One hundred and fifty years after his death, America’s literary giant Nathaniel Hawthorne offers a cautionary narrative on timeless ethical questions at the heart of science. Modern audiences would do well to acknowledge the relevance of his insights into the exploitation of a human soul.
Recently, an FDA panel held a hearing on three-parent embryos, the latest iterance in fertility experiments. The supposed benefit of this nascent technology is the potential ability to replace problematic DNA from a biological parent with normal DNA from a third. The rationale: this process will form a healthier child, avoiding otherwise devastating mitochondrial diseases. To the consternation of an FDA desiring to focus on the technicalities, many experts at the hearing spoke about the ethical concerns involved, ranging from safely testing on humans to eventually creating a carefully cultivated individual with designer characteristics.
With federal agencies and zealous scientists rethinking what it means to be human, Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” excellently rebuts the abhorrent practice of ignoring the humanity of one’s offspring for the cause of science.
A selection from the collection Mosses from an Old Manse, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” chronicles the ruin of the young woman Beatrice at the hands of her scientific father, Professor Rappaccini, as related through the experiences of their young neighbor, Giovanni Guasconti. Through this tragic narrative, Hawthorne points out two aspects especially relevant to current bioethics issues: obsessive scientific zeal and non-consenting subjects.
Hawthorne first addresses the reality of obsessive scientific zeal. From the beginning, the reader learns that Rappaccini is fanatically dedicated to science, apparently to the exclusion of normal human emotions. The “eminently skilled” Rappaccini appears to have transferred his affections from humanity to objects. In contrast to his calculating appraisal of individuals, his plants are described in human terms as “peopl[ing]” the garden and “b[earing] tokens of assiduous care; as if all had their individual virtues, known to the scientific mind that fostered them.”
Giovanni’s initial impressions of the professor acknowledge a countenance of “intellect and cultivation” that yet “could never . . . have expressed much warmth of heart.” In the words of Rappaccini’s rival Baglioni, Rappaccini “cares infinitely more for science than for mankind. His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment.” Although these words come from a competitor, the conclusion of the story reveals the accuracy of this assessment. Rappaccini has allowed his obsession to suppress—if not eradicate—his own humanity.
Hawthorne does not condemn science, but rather an obsession with it. Lest one think Hawthorne prejudiced against science particularly, it should be noted that he condemns other fixations just as harshly in other works, attacking revenge inThe Scarlet Letter and greed in The House of the Seven Gables.
Obsessive scientific zeal is only part of the dangerous equation demonstrated by this story. The other is neglect of the experimental subjects. Enamored of new possibilities, the scientist wishes to see the advantages, but he must also consider deleterious effects on those related to his experiment. And in Hawthorne’s narrative, as in current bioethical situations, the one most directly affected is the child.
At first, things seem positive: Beatrice is beautiful; she has a lovely disposition and horticultural aptitude. But here too, the beginning foreshadows a dark outcome. Despite a glow “redundant with life, health, and energy,” Beatrice completely embraces these plants from which her father shrinks and seems thus “fraught with some strange peril.” Giovanni grows concerned and confused when he observes the crowning garden plant kill a lizard but do no harm to Beatrice. He questions, “What is this being?—beautiful, shall I call her?—or inexpressibly terrible?”
Eventually, Baglioni reveals the truth of “this wretched girl” to a Giovanni in denial. Beatrice has been poisoned by the hand of her own father, and in turn is poisonous to all other living things. She is “the victim of his insane zeal for science,” for not even “natural affection” has kept Rappaccini from “offering up his child” to a dreadful experiment.
In poisoning Beatrice, her father has relegated her to an existence as a “maiden of a lonely island,” denying her the right of human companionship, “her experience of life . . . confined within the limits of that garden.” And after a solitary lifetime, Beatrice finds enjoyment and anticipation in Giovanni’s covert visits. At last, she has a taste of life with another, for “by all appreciable signs, they loved; . . . they had even spoken love.” Still, she wears “a look of desolate separation” each time Giovanni attempts to reach out to her physically.
Yet physical separation from the rest of humanity is not the ultimate pain Beatrice faces as a result of her father’s experiment. When Giovanni learns that he too has become poisoned by his proximity to Beatrice, he lashes out in fury at her. What the reader already knows, that Giovanni is merely fascinated with rather than in love with Beatrice, comes as a shock to her. She cries for heaven’s mercy on herself, “a poor heart-broken child.” She pleads with Giovanni to understand, crying that “though [her] body [is] nourished with poison, [her] spirit . . . craves love as its daily food.”
Rappaccini, oblivious at best and ridiculing at worst, rebukes his daughter’s distress. He views Beatrice and Giovanni “with a triumphant expression . . . satisfied with his success” in poisoning them both. When Beatrice questions why her father has “inflict[ed] this miserable doom” on her, he calls her a “foolish girl.” After all, he has rendered Beatrice “able to quell the mightiest with a breath,” escaping “the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil.” He still refuses to understand this intended good was truly evil, and the dying Beatrice must explain she “would fain have been loved, not feared.” Rappaccini watches “thunder-stricken” as his daughter, “the poor victim of man’s ingenuity and of thwarted nature, and of the fatality that attends all such efforts of perverted wisdom, perishe[s].”
Beatrice’s abandonment by those who should have loved her sadly parallels the experience of modern children who discover that they were created through technology that intended to isolate them from part of their biological family. Realizing that a biological parent volunteered to help create a child with no intention or interest in the outcome or future of that child past scientific experiment or remuneration is appalling.
By revealing the agonizing human cost of scientific obsession, Hawthorne reminds his reader that potential good must never override basic consideration of one’s fellow man. Denying the basic claim on humanity of any individual is never acceptable, but especially abhorrent in light of the parent-child relationship. A multitude of abandoned children poses Baglioni’s question to the reproductive industry’s modern Rappaccinis: “Is this the upshot of your experiment?”
Jill Burcham is a research director for a non-profit organization and taught English while completing her master’s degree. This article is reproduced from Public Discourse with permission.