Humanity’s Relation to Nature: Hawthorne, Rappaccini and Blithedale

In his The Blithedale Romance and Rappaccini’s Daughter, Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrates elements of an enduring clash between humanity and Nature, and humanity’s attempt to find an equilibrium point in its relation to the natural world.  Though they take different forms, and even their primary subjects are quite different, there is a sense in which they can be viewed as two parts of a larger story; and the two parts may be viewed as having some amount of overlap, as well.  For those who have not read The Blithedale Romance, the story is a very warm tale that ends grimly, postulating that communal living in close quarters to Nature is the aforementioned equilibrium point, and equally expostulating humanity’s inability to recognize and facilitate this fact.  Human folly, possibly even some notion of “sin nature,” is to blame —this being realized by the death of the idea, which is symbolized by Zenobia’s (matron of the Blithedale community) suicide.  Rappaccini’s Daughter is a sordid tale of a madman’s experimentation that lacks any care for ramifications pertaining to people, broadly construed as humanity.  That is to say, the tale features the growing concern, not unlike Dostoevsky’s after visiting England, that progress and science have hijacked human affairs, dictating humanity’s historical trajectory in a direction that is wholly unsympathetic to humanity, itself.  The clash between Nature and humanity comes in the form of Dr. Rappaccini’s manipulation of Nature for science’s sake.  The story also includes repeated allusion to humanity’s original, pristine state in the Garden of Eden.  In all of this, there really is some ambiguity between humanity’s nature and Nature, as there seems to be, in addition to Nature versus humanity, the human nature versus nature conflict; and this is fascinating, because it is not completely clear what relationship humanity’s nature and Nature really is.  One thought is that the relationship is context dependent.

A claim that one might make is that Hawthorne was concerned that humanity was turning away from a more immediately harmonious and proper relationship with Nature, by spurning communal establishment, as presented in The Blithedale Romance.  The overlap between this and Rappaccini’s Daughter might be that this same force within human philosophy is driving society toward scientific and natural philosophical pursuits.  This was the reason for alluding to Dostoevsky and how a progress-ridden mentality was in the air, and which went well beyond the coast of England, most certainly being felt by America in the mid-nineteenth century.  A science-has-all-the-answers mentality, not unlike present times, had begun to take hold of society.  In this context, it is unmistakable what Hawthorne meant, when, through his mouthpiece, Baglioni, rhetorical asked if the death of Beatrice was the upshot of Dr. Rappaccinni’s experiment.  The aim, then, is the unmitigated mentality that science has all of the answers, suggesting that humanity needs to reconsider what is at stake, and ask what exactly the intention of the endeavor is.  Therefore, it may have been Hawthorne’s intention to advance the line of thought that, not only has something in human nature driven humanity away from the solution he maintained (the communal living, as in Blithedale, or the real life Brook Farm he has invested in), but that it went further, driving humanity off a cliff, without regard for the consequences for humanity.

It seems this claim can be further substantiated.  Consider that the Rappaccini’s Daughter takes place in Italy, reminding us that “science,” “scientia,” comes from the Latin for “knowledge.”  Given the incessant imagery and textual suggestion of the Garden of Eden in the short story, Hawthorne, it appears, is maintaining science is moving humanity further away from where humanity belongs.  There is more to it than this.  The guise of the experimentation is the artful notion that the science is pushing humanity closer to where it should be, namely, the Garden of Eden, even if Hawthorne is only speaking metaphorically, so as to give the reader a definite point of reference.  This is merely to say that science is pretentious, in the sense that, what it promises (or, at least, proposes as a possibly product) is precisely what it moves humanity away from, a better life.  If this doesn’t capture a component of the human condition, nothing does.  Today, one can hardly see a month pass by without an article on whether science has really benefitted humanity, or whether it has simply sped up and made more chaotic —and, thus, less desirable and more miserable— the average person’s daily life.  Indeed, though far less philosophical in presentation, Hawthorne may be taken as echoing Rousseau’s First Discourse, albeit in a slightly different direction.  In it, was his position, in response to the Dijon Academy’s essay question (“Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts contributed to refining moral character?”), that moral character had moral character deteriorated as a consequence of the restoration of the arts and sciences.  At nearly one hundred years later, technê, as opposed to a more epistêmê-centric concern, was at the fore; and this was natural, given the preeminent position that technology was taking in the West.  (Here, it is worth keeping in mind that so many of the great French, German, and English physicists and mathematicians were also engineers, as well.)  Viewing Dr. Rappaccini as case in point of Rousseau’s assertion does not seem far off.  Quite possibly, this is no accident on Hawthorne’s part.

There is just a bit further to go, in the view that Hawthorne seems to take in Rappaccini’s Daughter.  Interestingly, Gausconti, upon first seeing Dr. Rappaccini asks very naively, is this the Garden of Eden and is this Adam?  The question is designed to ask the question of Rappaccini’s functional role in this story.  The question strikes the reader, because Dr. Rappaccini certainly is not Adam; one can tell that from the very start. No, Dr. Rappaccini is playing God, and, much like Dostoevsky’s Ivan notes, in The Brother’s Karamazov, with God dead, everything is permitted —or, more accurate to Hawthorne’s tale, with God’s power usurped, the usurper is permitted everything.

The Rousseauian nature of Hawthorne’s thought goes a bit deeper still.  Hawthorne hasn’t asked everyone to go back to the State of Nature, and neither did Rousseau.[1]  Hawthorne definitely sought a harmony, as Rousseau did in his solution.  This is probably what makes Hawthorne’s take on the dual nature of human’s to have a nature that accords with Nature, in some cases, and yet another nature that puts humanity in discord with Nature, a fallen kind of nature.

The conclusion that is plausible is that Rappaccini’s Daughter and The Blithedale Romance provide to parts to a larger store, wherein the two parts cohere to a very high degree.  It is through the corroboration of the presented interpretations of these individual works that seems to drive home the reality of the above thesis.

[1] Actually, it is unclear to me, not knowing much about Hawthorne the man, what his position was on the State of Nature, whether Hobbesian or Lockean.  My best guess is that he appreciated the sociological ties between human beings, and maintained something like a social understanding (à la Kropotkin) of the State of Nature, and possibly a volitional, individualist take on one’s decision to enter one community or another; but that is a complete guess.  At some point, I intend to read a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, but, for now, feel free to throw in any little tidbits you might know about his life.  About the only thing I know from his life is his time spent at the Old Manse, and his association with Thoreau, Emerson, and the Alcotts.


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Filed under Literature, Natural Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science

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