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contextualizing rappaccinis daughter

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Beyond Allegory

As Frederick Crews notes, the excess and fairytale logic of Rappaccini's Daughter  calls “for some nonliteral rationale” beyond the literal plot, and the narrator’s claims that the tale makes “little or no reference either to time or space” has resulted in dozens of metaphysical ahistorical readings.  But as the Author is dead, we hope to show that Rappacini's Daughter was, despite Hawthorne pronouncements, inscribed with the concerns of its historical moment. More specifically, we use Bakhtin's concept of the dialogic imagination to argue that Hawthorne deflected the identity crisis of mid-ninteenth century America to 16th century Italy. As a result of this analogy, threats to the  illusory White Anglo Saxon Prostestant American identity being constructed at the time were conceived in what Said would call orientalist terms.

Said and American Orientalism

To discuss orientalism in Hawthorne is problematic as Said's conception of Orientalism as a discourse constitutive of and constituted by the direct exercise of imperial power in the Orient means that he sees American orientalism as developing only after  WWII, when America took over as the dominant western power in the ‘Near and Far East’. This time-frame has been disputed as power in Focault's power-knowledge dynamic is not limited to colonialism, and scholars like Mae Ngai and Ussama Makdisi have examined 19th century American orientalist discourse in relation to Chinese immigration and evangelical missions in the Levant. 

More radically  Fuaad Shaaban argues that not only Saids time frame but his model of orientialism is inadequate, because Said fails to draw the obvious conclusion from his observation that the imaginary oriental Europe constructed provided “one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other...[and thus]... helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image”. 

Shaaban points out that orientalist discourse was applied to non orientals. He develops his argument specifically in relation to Europe’s most successful imperial venture, showing how America has been seen in terms of the orient that bordered the old world since Columbus – it is after all how American Indians ended up with such an incongruous name.

We argue through Rappaccini's Daughter that what Robert Young terms mid-19th c America’s “obsession and paranoia about hybridity” often utilized orientalism to define the ideal American against the various others of the new continent. Orientalist discourse was thus mobilised against Native Americans, Hispanics, Blacks and even non-Anglo-Saxon Europeans.  

 Glamorizing Racial Quandary

In literature this had an added bonus as 'Eastern matter' was both popular and as a European import, a high cultural reference. A reworked 'Orientalism' thus served to glamorise the contemporary racial quandry by Orientalising America's various ethnic others. Orientalist elements are present in 19th century novels set in America and explicitly concerned with racial issues, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, andThe Last of the Mohicans. However this is even more pervasive in Rappaccini's Daughter , which seeks to escape the mundane concerns of the “here and to the Old World. 

Allegorical Purity/Dialogic Polyphony

The excessive allusions in the text to Dante, Aristotle, Milton, and the Bible suggest that Hawthorne was attempting to attach his writing to a classical European literary history, differentiating himself from what he referred to as Americas “ink-stained Amazons”. 

As Brickhouse explains in Hawthorne and the Americas, the tale as a whole is “marked by its author’s aspiration to transcend national and historical contingency”. The setting of the tale in 16th century Italy was according to Hawthorne a deliberate device to escape from contemporary American concerns, and confining the action to a walled garden further resists historicisation.  

By shutting out the “real world” the ambiguity of Rappaccini's Daughter 's allegorical structure seems paradoxically monologic, fusing together all possible meanings in a belief in the coherence and unity of the symbol.

As Bergovitch points out, “historical facts tend towards fragmentation, but ambiguity brings this tendency under control.”  In this sense, the text seems anti-dialogic, since Bakthin's dialogics denies telos through a recognition of difference, while Hawthorne implies telos through an evasion of conflict, suspending the text in an apolitical ambiguity which can account for all readings.
This is implicit in the joke on the philosophizing narrator and the fictional critical essay framing the text, which can't contain the multiplicity of meanings in the allegorical structure.

However the text itself dramatizes a similar dialogic process where a singular authorial voice unfolds a polyphony of other voices. 

At the same time as the text aspires to a pure genealogy, it reveals its impossibility. Hawthorne felt even Irish and French immigrants defiled “yankeeland”, yet his aspirational classical references are Semetic and Southern European. His sources problematize the attempt at a pure genealogy even further, as scholars have traced Rappaccini to the figure of the mad alchemist in Arab literature, while Beatrice's poisonous nature and her kinship with the plants originate in Indian drama. The tale's allegorical structure tries to avoid historicity, but this intertextuality, and the heteroglossia of what Bakhtin refers to as the “elastic environment of other, alien words”, bring specificity into the tale. Luedtke argues that paying attention to the oriental textual roots of Rappaccini's Daughter  is one way of redeeming it from overly allegorical or clinical interpretation as.

