruin of a marble fountain in the centre” where “various plants” and “flowers gorgeously magnificent” grew. One shrub is extremely beautiful, with “purple blossoms, each of which had the lustre and richness of a gem.” (ibid. 75 f.). But he is confused about Rappaccini’s caution towards the flowers he grows in his garden. He “avoided their actual touch or the direct inhaling of their odors“ and “for the man's demeanor was that of one walking among malignant influences, such as savage beasts, or deadly snakes, or evil spirits.” He even “placed a kind of mask over his mouth and nostrils, as if all this beauty did but conceal a deadlier malice” (ibid. 75). The explanation is that he grows plants in his garden that are venomous and can kill anyone who touches them (Stein 93). Dr. Baglioni, Dr. Rappaccini’s colleague and rival knows about Rappaccini: It is his theory that all medicinal virtues are comprised within those substances which we term vegetable poisons. These he cultivates with his own hands.” (Hawthorne 78).

Beatrice, the daughter of the scientist, is a “young girl”, she is “beautiful as the day” and “redundant with life, health, and energy”, with “a voice as rich as a tropical sunset” (ibid. 75) and her face has an “expression of simplicity and sweetness” (ibid. 79). Beatrice however is a very unfortunate young girl, because her father has used her as the subject of a cruel experiment. He nurtures his daughter with poison, so she is “immune to the effects of the plants but at the same time as poisonous as they” (Stein 93).

Dr. Baglioni also tells Giovanni a story about a girl who "had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element of life.” (Hawthorne 91). This exactly is the outcome of Dr. Rappaccini’s experiment. Rappaccini has raised his daughter, together with the flowers and separated her physically and socially from other people (Fogle 98). Her only friends are the plants in the garden. To one of them, she is as close as to a sister: “Yes, my sister, my splendour, it shall be Beatrice's task to nurse and serve thee; and thou shalt reward her with thy kisses and perfumed breath, which to her is as the breath of life” (Hawthorne 76).

Giovanni learns how harmful the “Eden” must be. He observes from his window how Beatrice is about to pluck a blossom from one of the shrubs and is about to fasten it in her bosom. A small lizard stops under the shrub and in that moment some moisture from the shrub falls onto the reptile. Shortly after that it struggles and is dead. After Beatrice has seen all this, she is sad but neither surprised nor does she “hesitate to arrange the fatal flower in her bosom” (ibid. 80). Later, Giovanni names the garden the “Eden of poisonous flowers” (ibid. 89).

In Giovanni, Rappaccini has found a new experiment, as Dr. Baglioni tells him: “Beyond a doubt you are selected as the material of some new experiment” (ibid. 92), he wants him to be the poisonous partner of his daughter (Fogle 98).

In the end, Rappaccini’s intentions are completely destroyed (ibid. 99). Beatrice drinks the antidote, she is offered by Giovanni that will take away the poison from her blood. Rappaccini is furious. He cannot understand why she wants to drink the liquid. He thinks that due to the poison in Beatrice’s blood, she can “surmount [her] humanity” (Crews 128). Trying to explain, he says to Beatrice: “Wouldst thou, then, have preferred the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil and capable of none?" (Hawthorne 98). She knows that she will die of the potion, and gives an explanation for her decision by saying to her father “I would fain have been loved, not feared” and is happy to go “where the evil which thou hast striven to mingle with my being will pass away like a dream” (ibid. 99). She dies, because “poison had been life, so the powerful antidote was death“ (ibid.).



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Ruhr-University of Bochum
Examples Hubris Hawthorne’s Short Stories Rappaccini Daughter Birthmark Hubris



Title: Two Examples of Hubris  -  Hawthorne’s Short Stories 'Rappaccini's  Daughter' and 'The Birthmark'