Alchemy and Morality in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and ‘The Birthmark’?
In the seventeenth century, genuine scientific breakthroughs were ideals of the future. The reality was alchemy, an extremely basic science in which procedures were practically guesswork. It is this sense of the unknown that induces both fear and questions of morality in Hawthorne’s science fiction. The short stories ‘The Birthmark’ and ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ both include alchemists, bringing a Frankenstein-esque horror as to the possibilities and lengths the scientists will go to in order to achieve progress. The two scientists, Rappaccini and Aylmer, are bound together in an almost religious, Promethean quest to reach a higher knowledge, a higher spiritual being than that of mere mortals. Through reaching for this spiritual ideal, concepts of morality are complicated further. It is here necessary to consider whether if one is dedicated to reaching a higher knowledge, he is therefore above mankind and exempt from mortal laws of morality.
The practice of alchemy not only had no written definition, but its process and methodology were also unknown. The danger of exploring the unexplored is heightened by the use of people as subjects. Both endings for the heroines in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and ‘The Birthmark’ culminate in death, each death caused by a scientist’s inability to predict a chemical’s reaction within the human body. The only certainty present in the alchemy is the result. Rappaccini and Aylmer, the two alchemists in the mentioned short stories, are certain of the physical change they are striving to achieve and so continue until they reach this ideal conclusion, or until their subjects die. Perhaps these scientists are only labelled ‘scientists’ by the modern definition due to their experimentation with materials. The characters can, arguably, be categorized more accurately as pseudo-scientists. They have a claim to science in their knowledge, yet it is based on myth and the unknown, meaning their that method is not specifically scientific.
Each scientist can also be described according to the myth of the ‘mad scientist’. In literature, this character was present before Hawthorne. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels present versions of the ‘mad scientist’, who strives towards Promethean knowledge that usually resides beyond knowledge discoverable on earth. The experiments and their physical results within Hawthorne’s short stories are important. However, the moral consequences of the procedures are more important than the scientific results, and the ‘mad scientists’ are presented as figures to judge according to a nineteenth century morality. There is also an alignment between nineteenth century context and Hawthorne’s fictional progression of science. The industrial revolution began in 1760; therefore, Hawthorne’s fiction published in the 1830s onwards encounters a world that is still attempting to emerge from the practices of medieval science. Accessibility, however slight, to scientific knowledge allows Hawthorne’s characters in his nineteenth century fiction to develop beyond the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype to attain a measure of reason. The ‘mad scientist’ therefore remains a character that belongs to the past, uneducated in modern, scientific techniques, but insatiable in a desire to progress towards the future.
Is the ‘mad scientist’, therefore responsible for all sin in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’? The creator, Rappaccini, and his creation, Beatrice, both arguably harbor evil. The creator remains the most obvious source of evil, as his mind imagines the experiment, and his hands conduct it. However, he cannot be wholly blamed when practicing alchemy, as the results are unknown. The Bible states ‘the way of the wicked is as darkness; he knoweth not at what he stumbleth.’ If one is blind to what ‘he stumbleth’ upon during the process, the obstacle cannot be decided as good or bad. Moral judgement can therefore only occur once the experiment emerges from the ‘darkness’ to a definitive result. This darkness is presented as multifaceted, while the plot focuses on the experiment’s process. It can either serve as a temporary blindness that will lead into to a progressive, unexplored territory, or exist as an omen of inevitable tragedy. Rappaccini is only branded as a ‘mad’ and evil scientist because his experiment ends in death. If he had created an elixir beneficial to medicine, he would transcend the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype and emerge instead as a pioneer.
Thus far, the responsibility of the scientists has been explored. Hawthorne also examines their capabilities as well. The scientist’s practice does not require love to succeed, and it is examined how this fact influences relationships that undoubtedly do require love. Hawthorne wrote in an 1840 letter to Sophia Peabody, his future wife: ‘we are but shadows […] till the heart is touched.’ Hawthorne therefore saw a person without love as incomplete, a mere ‘shadow.’ The heart, representative of emotion, and the head, representative of measured and reasonable thought, are presented as different but not completely antithetical. A body needs both a heart and a brain to function, therefore a whole being is not a combination, but a balance of these two. Hawthorne’s scientists are imbalanced, as they focus on mind over emotion. In ‘The Birthmark’ Aylmer seeks love by washing the ‘stains of acids from his fingers and [persuading] a beautiful woman to become his wife.’ A lack of science is required in the initial courtship, suggesting that emotion and the ‘heart’ must temporarily overpower the reasonable ‘mind’ to succeed. It is ominous that, as Aylmer ‘stains’ his fingers once more, this balance is again disturbed, and his heart loses the ability to love. Yet, in this initial courtship, love is only mentioned once. Instead, he must persuade a woman to marry him, an action that is performed by the mind, not the heart. Sherwood R. Price argues that Hawthorne explores the ‘consequences of divorcing either reason from emotion or emotion from reason’.  This is not wholly accurate, as Hawthorne never implies such an antithesis as that reason is completely divorced from emotion, or vice versa. At the beginning, Aylmer must temporarily forsake science for love, yet it leaves ‘stains’ on his fingers. This situation suggests an inability to engage with a natural instinct of love for another through being so deeply influenced by alchemy, so that moral consequences – even to those he loves – are irrelevant.
