Some Observations about Hawthorne's Women
by Barbara Ellis
At the start of the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott, the best-selling author of the historical potboiler (114,000 books sold in France alone during his lifetime1) may have changed the role of women characters forever in this country when he created Jeanie Deans. This heroine of his vastly successful The Heart of Midlothian (1818) played none of the stereotypic roles assigned women: Magdalene/Eve, madonna, wife of Bath, drudge, vampire. She was an Innocent who did murder.
Scott did not seize the opportunity to employ the usual slant on Eve, Motherhood, or the Sixth Commandment. Instead, he documented what happened to a woman who committed infanticide because she was ground down by the powers of economics, society, and institutionalized religion. When an author made a murderer his principal character and evoked sympathy for her, even spurred humane laws for women caught in such binds -- and still earned significant royalties -- editors and writers paid attention. Perhaps a woman could play a principal role instead of being part of the scenery or a victim of a benighted Poe hero, walled up, hacked up, or dug up. In America, only Hawthorne dared such a mission and on an equally towering theme: that man's fear of women keeps him forever lonely and is the chief bar to a harmonious hearthside. But what editor or publisher thought this theme was saleable? Practicality, therefore, dictated that Hawthorne dress the message in allegory. Better a cryptic message than none at all.
Hawthorne read Scott avidly -- as well as Rousseau's revolutionary ideas about equality at all levels. He never viewed women as unimportant or as threatening Eves, but, rather, as men's vital emotional, intellectual, and spiritual cohorts. He grew up with two sisters and a widowed mother, married an intellectual and emotional peer, and fathered two outspoken daughters. Women were companions, not threats.2
He may have concluded that it was testosterone and perceived threats to the testes, and not Eve, that from antiquity had blocked the kind of deep, soul-to-soul relationship he came to hallow. Battering and, particularly, child molestation may never have been mentioned in his day, but they are scarcely new phenomena in human life; they are the byproducts of ancient attitudes about Eve, contempt for women, or natural urges gone haywire.
How to ameliorate such views and deeds, how to overcome deep-rooted fears of women, and yet carry these messages in the literature of the day was/is a monumental challenge. Hawthorne's subliminal pleas seem always to go over men's heads; and if they are scholarly types, scathing denigration of such a hypothesis may boil down from Olympus -- anger revealing fear of its probability. Why else do some colleagues see more tragedy in, say, Arthur Dimmesdale than Hester Prynne? Only in stories like "The Gentle Boy" did Hawthorne risk showing, through tragedy, the magnificent benefits of love and compassion when men put aside their great fear: loss of power. Alas, he had to use a child, not a woman, to carry that message.
Despite women's equal roles in founding this country, authors of the era ignored that fact. Interestingly, almost no Hawthorne scholar except Roy Male seems to have noted the paucity of women as major characters in early American literature despite their known value in settling this country. Male writes:
In this predominantly masculine enterprise [writing], the role of women has always been anomalous. The notorious ineptitude of the heroine in Western films serves as a constant reminder that in a world of movement in space, a woman was simply an encumbrance. Her alternatives were to remain behind in the ancestral covered wagon and the squatter's hut. Without density and ... flamboyant marksmanship of Hurricane in the dime novels. Before The Scarlet Letter no American writer understood the values of time, tragedy, or womanhood well enough to create a woman in fiction.3
Then came the best-selling Scott to belie that echolaliac myth with the lowborn heroine, Jeanie Deans, who kills her newborn. Hawthorne took notice that such a risky theme sold books and drew attention to harsh laws about unwed mothers. It is the Salem witch trials that may have served as a springboard by which Hawthorne launched his first tale, "The Hollow of the Three Hills," in 1835. Witches not only packed court rooms, but theaters, as box-office receipts attest with Macbeth. Their supposed deeds and hideous deaths had been dramatic material for centuries. His ancestor, a judge at the Salem trials, certainly was the recipient of many terrifying exit lines from women ("God will give you blood to drink"4).
