Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature

By Margaret Hallissy | Go to book overview

5
Conclusion: Beatrice Rappaccini

For evil are women, my children; and since they have no power or strength over man, they use wiles by outward attractions, that they may draw him to themselves. And whom they cannot bewitch by outward attractions, him they overcome by craft. . . . Women are overcome by the spirit of fornication more than men, and in their heart they plot against men; and by means of their adornments they deceive their minds, and by the glance of the eye instil the poison, and then through the accomplished act they take them captive. For a woman cannot force a man openly, but by a harlot's bearing she beguiles him. Flee therefore, fornication, my children, and command your wives and your daughters, that they adorn not their heads and their faces to deceive the mind: because every woman who useth these wiles hath been reserved for eternal punishment. For thus they allured the Watchers who were before the flood.

Testament of Reuben1

In 1839 Nathaniel Hawthorne transcribed into his notebook the following passage from Sir Thomas Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica ( 1646): "'A story there passeth of an Indian king that sent unto Alexander a fair woman, fed with aconite and other poisons, with this intent complexionally to destroy him!'--Sir T. Browne." 2 This same Alexander the Great story, which had occupied the attention of writers on poisons for hundreds of years and which Holmes used in his novel sixteen years later, grew into the plot of "Rappaccini's Daughter," the most sophisticated treatment of the venomous woman theme in Western literature.

Hawthorne had long shown an interest in the correspondence between physical and moral evil symbolized by poison. Like medieval and Renaissance medical writers, Hawthorne was attracted by the metaphorical thinking needed to "symbolize moral or spiritual disease by disease of the body." In the note that probably developed into his story "Egotism, or the Bosom

-133-

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Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Copyright Acknowledgments v
  • Contents ix
  • Preface: Secret Weapon xi
  • 1 - Introduction: Archetypes and Stereotypes 1
  • 2 - Mother Eve and Other Death-Dealers 15
  • 3 - Venefica: Healer and Witch 59
  • 4 - Woman and the Serpent 89
  • 5 - Conclusion: Beatrice Rappaccini 133
  • Notes 143
  • Selected Bibliography 157
  • Index 161
  • About the Author 169
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