An Updated Allegory

“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Hawthorne begins, is a story first told by M. de l’Aubepine, a French writer who occupied an unfortunate position “between the Transcendentalists and those who addressed the intellect and sympathies of the multitude,” an author who interpreted the allegory according to the parallel events of his time. Indeed his love of allegory removed any human warmth from his stories. This is Hawthorne’s way of commenting on the position of those irritating Transcendentalists in his life and his answer to the criticism that his own stories lacked warmth of character and setting. It is true Hawthorne wouldn’t be considered a mass market story teller today. He tells us readers rather than shows us what we need to know to enjoy the story. Oh, well, he seems to have succeeded well enough to earn a place in all the high school anthologies 140 years after his death.

To begin, in the story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” a professor obsessed with “a spiritual love of science” pursues his experiments until he destroys his daughter. In other words he practices unfettered science.

Now substitute the word technology or capitalism or globalization or progress or sports or entertainment or law for the word science–get the picture? Pursuits not contained by ethics will be destructive.

I would like to offer a modern interpretation of the allegory, based upon yesterday’s news and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain’s comment this morning on the Don Imus show, lamenting “unfettered capitalism” as the source of our pain emanating from corporate greed and voodoo accounting which is bringing the stock market to its knees.

Other aspects of the story, for example, the Italian Renaissance, the fantastic imagery of the garden, the parallel of science run amok can easily be researched on the Web.

For my purposes I have divided the story into its major literary elements: characters, setting, and conflict.



Giovanni Guasconti

At the time of the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni Guasconti, a handsome student at the University of Padua, becomes the subject of one of Dr. Rappaccini’s experiments when he falls in love with Rappaccini’s daughter, Beatrice, whom he has sighted in an alluring garden filled with poisonous plants. After a secret visit, he is aware of an ominous mixture of beauty and poison so much so that “hope and dread kept a continual warfare in his breast.” Hawthorne comments “Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal regions.” Giovanni senses Beatrice’s destructive potential yet continues his visits. He is literally burned when Beatrice touches his arm, leaving “a burning and tingling agony in his hand and a purple print like that of four small fingers” on his arm where Beatrice touched him but he “soon forgot his pain in a reverie” of Beatrice.


Giovanni represents an enthusiastic but inexperienced participant, I will call him Stock Holder, who is attracted to get-rich-quick-in-the-market-schemes and jumps on the band wagon too late and too enthusiastically without researching the consequences of his impulsive actions. He is the second wave, not the initiator, who may or may not benefit from the innovation. He ignores warnings; even though he begins to see the truth, he feels no doubt or fear until he is burned.


Lisabetta is the caretaker at the old palace of a Paduan noble where Giovanni will live. Her actions on the surface seems to benefit Giovanni, permitting him to proceed with his pursuit of Beatrice. Lisabetta shows Giovanni a secret entrance to the garden so he can visit Beatrice. Giovanni wonders if Lisabetta’s help might in some way be “connected with the intrigue.”


In reality Lisabetta’s help only propels Giovanni deeper into trouble just as Stock Broker would today as he advises Stock Holder. Remember the stock brokers who advised us to buy stock in Intel? Stock Holder trusts his broker without stopping to question Stock Broker’s motives.


Beatrice, Rappaccini’s daughter, is the alluring beauty filled with life, health and energy. Her father looks at her as if she were another flower in the garden, the “human sister of those vegetable ones…still to be touched with a glove;” however, Beatrice can touch and smell the plants Rappaccini avoids. She is knowledgeable enough to be a professor herself.

“Flower and maiden were different and yet the same, and fraught with some strange peril in either shape.”

She is surprised to see Giovanni but “brightened by a simple and kind expression of pleasure…Do people say that I am skilled in my father’s science of plants?” Don’t listen to what people say about me… the words of Beatrice Rappaccini’s lips are true from the heart outward.”

Beatrice is the attractive product, the instant love, the fast fortune, innocent of the poison which lies under her beauty. She never intends to hurt Giovanni. At the same time she is aware of the danger which surrounds her and her ability to cause pain.

Warnings abound. For example, a chameleon crosses Beatrice’s and instantly dies. An insect shivers and dies after Beatrice looks at it. She merely if sadly crosses herself at the sight of the dead bug . When Giovanni gives her flowers, they wither and die in her hands. Yet Beatrice loves Giovanni’s company, and shows her awareness of her deadly power only when Giovanni advances to touch her. In her growing affection for Giovanni, she says to her sister shrub “For the first time in my life, I had forgotten thee!” But she knows the plant is poisonous to everyone but her and warns Giovanni, “Touch it not!” Not for thy life! It is fatal!”