Hawthorne probably would have agreed with Virginia Woolf who firmly believed such women were hanged or set ablaze not for religious error, but because they threatened men's need to control -- and also might have property to confiscate. As Woolf points out:
Any woman born with a great gift in the 16th century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.5
Such men's dilemma was, of course, that they could not keep pronouncing independent women as witches. Hawthorne obviously spent time trying to fathom why his ancestor and others were maniacal in dealing with women who were regarded as defiant or, worse, who used Delilah's traditional "wiles" to overpower a society's most powerful men.
Psychiatrists such as Dr. Melanie Klein believe man's behavior stems from perceptions that women are the real holders of the sceptor because they "control" life itself. Overlooking the fact that life must have a seed, myopic men have focused only on the woman's role in conception, childbirth, and -- amazingly -- the key decision on when and if a child is going to be nourished (physically or emotionally). Klein noted that when infants realize they have no control over warmth and food offered at the breast, rage begins against women; as they grow, outrage turns inward to fantasies about destruction or defilement (or worship) of the breast or womb; some of serial killer Ted Bundy's deeds involved horrific mutilations of the breast; and Indian victims of a Minnesota serial killer had vaginas sundered with tree branches. Edgar Allen Poe's "Berenice" has a grisly ending under scoring his and other men's fears about a Delilah's potential to harm genitalia.6
Small wonder then, in life and American fiction, that women are either stripped of power by trivialization, brutalizations such as rape, or portrayed as destroyers, poisonous femmes fatales. Eves (or Miss Sadie Thompson). That concept does not square with the reality of county social service agencies now registering three cases per month of sexual assaults upon girls under age five (not counting the thousands too frightened to even report such a deed).7 Or, adjunctive to that, that thousands upon thousands of emboldened Beatrice Cencis now are trooping into counselors and exiting in tears or murderous fury after learning that when they were tots, their mouths were used as receptacles for testosterone's mighty urge. One Louisiana counselor estimated that such "Eves" and "defilers" constitute an enormous percentage of her clientele, indicating that such acts are yet another ancient device to destroy women's power. Forgotten is Hawthorne's subliminal theme that both reproductive systems are equally vital to life; one is not less important than the other; such power is to be equally shared by companions at his symbolic warm hearth.8
Richard Brenzo is one of the few scholars courageous enough to stress this issue in his commentary about "Rappaccini's Daughter," one of Hawthorne's most confrontive stories concerning the consequences of the man-woman dilemma. He astutely sees Beatrice as an Eve still trapped and controlled by three males. Then it was God, Adam, and the Serpent. In Hawthorne, it is Giovanni, Baglioni, and her own father.
Each man represents a typical male role might find a woman threatening, and might therefore try to destroy her. Giovanni, her lover and almost-husband, desires her sexuality, yet fears its power to dominate and destroy him. Baglioni, her professional rival, feeling insecure about his university position, tries to neutralize her by diverting her energies to woman's proper sphere, marriage. Her father wants her beautiful enough to win a husband, dependent enough to remain in his home, obedient enough to do his bidding, and compliant enough to be molded to his standards. None of these men could have been portrayed as feeling these same fears, with the same intensity, about a man. Notice, for example, that Baglioni views his struggle with Rappacini almost as a game, with a rather gentlemanly tone. Only with Beatrice does he play for keeps.9
No wonder Hawthorne suggested the human race start over in "The New Adam and Eve."
A content analysis of Hawthorne's women in six of his most famous tales demonstrates how he uses them as vehicles of warning about the results of men's fears. My study examines "The Hollow of the Three Hills," "Young Goodman Brown," "Roger Malvin's Burial," "The Minister's Black Veil," "The Birthmark," and "Rappacini's Daughter."
