In Hawthorne’s stories, men of supposed decency sometimes do very unpleasant things, and these often affect the women in their lives. The gentlemen in these tales demonstrate is a willingness to take risks with or abuse the good will of women that today would be considered thoughtless at best, or at least, inhumane. This tendency is quite visible in three short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rappacini’s Daughter, The Birthmark, and Wakefield. Although the settings of these stories vary greatly, and none of them matches where and when Hawthorne himself lived, it is tempting to wonder whether the author was commenting on the ways that men treated women in the world that he observed around him.
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In, Rappacini’s Daughter, a very attractive young woman is badly treated by three supposedly respectable men in her life. She is brought up by her scientist father to be so filled with toxic poisons that her breath and touch are deadly to all living things. She is so beloved by the boy next door for being beautiful, and then reviled by this same fellow for being poisonous. She is finally, and tragically, killed by a potion brewed for her by an intellectual rival to her father, in an attempt to purge her system of toxins. None of these men seems to be particularly concerned about her health, her happiness, or her safety and survival.
The setting of Rappacini’s Daughter is as apparently distant from Hawthorne’s New England as can be. It takes place in Italy, in an unspecified time period sometime between the Middle Ages, and Hawthorne’s day in the first half of the 19th century. Locating the story in the northern Italian city of Padua brings to the reader’s mind the Italian Renaissance and the shift from superstitious magic to medicine that began to occur then.
The city is a university town, and thus a center for thinking, research, and experimentation. Hawthorne may have been thinking of his own community of Concord, which was home during the first half of the 1800s to many notable intellectuals and creative people, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. While Northern Italy was the center of Renaissance Humanism, Concord was the center of a new movement in American spiritual thought – Transcendentalism, and American literature.
The three men have fine intellectual credentials; a student, a professor, and an independent scientist. They are all respectable, although not necessarily the wealthiest folk. Thus, one would think that they would know better than to behave the way they do. Unfortunately, their brains do not prevent them from using Beatrice for their own selfish ends. For example, her father, the eminent and rather mysterious researcher,
“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,… whatever else was dearest to him, for the sake of adding …to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge.” (Hawthorne)
Doctor Rappacini’s daughter, like the fabled princess described by Professor Baglioni, “had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward”, which “estranged” her “from all society” (Hawthorne). Rappacini even wonders why she would ” have preferred the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none?” (Hawthorne) Clearly, Rappaccini takes a very different approach to fatherhood than we admire today (Hawthorne). However, in Hawthorne’s time, women had almost no rights, and a daughter would have been almost the property of her father.
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Guasconti pursues Beatrice hard until he realizes her toxicity has affected him as well, and then he calls her “accursed” (Hawthorne). Hawthorne tells us that “his spirit was incapable of sustaining itself at the height to which the early enthusiasm of passion had exalted it” (Hawthorne). He does not question the Professor’s motivation in providing a supposed antidote, which is to “thwart Rappaccini yet” (Hawthorne). Guasconti accepts the potion, and then, selfishly, lets Beatrice try it first. This is clear evidence of his “shallowness of feeling and insincerity of character” (Hawthorne) Much better, Guasconti seems to think, to try out an unknown drug on a woman, who is perhaps worth less than a man, as was the case in Hawthorne’s era.
In The Birthmark, another medically themed story, the pretty young wife dies because of her supposed disfigurement. Her scientist husband is so revolted that he tries to remove it through powerful drugs. These prove fatal, although effective in fading the mark. How she looks proves to be more important to her husband than her lovely personality and spirit.
This story is set in “latter part of the last century”, or in tail end of the Enlightenment, and in an unknown location (Hawthorne, The Birthmark). Since the Enlightenment was at least partially responsible for the ideas in the founding documents of the USA, as well as important discoveries (for example, of electricity, right in the USA) this setting may be significant. Hawthorne may be suggesting that even intellectual ferment and achievement cannot prevent men from acting like idiots about their wives.
The husband finds only after marriage that the pigmented area on his wife’s face is unbearable. He allows it to obsess him, and insults her by reacting with a “strong convulsive shudder” (Hawthorne, The Birthmark). Today, in contrast, kids are taught to ignore another person’s scars, birth defects, and other things about their appearance. If they were not taught this, no one with any sort of disability or handicap could successfully share a classroom with kids who face no such challenges. In Hawthorne’s telling of the story, it almost seems that a physical deformity is regarded as a sign of some sort of spiritual defect.
This may have been what people around Hawthorne thought at the time, judging from the way that the author identifies Amidabab’s smoke-smudged face and strength with “man’s physical nature”, while the slender, clean scientist represents the spirit (Hawthorne, The Birthmark). The husband ends by destroying the woman he supposedly loves, when her body loses the ”bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame” and she dies, having forgiven him for being a jerk (Hawthorne, The Birthmark). The way that he values her for her beauty rather than her character is unpleasantly familiar to modern readers, and suggests that Hawthorne observed men focusing on superficial appearance in women, just as they often do today.
Hawthorne’s story Wakefield displays a husband who puts his blameless wife through emotional agony, which at least temporarily risks her health and life. For no comprehensible reason, he subjects her to twenty years of widowhood and mourning in order to secretly live one street away. When he returns with no warning, it is with the same obliviousness to her feelings, and the full expectation that she will make him welcome and comfortable from the rainstorm. He even assumes that she will have kept his underwear dry and toasty for him.
For this behavior, Hawthorne offers no clear explanation. He notes that the wife might have observed a
“quiet selfishness, that had rusted into his inactive mind; of a peculiar sort of vanity, the most uneasy attribute about him; of a disposition to craft which had seldom produced more positive effects than the keeping of petty secrets, hardly worth revealing; and, lastly, of what she called a little strangeness” (Hawthorne, Wakefield).
This suggests that he was something of an eccentric, and a self-centered one. There is certainly no indication that his wife had displeased him. There is also no indication of how she felt about his return, except that they lived together for several more decades.
The setting is London at a time close enough to Hawthorne’s own time for him to have supposedly found the story “in some old magazine or newspaper” (Hawthorne, Wakefield). This suggests that the behavior of Wakefield might reflect the attitudes of Hawthorne’s near contemporaries. Women, or more specifically, wives, seem to have been taken so much for granted that a man could do something ridiculously inconsiderate, and not fear that he would be rejected. Today, such a deliberate trick might be nearly unforgiveable.
These three stories show men treating women with little care for their happiness or safety, and blaming them for things over which they have no control. This is not necessarily entirely different from the behavior of men today. However, the fact that they seem to be able to justify their behavior without question is a bit different. It seems to reflect attitudes and patterns of behavior that Hawthorne could have observed around him in the 1830s and 1840s in the Boston area.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappacinni’s Daughter.” 2014. Sam Houston State University. Web.
“The Birthmark.” 2014. OnlineLiterature. Web.
“Wakefield.” 2014. ClassicReader.com. Web.