However, lacking this natural instinct to love is perhaps necessary to scientific achievement in Hawthorne’s fiction. Dependent on physical chemistry, achievement in alchemy requires a human body as a subject. Rappaccini’s progress is only able to continue through the dedication of his life and the sacrifice of those around him. Edward H. Rosenberry suggests that ‘Rappaccini has no physical offspring, only spiritual or intellectual.’ This is accurate on a metaphorical level, as the poison in Beatrice’s blood represents his scientific achievement. Yet, he does possess her also as a ‘physical’ specimen, necessary to the experiment. He does not, however, regard her as ‘offspring,’ only allowing an end to her solitude at the price of Giovanni Guasconti, the naïve student captivated by Beatrice, also becoming a subject. In imprisoning Giovanni as the next generation, Rappaccini promotes the idea that science requires, literally, a life to thrive. Aylmer and Rappaccini must see their kin as mere subjects in order to scientifically progress, yet this outlook is complicated by their drive, which is seemingly emotional. They wish to elevate their subjects to a higher position of eternal perfection. Hawthorne’s scientists are therefore punished for their choice to forsake emotion.
While Hawthorne’s scientists are indeed guilty of feeling little emotion, he also presents characters such as the rash, young Giovanni in ‘The Birthmark’ who feel too intensely, and are equally guilty. A life without love is empty, yet an existence governed entirely by emotion leaves the person, arguably, vulnerable. In response to Beatrice, Giovanni feels ‘a wild offspring of both love and horror’. As a sensitive man with the ability to feel, Giovanni should exist as the antithesis to Rappaccini. Yet, he cannot love fully either. His emotion is indefinable, and is instead a ‘wild offspring,’ suggesting that a definition has not yet been developed in the English language. Perhaps this implies an inability to react to a phenomenon he has never yet encountered. As ‘both love and horror’ exist as emotions, they should be based entirely on how one feels. Giovanni’s love instead stems from a morbid fascination, a sensation that originates in the mind. Even in expressing admiration, Giovanni still does not possess a genuine motive to save Beatrice from her own Father. Giovanni is perhaps condemned further for not being able to control his ‘wild’ emotion. His scientific pursuit aligns him with the heartless Rappaccini, and begins to balance his excess of emotion. If he were able to control his emotions, he could have remained detached from Beatrice from the beginning. As Hawthorne accuses men of being too measured, or too emotional, he suggests that residing at either end of the spectrum is limiting and has negative consequences.
Thus far, Hawthorne’s seventeenth-century scientists have been examined in terms of moral action and its consequence. Hawthorne also allows the reader to witness the motives behind their actions, allowing for a further examination of character without judging wholly their outward behavior. The scientist’s pursuit of science resembles a Faustian urge for knowledge. Whilst Faustus signs his soul to Mephistopheles in blood, Aylmer and Rappaccini agree to the same pact without symbolic ritual. In their pursuit for science, Hawthorne’s scientists perhaps reach beyond this Faustian urge. Rappaccini does not need a devil’s permission to motivate his cause, and would ‘sacrifice human life […] for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard-seed’ of knowledge. Rappaccini is undoubtedly Faustian in what he is willing to ‘sacrifice’ for knowledge, suggesting that he holds scientific achievement in higher regard than human life. This fact is emphasized by placing a momentous concept – human life – syntactically close to a physical, extremely small concept, a mustard seed. Like Rappaccini’s garden, this idea creates walls around him so that his scientific pursuits are separated from human life. The value of the ‘mustard-seed’ as representative of knowledge depends on perspective. Baglioni, the philosopher who speaks this statement, disagrees. To him, sacrificing human life in pursuit of progress is pointless. To Rappaccini, this ‘grain’ could be the key to his experiment, and worth countless human lives.
As established, Rappaccini and Aylmer are guilty of pursuing a Faustian, higher knowledge. Dr Faustus is granted knowledge by the devil, suggesting perhaps that to reach this level of knowledge, one must go beyond an earthly realm to either heaven or hell. In a letter to Sophia Peabody, Hawthorne asks: ‘What delusion can be more lamentable […] than to mistake the physical and material for the spiritual?’  The mistake of Hawthorne’s scientists is perhaps not in their actions, but in their motivational ‘delusion’ that dictates that they can ascend to a higher knowledge, and still remain in mortal form. Specifically, Rappaccini’s mistake is assuming a God-like position in deciding whom he can ‘sacrifice’ for his cause, when he has neither the power nor authority to maintain a celestial position as a mortal. Taylor Stoehr argues that Hawthorne’s characters are punished for remaining in their imaginations, and not the real world. They are however, not completely punished for these delusions. Instead, they are punished for not translating these ‘delusions’ in to a more reasonable version in reality. Their imaginations stretch too far, and mistake a ‘physical’ reality as capable of realizing ‘spiritual’ delusions. In attempting to achieve their fantasies, the scientists reach to realms such as heaven and hell that cannot support physical human forms, and their experiments inevitably end in death.
Hawthorne’s fiction explores alchemy and physical chemistry. These pursuits’ processes, results, and consequences all reside in the physical. However, the moral choices which his characters encounter are what subsequently affect the physical realm that he focuses on. The use of alchemy may be detrimental, but the root of evil he examines extends ‘monster-like, out of the caverns of [the] heart.’
Edward H. Rosenberry, ‘Allegory of Science’, American Literature (Duke University Press, 1960), JSTOR
Selected Letters of Nathaniel Hawthorne ed. by Joel Myerson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002)
Sherwood R. Price ‘The heart, the head, and ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, The New England Quarterly (The New England Quarterly Inc., 1954), JSTOR,
Taylor Stoehr, Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists: Pseudoscience and Social Science in Nineteenth Century Life and Letters (Hamden: Archon, 1978)
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