Stranger-than-Fiction Tale Predicts Future

Hawthorne, a largely-forgotten, easily-dismissed, early American Romantic writer, strangely enough, accurately predicted the genetic manipulation of plants to produce toxins that would make the plants invulnerable to insect damage with STARTLING, UNEXPECTED results as reported by WIRED and that bastion of counterculture hippies, TIMES in his story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

Of course, if we can trust the much-maligned Department of Agriculture, such distrust is largely unjustified. It’s O.K.A.Y. You do NOT have to do anything. Trust your government. Trust industrial giants to create that much-promised NEW EDEN. STAND BY, there will be a virtual cornucopia of new foods emerging from our gardens shortly.

When an author boldly states that his source for a story has “an inveterate love of allegory, which is apt to invest his plots and characters with the aspect of scenery and people in the clouds, and to steal away the human warmth out of his conceptions,” it’s hard to ignore the idea that this story, too, might be an allegory, disguised or otherwise. It’s even harder when a major character makes the following observation:

It was strangely frightful to the young man’s imagination to see this air of insecurity in a person cultivating a garden, that most simple and innocent of human toils, and which had been alike the joy and labor of the unfallen parents of the race. Was this garden, then, the Eden of the present world? And this man, with such a perception of harm in what his own hands caused to grow,–was he the Adam?

However, considering that this character in the end turns out to be not too bright, we might not want to go along with him entirely.

I would propose that Hawthorne, indeed, is recreating the story of the Garden of Eden, but with some major variations:

Garden = Eden, not THAT Eden, nor the Eden of the romantic writer, the scientist’s E.D.E.N., in this case the geneticist’s Eden.
Rappaccini = SCIENTIST a.k.a. G.O.D.
Beatrice = Eve, also guide through hell in Divine comedy, Beatrice, Dante’s own personal and unattainable incarnation of the Virgin, who represents divine knowledge, or faith., our guide through this hell created by scientists like Rappaccini
Giovanni = Adam, in this story, though, he, not Eve, is the one who introduces the devil into Eden
Professor Pietro Baglioni = Satan, a.k.a.serpent, not necessarily a bad thing when a scientist is G.O.D., unfortunately he is merely another scientist, a.k.a. SATAN

First, let us look at what the new Eden through Giovanni’s eyes, or perhaps through Hawthorne’s:

The aspect of one and all of them dissatisfied him; their gorgeousness seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural. There was hardly an individual shrub which a wanderer, straying by himself through a forest, would not have been startled to find growing wild, as if an unearthly face had glared at him out of the thicket. Several also would have shocked a delicate instinct by an appearance of artificialness indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery, of various vegetable species, that the 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.

It is, indeed, a beautiful garden, but it is unlike any other garden before it. One shrub, more than any other, seems to symbolize the garden:

There was one shrub in particular, set in a marble vase in the midst of the pool, that bore a profusion of purple blossoms, each of which had the lustre and richness of a gem; and the whole together made a show so resplendent that it seemed enough to illuminate the garden, even had there been no sunshine.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, this beautiful, artificially beautiful, plant has one very desirable, or not-so-desirable quality depending on your particular outlook: it is deadly poisonous. It kills the very insects that would feed upon it. And, as it turns out, the whole garden of Eden, to a lesser degree, has this same quality.

And what genius created this poisonous wonderland? None other than Rappaccini himself, scientist par excellance, playing God by creating new life forms to serve his own purposes. In most regards he does not seem a particularly remarkable man:

He was beyond the middle term of life, with gray hair, a thin, gray beard, and a face singularly marked with intellect and cultivation, but which could never, even in his more youthful days, have expressed much warmth of heart.

He may not be a remarkable man, but Rappaccini appears to be a very good scientist:

But as for Rappaccini, it is said of him–and I, who know the man well, can answer for its truth–that he 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."

Of course, we must take these observations with a grain of sand, for they are made by Baglioni, his arch enemy and scientific competitor. Still, they don’t seem too far off the mark as we get more involved in the story. Rappacinni’s fault seems to be mainly his arrogance, or egotism, for he is only able to see the world from his own point of view, never bothering to ask the views of Beatrice, the center of his experiment. It’s not that he doesn’t love his daughter and want the best for her; he simply can’t imagine that she wouldn’t want exactly what he wants for her. Remind you of any doctors you’ve been to lately?

Rappacinni created this new Eden for his daughter Beatrice, the new Adam, as it were.