Giovanni’s fatal attraction continues.”[Beatrice] was human, her nature was endowed with all gentle and feminine qualities; she was worthiest to be worshipped; she was capable, surely on her part, of the height and heroism of love…Whatever had looked ugly, was now beautiful…”


Beatrice as attractive enterprise–something to hold and cherish to make Stock Holder rich; some risk is apparent but the company’s prospectus looks so good…Stock Holder ignores a PE ratio as high as his roof–only good times are ahead, right? Some stock analysts write a warning in Time Magazine, but who pays attention to them? The stock still looks beautiful…


Signor Giacomo Rappaccini, the famous Doctor, is the creator, the scientist, the entrepreneur. Today he would be young but in Hawthorne’s story he is tall, emaciated, a cultivated intellectual who “never even in youth was very warm hearted. He “cares infinitely more for science than for mankind.” Giovanni comments, isn’t that good to have such a “spiritual love of science”? To make matters worse, Rappaccini isn’t satisfied with growing poisonous plants found in nature; he creates some of his own and offers up his own daughter to his “insane zeal for science.”


Dr. Rappaccini is the CEO who launches the Initial Public Offering based upon manipulated accounting. In addition he wouldn’t acknowledge ethical limits to his work. The Rappaccinis of today would care infinitely more for making their own fortunes than practicing ethical business. If the books don’t show a profit, fix the books. A “spiritual love of capitalism” or of anything else is beneficial to society only when it follows ethical guidelines.

Signor Pietro Baglioni

Family friend Signor Pietro Baglioni, Professor of Medicine at the University recounts the history of Rappaccini to Giovanni because it would be awful to withhold such information about a “man who might hereafter chance to hold your life and death in his hands.”
Baglioni would destroy Rappaccini because he cannot “be tolerated by those who respect the good old rules of the medical profession!”

Baglioni hints he may plot to stop Rappaccini. “Perchance, most learned Rappaccini, I may foil you where you little dream of it!” The foil is in the form of an antidote to the poison that Beatrice shares with the plants.


Baglioni is the analyst who knows what is going on in the company but never acts soon enough or forcefully enough to prevent the approaching disaster. He could be the one honest accountant at Arthur Anderson who waits too long to offer the antidote which now saves no one, only destroys the firm.



Rappaccini’s garden in reality is his laboratory, surrounded by a wall to keep his experiment secret. In the middle of the garden are the ruins of a marble fountain; a magnificent shrub with purple blossoms blooms beside it. Rappaccini by now dares not touch his creations for they poison even him so he protects his hands with gloves. Hawthorne asks is this the “Eden of the present world”?

With the help of Lisabetta, Giovanni enters the garden. Now that the long awaited meeting is really taking place, Giovanni is calm, “coldly self-possessed, the “delirium of joy or agony” of the anticipation gone.

Giovanni sees the plants. “Gorgeousness seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural… production was no longer of God’s making, but the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty.”

In the garden, Beatrice tells Giovanni that Rappaccini created the shrub with the purple flowers. Rappaccini is “a man fearfully acquainted with the secrets of nature” and when Beatrice was born “this plant sprang from the soil, the offspring of his science, of his intellect, while I was but his earthly child…It was my sister, and I loved it with a human affection; for–alas! hast thou not suspected it? there was an awful doom”…the effect of my father’s fatal love of science–which estranged me from all society of my kind.”


Stock Holder is allowed into the inner circle; he, too, can become rich. He has been allowed to purchase shares during the Initial Public Offering which rise 200 percent the first year. He is encouraged by the fantastic tale of the creation of the company which sets it apart from all its competition.



After his first glimpse of Beatrice, Giovanni asks “beautiful shall I call her?—or inexpressibly terrible?”

Because of the mystery, warnings, and possible interventions that Giovanni does not heed, he continues to pursue Beatrice because he is so attracted to her beauty. The attraction is never consummated even though they loved, there “had been no seal of lips.”

Beatrice, in fact, protects Giovanni. She grows sad and stern with a “look of desolate separation” when Giovanni approaches her. He begins to doubt his ability to win her, and the moment he withdraws, Beatrice is “transformed at once from the mysterious, questionable being, whom he had watched with so much awe and horror; she was now the beautiful and unsophisticated girl, whom he felt that “his spirit knew with a certainty beyond all other knowledge.”

Giovanni has had doubts concerning Beatrice and has “been haunted by “dark surmises as to her character.” But for the most part she has appeared as “a simple, natural, most affectionate and guileless creature.” He continues his visits even though he distrusts her, testing her with a flower, saying “At least, I am no flower to perish in her grasp!” Then he sees the flower he has given her begin to wilt.

When Baglioni visits Giovanni in his rooms he comments on the sweet mysterious odor that pervades the apartment. Suspicious that he may have been poisoned, Giovanni tests his predicament, breathing on a spider in the corner of his room. The spider dies, creating the horror that Beatrice may be the only living creature who will not die from his breath.

