Possession and Fatherhood in “Rappacini’s Daughter”

Narratives, with all their complexity, detail, and singular characters, explore what William Empson calls a “complex word.” For Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” its full title qualifies as the complex word, and the entire story works it out. The title sets up a possessive: Rappaccini, the father, literally, by punctuation, possesses his daughter, Beatrice. Hawthorne selectively writes his title to position Rappaccini, from the outset, as the main character while objectively characterizing Beatrice.

The title defines Beatrice’s identity, for she literally is Rappaccini’s daughter, but “Beatrice” easily substitutes for that definition. Replacing a definition of Beatrice with Beatrice’s actual name, though, forefronts her human identity, agency and does not include her identity as an experiment. Beatrice functions in the story as a central object affecting three male characters, limiting her holistic characterization. Hawthorne introduces two of the three primary male characters before introducing Beatrice, and she finally enters the narrative when her father summons her (‘Beatrice! Beatrice!’ [2657]). She first voices her identity, “‘Here am I, my father! What would you?’” (2657), but the context curtails her exclamatory reply, especially considering the elaborate description of her beauty following it. Accordingly, the possessive title elucidates her objective characterization as her father’s experimental object, and however problematic, labels the short story well.

Beatrice begins and ends the story as Rappaccini’s experiment. Rappaccini’s skewed sense of identity as a father factors into his need to possess Beatrice. Possessing becomes his way of protection, but Rappaccini’s perverted testament of love deprives Beatrice of a “normal” existence. Rappaccini believes his daughter, as a female, requires some defense mechanism. When Beatrice objects to her father’s “fatal science” (2674) for poisoning her life and love prospects, he says to her:

‘What mean you, foolish girl? Dost thou deem it misery to be endowed with marvellous 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’ (2675)

Rappacini misunderstood his daughter’s heart and desires—she alone maintains the agency to make her own decisions, but her father corrupts her inborn free will via possessive fatherhood. Beatrice proves her resilience, though, and capacity to capitalize on her less than ideal situation as an experiment in her retort: “I would fain have been loved, not feared” (2675). She dies criticizing her father for possessing and poisoning her existence. Certainly, Rappaccini aimed to better equip his daughter with “marvellous gifts” to battle oppressive patriarchal society, but in manipulating her, he crosses the line between father and scientist.

Works Cited

Empson, William. “The Structure of Complex Words.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 56, no. 2, 1948, pp. 230–250.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappacini’s Daughter.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. By Paul Lauter, Richard Yarborough, and John Alberti. Vol. 2. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014. 2653-2676. Print.


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