When a contributor with no writing credentials turned up at The Salem Gazette in 1835 with a story featuring two women as the principals, the editor presumably gave more intensive scrutiny to this submission than the offerings of "regulars" or those lifted from exchange newspapers. What must have caught the editor's attention was that Hawthorne's "The Hollow of the Three Hills" was a well-written Gothic story with bewitching appeal for local readers, considering Salem's inquisitional history.
The storyline about a runaway wife's torment over the turmoil she has left at home carries a message on three levels. On the surface, its lesson was that the price of a wife's abandoning responsibilities is death and chaos. This tale was the kind of fare that Henrik Ibsen's Torvald Helmer might read to his mate for her bedtime edification. Hawthorne knew an editor would like that. But the second message seems to ridicule the idea that an abandoned husband will go mad with grief and off spring will wither and die -- not in an era where women's death in childbirth was such a common occurrence that the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer contained a sacrament for surviving the ordeal.10 Few men, then or now, go mad when they lose a mate; they may be depressed for a time, but they generally soon seek another, as was usually the case in times when women died by the thousands in childbirth. A runaway or dead wife often represented an inconvenience.
But the third message was Hawthorne's reiteration of household tragedy: Women had no refuge if a marriage was loveless, cheerless, or abusive as well as fraught with dawn-to-dark responsibilities. No alternatives existed then.
Two years later, Hawthorne had several sales behind him -- many involving women. Roy Male points out that the author was testing "just about every possible alternative to the union between man and woman,"11 and editors knew readers were interested in stories featuring women.
There is only one woman in "Roger Malvin's Burial," but her role is pivotal to the plot and an attractive bete noire to male readers who can identify with someone who has sold his honor and soul to acquire a bride, property, and status. Mary Rohrberger sees Oedipal touches in this story.12 Perhaps Hawthorne recognized that such readers truly would believe that women were incapable of understanding the realities of the battlefield; however, most women readers of yesteryear and today recognize that survival comes before burying the dead.
As this story unfolds, it is impossible not to conclude that Hawthorne is presenting a woman's familiar dilemma, playing the heavy for Nature and Society, a controller guilty of stripping a man of what he values most: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Reuben wants to be an eternally irresponsible boy, one who likes to play soldier, to explore the woods, and to sow wild oats; but he also expects a roof over his head, a hot sup per, and, somewhere on a pedestal, a pretty little thing who never cramps his style, never wavers, never ages, and never expects him to do a thing. He is Peter Pan. A Peer Gynt perceiving he is the victim of a controller who owns their farm, his seed, and now wants his soul.
Hawthorne created Dorcas and her dead father to symbolize the heavy responsibilities of an adult. Written in hyperbolic shorthand, this tale depicts the fate of man's idealized woman (comely, faithful, devoted, tender -- and rich) who still does not measure up; worse, she sets traps -- like parenthood -- to imprison him. To wrench free of such a manipulative jailer, he sets about to destroy Dorcas and the guilt about her father's fate, his real burden. In short order, Reuben reduces her prosperous farm to rack and ruin, isolates her from society, and then marches her and their son off to death in Hawthorne's celebrated and symbolic wilderness. Reuben's moment of Pyrrhic triumph comes when he shoots their son at the same place where he left her father unburied; he then watches with what seems to be sadistical pleasure at Dorcas' breaking heart, knowing he is free of her, societal duties, and guilt. As this grim story closes, there can be no doubt that Hawthorne's view was that although men set agonizingly high standards for mature adults, only women are mandated with manacles to meet them; many a Dorcas has suffered the living death of being called a grasping, controlling nag -- regularly and in public. Then and now, Society's punishment for restive female Peter Pans still is so harsh that few women risk it.
The woods are also the proving grounds for "Young Goodman Brown." Up to the time when Leo B. Levy devoted an entire article on the good wife, Faith, most studies had focused on her husband. Scholarly wars have been fought over religious aspects in this story; or Goodman's inability to accept human failings; if Faith got any attention at all, she was dismissed as a Magdalene-madonna duality: saint-sinner, destroyer savior, poisoner-purifier. Oddly, many women see her as a warm little bride, delighted to be totally in tune with her husband. With such a wife, the marriage should be ideal.
