An essay by Jason Da Silva Castanheira
For Prof. Louise Slater’s course entitled Nature, Humanity, Technology
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and Michael Pollan’s “The Farm”, from his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, explore the consequences of science. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” tells the story of a mad scientist who will sacrifice anything for scientific progress, even to the point of placing his daughter at risk. “The Farm,” in contrast, is centered on the genetically modified cornfield of today and the advancements, along with the repercussions, that led to this modern field. Both authors develop individuals and use figurative language to illustrate the two-sided nature of science. Both authors explore the duality within science—that it can be used for both progress and destruction—from different angles: Hawthorne leaves the question open while Pollan believes that science is intrinsically destructive.
Both authors develop individuals that become symbols for this duality within science and use these individuals to embody the authors’ perspectives. Hawthorne develops his antagonist, Dr. Rappaccini, is rumored to be a mad scientist who will do anything for the progress of science—a true “vile empiric” (77). Pollan tells the story of Fritz Haber, a scientist of the early twentieth century who is known not only for his scientific achievements, but also for “the ugly twist of his biography” (114).
Dr. Rappaccini loved science so much so that “he would sacrifice human life…, [or] whatever else was dearest to him, for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard seed to the great heap of his knowledge” ( Hawthorne, 68). However, Hawthorne contrasts this ambition, in the closing scene, with the revelation of Dr. Rappaccini’s love for his daughter. Dr. Rappaccini only wished to protect her from the evils of the world by burdening her with her deadly breath. He wished to “endow [his daughter] with marvelous gifts against which no power nor strength could avail an enemy”, but simultaneously he “inflict[ed] [her with] this miserable doom” (81). His intentions were pure, and thus Hawthorne develops the oblivious side of Dr. Rappaccini to demonstrate the ambiguity found within science—although the intentions may be pure, there are negative consequences. The author creates an elaborate character who is a symbol of ambiguity and complexity that he sees within science. Dr. Rappaccini and science are both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in this sense that they have two conflicting sides.
Pollan, on the other hand, condemns Haber portrays him negatively. Pollan credits Haber for what is possibly the most important discoveries of the twentieth century and, subsequently, the “first gas attack in military history’ (114). Both scientists’ lives become extensions of the duality observed in science. Their contributions to the world were utilized for progress and simultaneously for destruction. Haber discovered a “vital new source of fertility and an awful new weapon” (Pollan, 115). While Hawthorne begins with Dr. Rappaccini’s dark side and in the conclusion develops a compassionate one to consequently illustrate the ambiguity of science, Pollan does the exact opposite in developing Haber’s dark side as the narrative progresses. This shift in chronology emphasizes the alternate, ominous face of science. Hawthorne, while evaluating this duality, is ambiguous, leaving the reader to contemplate its ramification. Pollan is severe, showing Haber’s alternate side.
Moreover, both authors use figurative language, illustrating the creations of science as sentient to make the reader uneasy. Both authors describe the scientific advancements in a way that imparts a sense of life to these creations and by consequence instills doubt in the progress that they supposedly brought about. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Hawthorne personifies the plants genetically mutated by Dr. Rappaccini as having lives of their own, ultimately giving them an eerie aura. The plants “drew their branches into an intimate embrace” to greet Beatrice (69), inviting an uncomfortable feeling as these poisonous plants embrace her. Similarly, Pollan describes the genetically engineered corn as “the greediest beneficiary” that upon “mak[ing] the acquaintance of chemical fertilizers,” blossomed into the now “teeming cities of corn” (113-114). Both descriptions are unsettling as they give life to the creations of science and make the notion of these scientific advancements perturbing.
Hawthorne furthers the unnatural and troublesome descriptions of the creations, describing “the slumbering flowers” that “the dawn had [awoken]” (75) and “crept serpent-like” (66). The similes personify the flowers as harassing and ominous, lending negative connotations to the creations of science. Pollan, in contrast, uses metaphors based on groups of peoples to create a similar unsettling aura. The modern cornfield—planted with mutated seed and fertilizer—is much like a “ crowded metropolis” or an “ orderly mob”; they are the “true socialist utopia” (111). The description of the scientifically-optimized cornfield becomes beyond worrisome as the idle corn is lively and waiting to do the unimaginable. Pollan uses these metaphors not only to draw links to our modern day society in order to perturb the reader, and also to suggest that perhaps our scientific creations have become better than us: a utopian society. The figurative language employed by the authors is discomforting and worrisome, conveying a negative connotation to the scientific advancements and ultimately displaying their pessimistic view of science.
By and large, both stories forewarn against scientific progress, contemplating its consequences and questioning the motives behind such progress. Both authors have different stances on the thin line of the duality within science: Hawthorne is ambiguous, leaving one to come to a conclusion, whilst Pollan outlines this duality with a negative view. Both authors explain that one must be wary of science, by developing their characters and using figurative language. Perhaps it is time we contemplate this double-sided coin that is science and its consequences before plants can creep along gardens and form a utopian socialist government.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappaccini’s Daughter”. Literary Themes: Nature, Humanity, Technology. Ed. Louise Slater. Montreal: Dawson College, 2013. 65-81. Print.
Pollan, Michael. “The Farm”. Literary Themes: Nature, Humanity, Technology. Ed. Louise Slater. Montreal: Dawson College, 2013. 109-119. Print.