As he did in Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment, Hawthorne addresses the reader, acknowledging this tale may be mere fable. “All this ugly mystery was but an earthly illusion, and that, whatever mist of evil might seem to have gathered over her, the real Beatrice was a heavenly angel,” establishing the ambiguity in his tale. Nothing is simple. There are many interpretations, one of which would be a tale to warn readers of the consequences of ignoring ethics.

Realizing what has happened to him, Giovanni rounds on Beatrice. ”And finding thy solitude wearisome, thou hast severed me, likewise, from all the warmth of life, and enticed me into thy region of unspeakable horror!”…Thou hast filled my veins with poison! Thou hast made me as hateful, as ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself–a world’s wonder of hideous monstrosity! Now–if our breath be happily as fatal to ourselves as to all others–let us join lips in one kiss of unutterable hatred, and so die!”

Beatrice laments she hasn’t known she has poisoned him and suggests he leave her to join the natural world and “forget that there ever crawled on earth such a monster as poor. To prove it is too late for him, Giovanni breathes on a cloud of passing insects which die, demonstrating that he is a victim of the poison.

Beatrice cries “It is my father’s fatal science. No, no, Giovanni; it was not I! Never Never.–though my body be nourished with poison, my spirit is God’s creature, and craves loves as its daily food….my father…has united us in this fearful sympathy. “

“They stood …in utter solitude…If they should be cruel to one another, who was there to be kind to them?…might there not still be a hope of his returning within the limits of ordinary nature, and leading Beatrice–the redeemed Beatrice–by the hand? Oh, weak, and selfish, and unworthy spirit, that could dream of an earthly union and earthly happiness as, there could be no such hope. She must pass heavily, with that broken heart, across the borders of Time–she must bathe her hurts in some fount of Paradise, and forget her grief in the light of immortality –and there be well!” But Giovanni doesn’t recognise the inevitability of this outcome, and hoping to save Beatrice for himself, retrieves the antidote. Beatrice is about to drink when Rappaccini appears, saying “ My daughter, thou art no longer lonely in the world! Pluck one of those precious gems from they sister shrub, and bid they bridegroom wear it,. ..he now stands apart from common men…pass on, then, through the world, most dear to one another, and dreadful to all besides!”

His words do not persuade her. Beatrice recognizes the harm her father has done. “Wherefore didst though inflict this miserable doom upon thy child?”

Rappaccini replies, “What mean you, foolish girl? Dost thou deem it misery to be endowed with marvelous gifts, against which no power nor strength could avail an enemy? Misery, to be able to quell the mightiest with a breath? Misery, to be as terrible as thou art beautiful? Wouldst thou, then, have preferred the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none?”

Beatrice understands now. ”I would fain have been loved, not feared…I am going, father…farewell, Giovanni…Oh, was there not, from the first more poison in thy nature than in mine?” The poison within Giovanni is his blindness to the mixture of good and evil within all human beings.

“As poison had been life, so the powerful antidote was death…the poor victim of man’s ingenuity and of thwarted nature, and of the fatality that attends all such efforts of perverted wisdom, perished there…just as Professor Baglioni “…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?”


Operating in secret, CEO continues to support Stock in his company, hiding debt as capital expense, operating costs as profit. The compulsion to become rich by purchasing stock cannot be denied even though Stock Holder senses the risks and after reading the prospectus does acknowledge some weaknesses.

Stock Holder badgers his broker to purchase more shares.

Several days after his purchase, Stock Holder checks the value of his stock. It’s down $1.45. But this drop in price may be temporary. Tomorrow will see a gain, he hopes.

Senate and House committees form to investigate the company’s accounting practices. The stock price plummets. It is time to abuse his broker. “Why didn’t you tell me this company followed unethical business practices?” I wanted to become rich. Now I am merely a victim of an unfulfilled promise of wealth.”

“We didn’t know,” explains Broker. Stock Holder cannot endure his loss. “I want to be rich like everyone else,” laments Stock Holder.

Stock claims innocence in the ruin of Stock Holder, blaming CEO for cooking the books to make her look so attractive.

CEO is approached. His suggestion is for Stock Holder to ignore the accounting to hide debt. “Stay with Stock and living happily, rich and powerful beyond your wildest dreams. No one will be able to touch you. We all believe in capitalism, right? It’s the American way. Grab as much as you can when you can. The ends justify the means, right?”

But Stock sees the crime. To the CEO she cries,“How can you ask someone to be so unethical”?

Stock plummets, taking many investors in 401Ks with her. “Who is more damaging now, she asks Stock Holder. “Weren’t you ever with your greed, your desire for me, more poisonous than I ever was?”

The Security Exchange Commission investigates the thunder-stricken man practicing unfettered capitalism as the stock market sinks to a five year low. “And is this the upshot of your experiment,” the analyst writes?

The conclusion? Unfettered capitalism like unfettered science leads to disaster, accomplishing the opposite of the desired effect. We humans pay a price for ignoring ethics.

Diane McCormick