From a woman's point of view, Hawthorne seems to be positing that healthy marital relations are impossible so long as the man believes women and sex are instruments of the Devil. At the outset, Goodman has a healthy, robust sexual and soul-to-soul relationship with Faith that is highly enviable. But despite three months of marital bliss, Goodman Brown must face the Eve notion through a Walpurgis night -- an intuition to men's views of women; for what is that gathering but a stag party staged to destroy harmonious relationships between men and women?
The dream sequence has inspired hundreds of doctoral dissertations and articles, to be sure. But perhaps only women could possibly interpret it as a highly accurate picture of the acculturated id as it transports the husband's perception of a loving mate (Faith) to that of a group whore. Hawthorne's "The Haunted Mind" utilized the sequential stages of a dream whereby bits and pieces of the subconscious were fashioned into a tapestry of classic male terrors about females.
As Goodman descends deeper into this celebrated dream, out rush his true feelings about women in general and Faith in particular. There is some good-old boy lechery about his bride ("there's a goodly young woman to be taken into communion"); that leads to thoughts about "gang action," a terrible, yet fascinating (and common) fantasy to the randy male. To pound home the point, there is a basin in a rock filled with a liquid ("was it blood?"), suggesting a group breaching of the maidenhead.
What follows is the "communion" scene, something Goodman's religious scruples appear to dread, all the while delighting in its wickedness. Then comes the schizophrenic response that baffles most women: that sexual intercourse defiles a woman. The Walpurgis dream has now become reality for this young oaf. He now believes Faith has turned Magdalene, servicing half the town; she has sullied his body and honor. Faith is no longer the affectionate, bubbly soulmate, but a Salome, a pariah in a New England town.
By the time Goodman utters that Aristotelian "cry of recognition," ("Faith! Faith! Look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one"), the "truth" has been embedded in his mind forever. Hawthorne forces us to recall how happy Adam and Eve were in Eden before Judeo-Christian scribes made natural acts sinful. Like Reuben, Goodman punishes her for the rest of her life for some thing rooted in his glands and his religion. The Eve myth has done its destructive work.
Another character who blasphemes Christian concepts of marriage or companionship between the sexes, is the protagonist in "The Minister's Black Veil." Hawthorne did not create The Reverend Mr. Hooper from whole cloth; nor with his global view did he seem to be attacking the church although there can be no doubt that he must have taken delight in asking uncomfortable men of the cloth how many preachers had "taken the veil." Swann (1991) seems to have become enmeshed in the usual eclectic red herrings. He is involved in the religiosity of Michael Cloacurcio, compounding it with history and creative writing per se:
While historical knowledge certainly is crucial for a full understanding of the tale, even on a first reading it should be clear that Hawthorne is overtly concerned with what sort of a writer he should be....13
But at least there is a glimmering of what Hawthorne was trying to say about women when Swann gets enmeshed with feminist critics and feminist writers. Instead of perceiving that Hawthorne believed in equality of the sexes, however (particularly with "The New Adam and Eve"), Swann appears to translate a little equality into a total takeover of the sexes:
The possibility -- even the desirability -- of matriarchy haunts Hawthorne's fiction and is nearly always defined as natural or Utopian.14
That "The New Adam and Eve" short story may be one of Hawthorne's singular sallies into humor, a hyperbolic satire on how to level the playing field seems not to occur to Swann or, for that matter, many serious scholars. Traditional fears of giving an inch to a woman character are apparent in the fruits of examining the author's novels:
Hester ends by prophesying the second coming of Christ -- only this time as a woman. Coverdale, in The Blithedale Romance, attacks Hollingsworth for "the intensity" of his "masculine egotism" and claims a woman ruler for his Utopia: "I should love dearly -- for the next thousand years at last -- to have all government devolve into the hands of women ... Oh, in the better order of things, Heaven grant that the ministry of souls may be left in charge of women!15
Targeted in "The Minister's Black Veil," a brilliant tale of misogyny, confirmed bachelors may believe Hawthorne is dealing only with minister.
