The Last Temptation of Science


There are those whose noses wrinkle whenever they catch a whiff of allegory in the air. Edgar Allan Poe, in his 1847 review “Tale Writing — Nathaniel Hawthorne,” quips that the best success a writer of allegory can hope for is to accomplish a feat that is not worth doing in the first place. “There is scarcely one respectable word to be said” in its defense. Allegory is obtrusively didactic, Poe elaborates, and thus it disturbs the equilibrium, essential to well-made fiction, between the narrative surface and the thematic depths: meaning should be an undercurrent of subtle force, and allegory redirects it to the surface, where it overwhelms the life-giving illusion of the story. One suspects that, though Poe does not indict the story specifically, he has “Rappaccini’s Daughter” very much in mind as he lights into Hawthorne’s use of allegory. “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” published in 1844, is the tale of a beautiful maiden confined to her father’s house and garden in long-ago Italy, and of the handsome young man who espies her from his window, falls prey to her enchantment, and with only the best intentions brings about her death. The garden is explicitly likened to Eden, though a malign fallen version thereof; the maiden’s father is an eminent doctor, explicitly likened to Adam, who has cultivated plants of unexampled deadliness to be used for medicinal purposes, and to fortify his daughter against the world’s various cruelties. The story has a texture of heightened allusiveness that bristles with meaning, inviting the reader with sensitive feelers to reconsider the wisdom not only of Genesis but of Dante, Milton, Ovid, Spenser, Machiavelli, and the modern scientific project. Hawthorne takes on erotic mysteries, scientific aspirations, venerable religious wisdom — and he composes about as richly literary a short story as any American writer has ever produced.

more from Algis Valiunas at The New Atlantic here.