Nathaniel Hawthorne, the acclaimed novelist and short-story writer, was also one of the nation’s first science-fiction authors. With a penchant for moral issues, Hawthorne first set out to espouse his ideas in “The Minister’s Black Veil.” He made the case that all of us have “secret sins” that we hide from our friends, our family, our God, and ourselves. However, not content to deal with these abstract issues of morality and future judgment, Hawthorne quickly turned his considerable talents to the issues of the time. An explosion in the sciences in the mid-to-late 19th century left many Americans, including Hawthorne, scrambling for some purchase in increasingly unfamiliar ground. Therefore, he published three more short stories, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Birthmark,” and “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” in which he warns his readers of the dangers of unrestrained scientific growth. Hawthorne argues through his characterizations and plot lines that any scientific advancement and experimentation must always keep firmly in mind the public good and follow established moral guidelines. Unrestrained experimentation is a recipe for disaster and goes against God’s Plan for Creation (Tucker 416-7)/(Current-García 50-1).
Heidegger: The Black Book of Mysticism
In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” Hawthorne clearly shows his wariness of the burgeoning scientific advances of the time. The main character, Dr. Heidegger, is Hawthorne’s embodiment of science in this story. He is a learned man, with mountains of ancient manuscripts sitting in his study and an intense, clinical detachment from the universe. He is withdrawn and aloof, even from his friends. Life is not for living in; it is merely a laboratory from which he conducts his experiments into nature’s fundamental truths (“Heidegger” 945).
The black book Heidegger consults on occasion further embodies Hawthorne’s wariness of the sciences. The book, “bound in black leather” (“Heidegger” 946), was considered by Heidegger’s friends to be a dangerous book of magic. Hawthorne creates an air of menace around the book, which he uses to represent the mystery and peril inherent with science. He raises science almost to the level of the supernatural. He even recounts an episode in which a housecleaner, upon touching the black book, is startled out of her wits when the inanimate objects of Heidegger’s study suddenly came alive:
the skeleton had rattled in its closet, the picture of the young lady had stepped one foot upon the floor, and several ghastly faces had peeped forth from the mirror; while the brazen head of Hippocrates frowned, and said, “Forbear!” (“Heidegger” 946)
Clearly, such a book, and the knowledge that it represents, is not to be trifled with (“Heidegger” 945-6).
As the story unfolds, the reader discovers the full extent of Dr. Heidegger’s thirst for knowledge. After giving his four friends, Mr. Melbourne, Colonel Killigrew, Mr. Gascoigne, and the Widow Wycherly, a sample of the recently discovered “elixir of life,” Heidegger becomes an aloof observer of the events that unfold. He does nothing while his now-childlike friends go at each others’ throats, with the men literally tearing the room apart to win the Widow’s heart. The absence of even an earnest plea for order as his furniture is being destroyed further demonstrates the wariness Hawthorne feels towards the unrestrained passion for knowledge; Heidegger is too engrossed in watching the unfolding drama to interfere. If Heidegger declined to intervene and at least attempt to save his friends and his study, then would he intercede if his experiments caused even more serious repercussions? The answer, according to Hawthorne, should scare the reader more than the need to ask the question (“Heidegger” 947-50).
Aylmer: Tampering with God's Plan
In “The Birthmark,” Hawthorne takes his conclusions to the next logical step: not only is scientific detachment dangerous but scientific tampering should be avoided. He again presents the reader with his archetypical metaphor for science, Aylmer, a self-professed scholar mostly withdrawn from the drabness of the everyday world in his pursuit of the fantastic laws governing creation (“Birthmark” 149-50).
As in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” Hawthorne provides a plot device that further embodies his wariness of science: Aylmer’s lab. This place, the source of Aylmer’s discoveries, is presented as a portal into one of the hotter regions of hell: oppressively dark with the only illumination coming from a huge furnace that also manages to keep the room uncomfortably hot. Evidently, though Hawthorne was awed by the fantastic discoveries that were transforming his world (represented by Aylmer’s wondrous discoveries), he clearly felt uncomfortable as to their origin: the dank and “unnatural” laboratory tainted with the fumes of the furnace and bathed in the surreal glow of its fire (“Birthmark” 160).
Moving beyond the characters and plot devices in the story, Hawthorne succeeds in etching his caution indelibly in the reader’s mind as he unfolds the tragedy of the death of Aylmer’s wife, Georgiana. Obsessed with perfection, Aylmer nearly goes mad as he attempts to remove the one, fatal flaw of Georgiana’s beauty, a red birthmark on her face:
In the centre of Georgiana’s left cheek there was a singular mark, deeply interwoven…with the texture and substance of her face…Its shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest pygmy size (“Birthmark” 148-9).