In the second half of this presentation we will follow this approach by focusing on the characters of Rappaccini and Beatrice, arguing that Hawthorne reworked oriental literary figures and western orientalist discourse to examine the linked contemporary fears of miscegenation, and the hybridizing potential of science. 

 Dangerous Science

Rappaccini's Daughter  dramatizes the danger of interfering with nature in the context of the rising influence of science, through Hawthorne’s recurring concern with the “scientist as ethical being”. In the text Rappaccini embodies the modern figure of the hubris-driven scientist, a figure which has its historical roots in the mad alchemist. As Schummer demonstrates in Historical Roots of the Mad Scientist, the alchemist, as the creator of unnatural compounds, has provided a literary device through which to examine a fraught sense of ethnic fault-lines, in texts from the Arabian Nights to Frankenstein. 

Schummer points to the tale of Hasan al Basri in the Arabian Nights as an example. Set on the border between the Arab and Persian parts of the Abbasid empire, the Persian alchemist in this text has an integral xenophobic function, underlining the threat of bringing otherness into sameness, and reflecting the ethnic tensions of the time.

According to Schummer, Rappacinni is the first instance of the mad scientist in literature. In the story there is a shift in focus from the mad alchemist’s tragic end as a result of his meddling with God’s creation, to the “new mad scientist” figure whose crossing of nature’s boundaries “did harm primarily to other people” rather than to himself. As Browner points out, Rappaccini was a reflection of an intellectual debate at the time about science’s worrying drift away from the morals provided by the humanities.

Separated from morality, there is no limit to the dangerous hybridizing potential of science, in its attempt to reconcile differences and create new compounds. As Brickhouse points out, through out the story there is a “narrative suggestive equation of poisonousness with racial co-mixture” which would suggest that far from escaping its time and place Rappaccini’s garden in Renaissance Padua with its “unnatural” hybrid plants, materializes mid 19th century America's hysteria about hybridity.

 The Poisonous Damsel: Racialised Botany 

Beatrice is described as “sister” to a garden full of cross-bred, poisonous plants: “new varieties of plants more horribly deleterious than nature…would ever have plagued the world withal”. If we accept Mcnair Wright argument that in the 19th century “race was constructed” partly “through racializing…botanical species”, we can better understand the strange vehemence of the narrator's moral indignation at the “commixture and as it were adultery of various vegetable species".

The threat of this mixing is emphasized in the story itself, where Beatrice herself confesses that the more “gorgeous” plants “shock and offend" her, and where ultimately her realization that their “evil…mingle[s] with my being” leaves her no option but to die.  

This reflects how at the time, hybridity was conceived in terms of the terrible sublime. This is exemplified in the text where Giovanni describes Beatrice as both "beautiful" and "inexpressibly terrible"

The Indian genealogy of the poisonous damsel motif is referred to in the text itself, as Beatrice’s dark coloring “one shade more would have been too much” is contrasted to Giovanni’s “Grecian… head…and gold…ringlets” and she is later explicitly linked to the fable of the poisonous Indian woman sent to assassinate Alexander the Great.  The narrator disapproves of Giovanni “defiling the pure whiteness" of Beatrice's image by accepting this analogy, however the plot proves him to be correct. 
Beatrice’s story parallels that of mixed-race heroines in 19thc American novels, such as Cora Munro in the Last of the Mohicans, who is depicted as both a source of contamination and a victim of her father’s crime of miscegenation. Beatrice, who is not just a source of contamination but literally poisonous, also shares the fate of the majority of these heroines. It is only their death that can cut the narrative's Gordian knot. Since mixed race heroines are represented compassionately yet as polluted and potentially polluting, no other plot resolution is possible. 


Rappaccini's Daughter  has “no explicit relation to inter-American racial ideologies” in Brickhouse’s words. However by tying Beatrice to what Brickhouse calls an “Orientalist fable of western male vulnerability” Hawthorne can be said to be reworking this fable for a mid-nineteenth century America,  which was attempting to define itself as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation the context of wars with Mexico, rising immigration and an increasing population of free African Americans.
Bakthin's dialogic imagination entails a sustained open-ended tension between opposed or conflicted outlooks.  Trying to avoid historicisation and conflict through allegory and ambiguity, Rappaccini's Daughter  creates a tension which is preserved rather than resolved. In this sense, it is a profoundly dialogic text, a self-proclaimed ahistorical allegory deeply embedded in the mid-19th race debate, a polemic against hybridity which stages its own hybridity. 

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