Like "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter"has lent itself to varying religious, psychological, and historicalinterpretations. For the purposes of time, I won't give you asdetailed an account of these interpretations as I did with "YoungGoodman Brown." Instead, here is what one well-known Hawthornecritic, Nina Baym, said about "Rappaccini's Daughter" inher 1976 book, The Shape of Hawthorne's Career: "this isone of the richest stories in the canon,[...] It offers itself as anallegory of faith, an allegory of science, and an allegory of sex allat once" (428). As "an allegory of faith," the story shows that ifGiovanni had continued to believe in Beatrice, she never would haveseemed poisonous to him or to herself, and in so doing, the storyleads to the conclusion that belief requires persistence, and "notmerely that one must persist without evidence" but that "onemust persist in belief despite evidence" (428-29). That's a pretty profound definition of what faith is: the ability tocontinue to believe in something even when evidence suggests youshouldn't.
Why, as the title of my talk asks, do we still read Hawthorne 199years after his birth and 139 years after his death? Why do teachersevery year ask—some would say force—countless high schooland college students to read The Scarlet Letter, "YoungGoodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and otherfiction by Hawthorne? Why are there so many different editions ofThe Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables inprint today? Those of you who remember reading these books know aswell as I do that they are not page turners. So what, in short, isthe big deal about Hawthorne; what makes him so great?
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I hope you can see how typical interpretations of "Young GoodmanBrown" have varied widely over the decades. In order to showyou that this is not an isolated example, let me try very briefly toshow you how something very similar has happened with typicalinterpretations of another of Hawthorne's best-known stories: "Rappaccini's Daughter."
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Curiously, there aren't the kinds of parallel political-historicalinterpretations of "Rappaccini's Daughter" that you'dexpect from my account of interpretations of "Young GoodmanBrown." The facts that the tale is set in Italy and not in theUnited States and does not involve New England Puritans might accountfor this.
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Throughout the novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne demonstrates this idea through the actions of his three main characters, Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth....
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There's little here to choose between the allegories of faith and ofsex that Baym sketches for us and the 1950's religious and 1960'spsychoanalytical interpretations that I sketched for you in respectto "Young Goodman Brown." And guess what, if we look moreclosely at the 1950's and 1960's history of interpretation of"Rappaccini's Daughter," we find examples of the same kindsof religious and psychoanalytical interpretations. Crews argues thatbefore him "The most favored reading of the tale [...] isreligious: by adopting the skepticism of Rappaccini's rival,Baglioni, Giovanni renders himself unworthy of the Christianredemption embodied in Beatrice" (117-18). Instead, Crewsproposes an interpretation that takes Beatrice's "poisonousness"to be symbolic of "her sexuality" (119), and Giovanni'sproblem is that he "displays an abject terror before the wholephenomenon of female sexuality" (122) at the same time that "hefears exactly what he desires" (119). This leads Crews,inevitably—you just knew that it would come to this—toconclude that: "The situation is metaphorically an Oedipal one"(134).
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Or maybe not. I've given you this detailed account of the varyinginterpretations over the years of two of Hawthorne's better-knowntales, and you may be thinking, OK, fine, there's not a whole lot ofconsistency in how interpreters over the last 50 years haveunderstood these texts. But still, you might say, we can't avoid thefact that they were all penned by the same man, a man who reallylived, and worked, you might add, not very far from where we areright at this moment. Surely that fact should lead us to findsomething stable and unchanging in this author? I mean, isn'tHawthorne Hawthorne, after all? That's precisely what one of mygraduate school professors tried to argue after hearing a talk byJane Tompkins. Tompkins argued in the 1980's that Hawthorne'sreputation as a great author came at the expense of the reputationsof novelists like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan Warner and was notthe natural result of the supposedly inherent value in his fiction asmuch as the result of the efforts on behalf of his reputation thatadmiring editors, scholars, critics, and other authors have made overthe decades. What Tompkins wanted to show was basically what I'vebeen trying to show this evening: that "great" authorsdon't just naturally exist; they are made to seem great. And whatmy graduate school professor was trying to say was that at the rootof it all is still good old Nathaniel, who grew up at 12 HerbertStreet, and that that's indisputable.