Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the great American writers of the 19th century. His short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” is both derived from an ancient story from India and the source of a continuing motif in popular American culture. Originally published in 1844, in his short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse, the story is ultimately about a poisonous maiden, but reveals the intersection between perception, reality and fantasy.
“Rappaccini’s Daughter” opens in Padua, Italy, at some vague time in the medieval past. Giacomo Rappaccini is a researcher, growing a garden of poisonous plants. He has raised his daughter to tend the plants, which has made her immune to them, but poisonous to all other living things. From his window, Giovanni Guasconti watches Beatrice tend the plants, and falls in love with her. His mentor, Professor Baglioni warns him that Rappaccini is dangerous. Eventually, Giovanni becomes poisonous to others as well after several encounters with Beatrice. He finds an antidote, hoping to cure her condition, but instead it kills her.
The ancient Indian play Mudrarakshasa, dated between the 4th and 8th century, served as a source for
Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” The story of girl who is immune to poison, yet is poisonous to others then served as a model for the creation of Poison Ivy, a popular villainess in Batman comics. In Hawthorne’s hands, there is the idea that Rappaccini’s scientific curiosity has wrought destruction. Further, Giovanni’s fantasies about Beatrice are far from the reality, and his desires overwhelm reality, leading to her death.