Rappaccini’s Daughter Wasn’t Enough, Either

April 12, 2010 • Posted in Emerging Technologies

D. Joy Riley, M.D., M.A.
Executive Director
The Tennessee Center for Bioethics and Culture
July 2007

In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne tells us the story of a scientist, Dr. Rappaccini, who is intrigued to the point of obsession with the knowledge of science.  His particular interest is in poisonous plants, for within them, he is convinced, lie “all medicinal virtues.”  He has a daughter, Beatrice, renowned for her beauty, but rarely seen.  That is, until Giovanni Guasconti, student at the University of Padua, comes to live next door.  From his lodgings, Giovanni looks down into an incredible garden, and eventually, glimpses Beatrice Rappaccini there, for it is her father’s garden.  

Giovanni notices a number of remarkable features about this garden:  the plants are admired though never touched by Dr. Rappaccini, but his daughter embraces them.  The plants seem to thrive there; not so animal or insect life.  Yet Beatrice’s beauty and personality draw Giovanni.  Soon, he is a regular visitor to the garden.  Beatrice warns him not to touch the plants; she maintains her distance from him as well.  

After repeated visits to the garden, Giovanni finds some changes in himself.  He cannot believe it at first, and, indeed, needs the input of another observer to reach the startling conclusion.  He is being changed in ways similar to Beatrice.  Through her father’s attempt to fashion her into a being that is resistant to deadly poisons, she has herself become deadly.  Now Giovanni must make a decision:  he cares for Beatrice, but is he willing to become like her to enjoy her beauty and assuage her loneliness?  

“Rappaccini’s Daughter” is a cautionary tale for those who would change human nature into images of their own making.  More than a fine line exists between being a Luddite and being a transhumanist:  we need to explore this middle ground, and become aware of the boundaries.  For boundaries do exist, indeed, and crossing them results in changes that cannot necessarily be confined.

The full story can be read at Rappaccini’s Daughter