This parable of the Fall from innocence in a poisonous garden of Eden has several levels of meaning, not all of them explicitly stated. The Eden analogy is certainly clear, and one may assume that the garden, with its ruined fountain, is in some sense a microcosm of the fallen world cursed by sin and death. Perhaps it is the world that might ensue if scientists value knowledge and power more than human love.
Nathaniel Hawthorne suggested in other stories as well, such as “The Birthmark” and “The Great Carbuncle,” that the scientist in his intellectual pride might destroy the natural blessings that God has provided. This sentiment was a fairly common one at the time. The technique of grafting plants was recently discovered and widely distrusted as an impious if not dangerous interference with God’s intentions. While such processes seem innocent enough today, readers may certainly recognize the “mad scientist” motif still popular in science fiction.
The imagery of the story, however, is primarily religious and moral. Granted Rappaccini’s malevolent impact, Giovanni falls from grace not entirely through the machinations of a satanic scientist. To be sure, the young man seems to have been lured deliberately into the garden by the doctor, not by Beatrice herself, to serve as a companion for the isolated girl. He falls not because of Beatrice’s evil nature, but because of his own shallow capacity for love. Giovanni’s shortcomings...
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Addition, Spring 2003: : Here is an interesting chapter on the story, associating it with Hawthorne's relationship to his wife. Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft in "Rappaccini's Daughter" from Nathaniel Hawthorne; Studies in The House of the Seven Gables, by Thomas St. John.
Update and Additions on Criticism of the Story [from MLA Bibliography, 3/2005]
Brown, GillianHawthorne and Children in the Nineteenth Century: Daughters, Flowers, Stories. Reynolds, Larry J. (ed. and introd.).. A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne.. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 2001. viii, 223 pp.pp. 79-108.
Kállay, Katalin G. Envying One's Garden: A Touch of Rappaccini's Philanthropy. Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik: A Quarterly of Language, Literature and Culture, 48:4 (2000), pp. 326-33.
Mitchell, Thomas R. Rappaccini's Garden and Emerson's Concord: Translating the Voice of Margaret Fuller. . Idol, John L., Jr. (ed. and introd.) Ponder, Melinda M. (ed. and introd.).. Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition.. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1999. ix, 323 pp.pp. 75-91.
Brown, Gillian. Hawthorne's Endangered Daughters. Western Humanities Review, 50-51:4-1 (1997 Winter-1997 Spring), pp. 327-31.
Stouck, David and Giltrow, Janet. 'A Confused and Doubtful Sound of Voices': Ironic Contingencies in the Language of Hawthorne's Romances. Modern Language Review, 92:3 (1997 July), pp. 559-72.
Roger, Patricia M. Taking a Perspective: Hawthorne's Concept of Language and Nineteenth-Century Language Theory. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 51:4 (1997 Mar), pp. 433-54.
Brown, Gaye. Hawthorne's 'Rappaccini's Daughter': The Distaff Christ. Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, 22:2 (1996 Fall), pp. 21-59.
Hall, Julie E. 'Tracing the Original Design': The Hawthornes in Rappaccini's Garden.Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, 21:1 (1995 Spring), pp. 26-35.
Miller, John N. Fideism vs. Allegory in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 46:2 (1991 Sept), pp. 223-44.
Cooper, Allene. The Discourse of Romance: Truth and Fantasy in Hawthorne's Point of View.Studies in Short Fiction, 28:4 (1991 Fall), pp. 497-507.
Chappell, Charles. Pietro Baglioni's Motives for Murder in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'.Studies in American Fiction, 18:1 (1990 Spring), pp. 55-63.
Serio, John N. The Riddle of Existence: Hawthorne's 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. Ball State University Forum, 29:1 (1988 Winter), pp. 42-50.
Jones, Deborah L. Hawthorne's Post-Platonic Paradise: The Inversion of Allegory in Rappaccini's Daughter. Journal of Narrative Technique, 18:2 (1988 Spring), pp. 153-169.
Baris, Sharon Deykin. Giovanni's Garden: Hawthorne's Hope for America. Modern Language Studies, 12:4 (1982 Fall), pp. 75-90.
Mailloux, Steven.Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982. 228 pp.
Way, Brian. Art and the Spirit of Anarchy: A Reading of Hawthorne's Short Stories Lee, A. Robert (ed.).. Nathaniel Hawthorne: New Critical Essays.. London--Totowa, NJ: Vision--Barnes & Noble, 1982. 254 pp..pp. 11-30..
Karlow, Martin. 'Rappaccini's Daughter' and the Art of Dreaming.University of Hartford Studies in Literature: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism, 13:2 (1981), pp. 122-138.
Ross, Morton L. What Happens in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, 43:3 (1971 Nov), pp. 336-45.
Alsen, Eberhard. The Ambitious Experiment of Dr. Rappaccini. American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, 43:3 (1971 Nov), pp. 430-31.
Liebman, Sheldon W. Hawthorne and Milton: The Second Fall in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. New England Quarterly: A Historical Review of New England Life and Letters, 41:4 (1968 Dec), pp. 521-35.
Kloeckner, Alfred J. The Flower and the Fountain: Hawthorne's Chief Symbols in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, 38:3 (1966 Nov), pp. 323-36.
Evans, Oliver. Allegory and Incest in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 19:2 (1964 Sept), pp. 185-95.
Evans, Oliver. The Cavern and the Fountain: Paradox and Double Paradox in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. College English, 24:6 (1963 Mar), pp. 461-63.
Rosenberry, Edward H. Hawthorne's Allegory of Science: 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, 32:1 (1960 Mar), pp. 39-46.
McCabe, Bernard. Narrative Technique in Rappaccini's Daughter. Modern Language Notes, 74:3 (1959 Mar), pp. 213-17.
Boewe, Charles. Rappaccini's Garden. American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, 30:1 (1958 Mar), pp. 37-49.
Price, Sherwood R. The Heart, the Head, and 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. New England Quarterly: A Historical Review of New England Life and Letters, 27:3 (1954 Sept), pp. 399-403.
Male, Roy R., Jr. The Dual Aspects of Evil in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'. Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 69:1 (1954 Mar), pp. 99-109.
Davidson, Frank. Hawthorne's Hive of Honey. Modern Language Notes, 61:1 (1946 Jan), pp. 14-21.