How many high school English teachers have probed beneath the anthologists' explanation that this story was a Jeremiad against human intolerance and/or sinfulness? For decades, its inclusion in textbooks as an example of Hawthorne scarcely made him popular. Boys generally guffaw about the Lone Ranger disguise and write him off as a Cotton Mather weirdo. But not the girls.
Girls generally loathe "The Minister's Black Veil" and not just because organized religion has declared their sex to be evil incarnate or because the paragraphs are formidably lengthy. Girls usually miss Hooper's oily confessions from the pulpit about his "secret sins" and the brilliant touches Hawthorne has crafted into a story about a man who has contemptuously diddled everybody and everything of value -- fiancee, congregation, the church, fundamental spiritual values of light and joy.
But the instincts of teenage girls are as unerring as their older sisters in sensing that Hooper is a toxic man, one who is up to no good. Even if he is a minister, this is an enemy of women. Who else would despise weddings? Be rude to fairly decent folk who offer meals? Or die trying to lay shouted guilt on those kind enough to keep a death vigil?
It is when one focuses on the women in this story that the enigma of Hooper is solved. Hawthorne scatters the clues everywhere about this more conniving and complex Reuben. The clues begin with the story's title, for what has Hooper done except "taken the veil," in the Catholic concept of this term? Celibacy allows a man officially to wall out women; too, priests do better than preachers at using sacraments to strip women of power; at last, a chasuble provides official license to snuff out Eves. Hooper's difficulty, however, is that for a Protestant pastor, bachelorhood is out of the question. Someone must perform the Herculean duties of a preacher's wife.
Hawthorne offers up Elizabeth, a superb candidate. She is friendly, devoted, sensible, warm, intelligent, and beautiful. But Hooper shrinks from marriage, walling her out with a veil. But then the veils of the nonministerial do seem to be today's fear-wrecked rejection: "I'm just not ready to make a commitment." There is twisted pleasure in Hooper's lifetime rejection of Elizabeth, particularly at his death. He is more resourceful at destroying women's power than Reuben.
As a minister, his best work should be at funerals, and Hawthorne provides one -- for a "young lady" -- that launched a thousand theories about that aspect of the mysterious Reverend Hooper. Poe, for example, theorized he had murdered her; Hawthorne did write: "when the clergyman's features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap." But it is equally possible that the woman was appalled that the officiant guiding her into the light, warmth, and joyous fellowship of God was an Antichrist dolled up in a curtain.
Then there is the wedding of "the handsomest couple in Milford." Evening rites in New England are so uncommon as to be remarkable, and Hooper succeeds in making it a horror for a bewildered couple. There is an especially unspeakable insult to the institution of marriage through an onanistic gesture from Hooper. Hawthorne has him catching a glimpse of himself in a mirror -- particularly his figure -- adding that he "spilt the untasted wine upon the carpet, and rushed forth into the darkness,"
Last, there are the smiles. One smile might go unnoticed, but not six in Hawthorne's economical writing style. All of the smiles involve women. The first smile follows Elizabeth's plea to remove or to explain the veil; the second is his response to her warning that the parish is restive about his behavior. Next, he has succeeded in avoiding parish dinner tables, smiling at the bewildered standing on the sidewalk. ("I would not be alone with him for the world," says the doctor's wife).
The fourth smile comes after all of New England has begun to call him Father; having attained a priestly identity, he needs to worry no more about women. True, Elizabeth trods respectfully through his life, rewarded by finally penetrating his bedroom only when he is a dying old man. The deathbed scene includes two smiles: one after the successful tussle with The Reverend Mr. Clark who wants to lift the veil. The last smile comes after he rebukes the mourners, charging them with all wearing veils:
While his auditors shrank from one another, in mutual affright, Father Hooper fell back upon his pillow, a veiled corpse, with a faint smile lingering on the lips.