Her face being now more revealed than on the former occasion, he was struck by its expression of simplicity and sweetness,–qualities that had not entered into his idea of her character, and which made him ask anew what manner of mortal she might be. Nor did he fail again to observe, or imagine, an analogy between the beautiful girl and the gorgeous shrub that hung its gemlike flowers over the fountain,–a resemblance which Beatrice seemed to have indulged a fantastic humor in heightening, both by the arrangement of her dress and the selection of its hues.

She and the garden are One; she is merely the most beautiful flower in the garden, and is, unfortunately, just as poisonous as the others are. Rappacinni creates the garden in hopes that Beatrice will “ be endowed with marvellous gifts against which no power nor strength could avail an enemy.” When he realizes that she is lonely, he, like God himself, decides to create an Eve, or Adam, as it were, for Beatrice.

"There was an awful doom," she continued, "the effect of my father’s fatal love of science, which estranged me from all society of my kind. Until Heaven sent thee, dearest Giovanni, oh, how lonely was thy poor Beatrice!"

When he finds the two together in the garden, Rappaccini finally seemed pleased with his creation:

As he drew near, the pale man of science seemed to gaze with a triumphant expression at the beautiful youth and maiden, as might an artist who should spend his life in achieving a picture or a group of statuary and finally be satisfied with his success.

There is finally a Scientist’s Garden of Eden populated by an Adam and an Eve ready to raise a little Cain if only they are Able.

Unfortunately, Giovanni seems as flawed as the original Eve, eventually bringing an end to Paradise:

Guasconti had not a deep heart–or, at all events, its depths were not sounded now; but he had a quick fancy, and an ardent southern temperament, which rose every instant to a higher fever pitch.

Such ardor can be dangerous when combined with vanity and egotism:

Before descending into the garden, Giovanni failed not to look at his figure in the mirror,–a vanity to be expected in a beautiful young man, yet, as displaying itself at that troubled and feverish moment, the token of a certain shallowness of feeling and insincerity of character. He did gaze, however, and said to himself that his features had never before possessed so rich a grace, nor his eyes such vivacity, nor his cheeks so warm a hue of superabundant life.

Of course, such a person would blame everyone but himself for the predicament he finds himself in:

"Yes, poisonous thing!" repeated Giovanni, beside himself with passion. "Thou hast done it! Thou hast blasted me! 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 our lips in one kiss of unutterable hatred, and so die!"

Even after this terrible accusation, Giovanni lusts after the beautiful Beatrice:

Besides, thought Giovanni, 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? O, weak, and selfish, and unworthy spirit, that could dream of an earthly union and earthly happiness as possible, after such deep love had been so bitterly wronged as was Beatrice’s love by Giovanni’s blighting words!

Not surprisingly, this shallow young man after having gotten himself mired in this mess causes even more problems when he tries to work his way out of it.

For it is Giovanni himself that introduces the Serpent into this garden of Eden. Driven by his doubts and fears, Giovanni betrays the only truly innocent person in the whole affair:

There is something truer and more real than what we can see with the eyes and touch with the finger. On such better evidence had Giovanni founded his confidence in Beatrice, though rather by the necessary force of her high attributes than by any deep and generous faith on his part. But now his spirit was incapable of sustaining itself at the height to which the early enthusiasm of passion had exalted it; he fell down, grovelling among earthly doubts, and defiled therewith the pure whiteness of Beatrice’s image.

He is convinced by Baglioni that he must give Beatrice the antidote to her father’s administrations. Of course, our shallow young hero does not realize Baglioni’s true motives:

"We will thwart Rappaccini yet," thought he, chuckling to himself, as he descended the stairs; "but, let us confess the truth of him, he is a wonderful man–a wonderful man indeed; a vile empiric, however, in his practice, and therefore not to be tolerated by those who respect the good old rules of the medical profession."

Baglioni plays on the fears of the vain young Giovanni so that he can thwart Rappaccini, just as the Devil attempted to undermine God in the original Paradise. In the end, Baglioni is “victorious,” if one can consider causing the death of an innocent person “victorious:”

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 thunderstricken man of science,"Rappaccini! Rappaccini! and is this the upshot of your experiment!"

The only question left unanswered is: who are we in this little allegorical tale? Are we the innocent, but foolishly trusting, Beatrice, betrayed by those that would fatten us up on their genetically-modified Bt corn only to discover, probably too late, that we’ve wiped out the last of the Monarch butterflies? Or, more likely, are we the shallow, self-blinded Giovanni who helps our “friends” to introduce their products with the “best of intentions?” Then blames everyone but himself for the disastrous results? Unlikely though it may seem, are we the Rappacciini sure that we know better than Nature, attempting to create our own Paradise?

Loren Webster