To save her husband’s sanity
as well as her own, Georgiana eventually agrees to have the birthmark removed using Aylmer’s scientific processes. However, the very certitude that Aylmer shows in his abilities is his downfall. “Possessing
this degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature” (“Birthmark” 148), Aylmer is riding high for a downfall
. By removing the birthmark from his wife, Aylmer irrevocably upsets nature’s “Plan
" for Georgiana and she wastes away, flawless but now unable to subsist in this imperfect plane of existence. According to Hawthorne, the triumph of man over nature and of nature’s God is a fallacy; nature will always prevail and the effects of science’s attempts can be disastrous (“Birthmark” 151, 164-5).
Rappaccini: The Archetype of Aggrandizement
Hawthorne’s loathing for unrestrained scientific discovery finds its peak in the science-fiction masterpiece “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Though Rappaccini, an Italian doctor of renown, again embodies science, this time Hawthorne expresses his utter hatred of the man and people like him. His very description speaks of the doctor’s inner darkness:
His figure…showed itself to be that of no common laborer, but a tall, emaciated, sallow, and sickly-looking man, dressed in a scholar’s garb of black. He was beyond the middle term of life, with gray hair, a thin grey beard, and a face singularly marked with intellect…but which could never, even in his more youthful days, have expressed much warmth of heart (“Rappaccini” 20).
It seems almost as if the very air around Rappaccini turns dark and gloomy by his presence.
Instead of a study or a laboratory, Hawthorne instead chooses a garden to express his fear of nature gone awry through scientific tampering. The garden, from which Rappaccini had created his fantastic potions and curatives, contains unearthly plants and herbs. Instead of being light and airy, the place exudes a twisted sense of wrongness. The mutant plants are inherently dangerous, releasing poisons into the air and discharging deadly oils. Clearly, science has pushed the limits of nature and created something dark and sinister (“Rappaccini” 20-1).
It is in Rappaccini’s character that the potential harm that Hawthorne sees in unbridled science finds its most potent form. The doctor is utterly without morals; life is one big experiment and the human beings that inhabit it are mere lab rats to be toyed with and thrown aside. As Rappaccini’s colleague, Pietro Baglioni, puts it:
His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment. He would sacrifice human life, his own among the rest, or whatever else was dearest to him, for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustardseed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge (“Rappaccini” 24).
As Hawthorne unfolds his tale, Giovanni Guasconti, the main character, becomes ensnared in one of Rappaccini’s reprehensible traps as he falls in love with Rappaccini’s beautiful daughter, Beatrice. Beatrice, the fruition of the doctor’s life work, is even more dangerous than most of the plants in Rappaccini’s garden. Her touch burns and the cloying aroma of her breath kills. As Giovanni is drawn further into Rappaccini’s machinations, he begins to become like her, with her poisons being absorbed into his very essence. The death of Beatrice (due to Baglioni’s intervention) as an unintended consequence of Rappaccini’s “experiment” and the slow transformation of Giovanni into this “poisoned being” is a damning indictment of those like Rappaccini who would sacrifice anything, including human life, for the aggrandizement of the accumulated scientific body of knowledge (“Rappaccini” 40, 44-7).
In these short stories, Nathaniel Hawthorne makes a compelling case against unbridled scientific advancement. Reacting to the explosion of knowledge and inventions in his time, Hawthorne portrays those who would seek to expound on the cumulative “body scientific” at the expense of their fellow man as reprehensible monsters. Aloof observation should be scorned in favor of the use of science to ameliorate society’s ills. Hawthorne’s vitalistic interpretation of the universe convinces him that science should never try to alter nature’s “design,” nor should it be looked at lightly.
- Current-García, Eugene. The American Short Story before 1850: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1985. 50-51.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment." 30 Sept. 2003 <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/>.
- ---. Rappaccini's Daughter. The American Short Story. Ed. Calvin Skaggs. New York: Dell, 1980. 17-47.
- ---. The Birthmark. Mosses from an Old Manse. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 147-163.
- ---. The Minister's Black Veil. The American Renaissance: Five Major Writers. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 265-273.
- Tucker, Martin. Moulton's Library of Literary Criticism of English and American Authors Through the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. 4th ed. Vol. III. New York: Frederick Ugar Co., 1978. 416-417.