Considering the lonely wreckage of his life, this parable strongly indicates the laugh is on him. As for Elisabeth, she is far luckier than the heroine of "The Birthmark. "
One Oregon professor recently expressed mock surprise in class that "The Birthmark" generally infuriates women students, but fails to stir the men. The tale may be seen as horrifying satire about the results of scientific methods, but the blatant misogyny does seem to overpower that traditional surface interpretation; any job can shut out women. So Hawthorne hits two themes with one stone. Most women pick up the obvious theme from Aylmer's honeymoon dialogue ("Has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?"). Women know that they are measured by both sexes largely on their looks. Even if men fear women, at least most appear to want one that passes the aesthetic values of the male concept of beauty. Women must be without flaw (slim, beautiful, and forever age 18-22) to have worth. Ironically, beautiful women point out that they are more feared and abused than Plain Janes, perhaps because flawless looks have empowerment. Roy Male is not alone in seeing this ploy as proof that it's a tactic for men to avoid mutuality with a woman, particularly ironic when many fear beautiful women into the bargain.17
The deaths and self-destructive thinking connected to anorexia, bulimia, and aging provide ample evidence of the effectiveness of this method of controlling women; the billion-dollar beauty industry, breast implants, and, other cosmetic surgery exist because of the power of such suggestions.
Another reason this story raises women's ire is Georgiana's eventual frantic cooperation with her own murder, especially because such a sacrifice does not earn closeness with her husband. Here Hawthorne touched a nerve, for Georgiana is not alone when, one day, she hammers in vain at the bolted doors of her mate's inner sanctum; for her trouble, she gets a sample of demonic rage at the interruption. Georgiana doggedly pores over works in her husband's library, loyally ignoring the journals that reveal his many failed experiments. She becomes his laboratory animal, acquiescing to demonstrations involving plants and photography. Aylmer throws a plate into a "jar of corrosive acid," a foreshadowing of her fate, but she ignores that signal. The nadir of her self-degradation is his forcing her to sing -- just as he forces lab mice to perform. There is something Poe-like about Georgiana as she allows herself to be confined in a boudoir as sinister as that in "Ligeia" or the copper walls and screw-down coffin in "The Fall of the House of Usher." Would that she had carried out her threat to go "home to mother" at the story's start.
"Rappaccini's Daughter" is Hawthorne's greatest portrayal of the man-woman tragedy. Here is the seeming summation of all that a Young Goodman Brown feared and in a sunny, yet malevolent, perversion of the Garden of Eden. This time Eve is not the one who causes The Fall. It is Adam.
Beatrice Rappaccini is real. She is hardly as well developed and dominating a character as Miriam Schaefer in The Marble Faun, but she will do admirably as a short-story heroine, "the first of Hawthorne's fully developed women -- dark, exotic, ambiguous in her 'poisonous' combination of sexual attractiveness and angelic purity."18 Yet one of the obstacles to an analysis of Beatrice is the traditional idee fixe on "the dark lady" aspect of Hawthorne. This aspect generally rests on the adjectives used to describe women such as Hester Prynne, Zenobia, and Miriam Schaefer. Hall (1990) is yet another scholar drawn to this fixation, with the additional ingredient of an "exotic nature." But it is Beatrice's actions and dialogue that reveal Hawthorne's intent.
Hawthorne's selection of Padua as setting could suggest Dante's self-imposed fear of courting and wedding (or bedding) the beauteous and wealthy Beatrice Portinari, the inspiration for his love poetry. 19 Hawthorne certainly recognized that dynamic, for he had portrayed it previously in "The Artist of the Beautiful." Again, if a woman is worshiped from afar, the distance renders a man as safe as if he had put on Father Hooper's black veil.
