"Rappaccini's Daughter" and Allusions

    As one of the first Americans to attempt a career in literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne started his career with a huge sense of anxiety about the absence of any national tradition of artful writing.  You can see this in "R'sD"'s excruciating preface which gently lampoons of Hawthorne's own work in the pompous persona of a Continental Critic.  If you're wondering "why French?," take a look at the French literary scene in the early 1800s--who was writing?  Hint: Eugene Sue is a false lead, comically inappropriate for the kind of "great literature" Hawthorne aspired to write.  (Try the Encyclopedia Britannica website, accessible from the the library home page.)

    Another sign of Hawthorne's awareness of his literary identity is his tendency to allude to other, earlier great works of literature.  The most obvious source of literary allusion in "R'sD" is the Bible, specifically Genesis for the Eden story.  Allusions to the Bible happen frequently enough to be considered "thematic," something Hawthorne intended readers to notice and to take into consideration when interpreting what the story means.  However, from Giovanni's first sight of the old mansion in which he lives, we also are made aware of Hawthorne's interest in Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, an allegorical exploration of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in three linked parts.  As in the case of Hawthorne's allusions to the Bible, his allusions to Dante presume he's writing for readers who are literate enough to know the text.  In fact, it might be suspected that the better you know the Bible and Dante, the better "R'sD" will become.  The Bible is more widely known to today's American students than Dante (alas?), but to brush up your memory of Genesis you might want to consult a popular translation of the Eden story.  Because of the "Dante" subtext of this story, you might want to learn more about the Florentine poet and The Divine Comedy. Here is a site with very good supporting materials for the study of Dante, including some scholarly material that might even shed some light on Hawthorne's intentions in associating Giovanni Guasconti with a woman named Beatrice.

    This site generously offers access to three translations and the original Italian text versions of Dante's poem.  One of the things you might wish to know about Hawthorne might involve his own linguistic prowess.  Does he read Italian?  More importantly, did he read Dante in Italian?  Or did he, too, use a translation, and if so, which one?  His Bowdoin classmate, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translated Dante, but unfortunately for us, he didn't do so until after 1861, and this short story was written earlier, so Longfellow's English translation would not have been an influence on the composition of the story.  Dante's Italian original might have done so, however.