Beatrice Rappaccini, like her namesake, causes the same Dantesque reaction from Giovanni, a similar ambivalence about women as noted by Brenzo. To Giovanni, falling in love means loss of control. Hawthorne captures this terror well:
It mattered not whether she were angel or demon; he was irrevocably within her sphere, and must obey the law that whirled him onward, in ever-lessening circles, towards a result which he did not attempt to foreshadow; and yet, strange to say, there came across him a sudden doubt whether this intense interest on his part were not delusory; whether it were really so deep and positive a nature as to justify him in now thrusting himself into an incalculable position; whether it were not merely the fantasy of a young man s brain, only slightly or not at all connected with his heart.
Giovanni's struggle to stifle his love is what, as Hawthorne seems to say, constitutes male fear of humanity's most fulfilling reward: opening the soul and heart to another. Women like Beatrice hold their breaths, hoping the men they love will take that leap. She tries reassurance:
Forget whatever you may have fancied in regard to me. If true to the outward senses, still it may be false in its essence; but the words of Beatrice Rappaccini's lips are true from the depths of the heart outward. Those you may believe.
Unfortunately, Giovanni cannot let go of his fears. Nor can the other two men in her life. Brenzo sees their characters unmasked as they both use her; but her greatest suffering comes from Giovanni's cowardice:
For Giovanni, sexual commitment to Beatrice means death in the sense of being dominated by a woman, being robbed of his independence, and having his personality swallowed up. Beatrice actually makes no attempt to bind him to her; she professes to want "only to love thee, and be with thee a little time and so to let thee pass away, leaving but thine image in mine heart".... In fact, Giovanni has a real compulsion to possess Beatrice, to change and control her, a compulsion revealed by his attempts to know her sexually, and by his persistent desire to shape her into his personal woman who will gratify his ego and conform to his fantasies.20
Not even Beatrice's saving him from a poisonous bloom or her willingness to ingest a potion that she strongly suspects will kill her convinces Giovanni that she is not a Lucrezia Borgia with a beaker of poison or Snow White's wicked stepmother proffering Eve's apple. Hawthorne may have felt obtuse readers required wilting bouquets and dying insects to understand the deadliness of the relationship; yet even astute readers may miss his point that the heroine has survived -- even thrived -- in a toxic environment totally created by men. She has an elegant home, sufficient brilliance to take over a science professorship (causing a rival to provide the death potion preferred by her cowardly lover -- an adroit touch faculty women can appreciate). Beatrice also has a Cenci-like father, who has set in motion the circumstances that destroy her perceived superhuman power. Whether it is cerebral incest or rearing a daughter in a chemical sewer, Rappaccini has played the traditional role well in deliberately destroying her chances at sharing Hawthorne's symbolic hearthside with a good, loving man.
There can be no finer curtain speech about just who is poisoning whom in the relationship than Beatrice's when she asks:
Was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?
The dilemma and the despair in the relationships between the sexes are major factors of Hawthorne's "tragic vision." In a sense the tragedy occurs because repairing aeons of damage seems hope less, particularly when Eve seems to be the only one working toward Hawthorne's hearth. Our own century's battering, glass ceilings, and ghastly disclosures in counseling sessions make Hawthorne's own positive relationships with women seem unobtainable.
Apparently, Hawthorne's awareness of mutual fears was the first step in taking action to solve the problems between men and women and to show that men's fears were largely groundless. Unfortunately, he had to garb this vital message in allegory. A philosophy espousing that men (and women) really do love one another is the most difficult credo ever to lay upon any civilization. Its purveyors have not fared well against those who fear women most of all.
BARBARA ELLIS is Associate Professor of Mass Communication at McNesse State University. Her doctorate is in
English Education from Oregon State University. A specialist in composition, she is the author of How to Write Themes and Term Papers (Barron's).
Copyright 1993, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Ellis, Barbara. (1993). Some observations about Hawthorne's women. WILLA, Volume II, 13-18.