Dante’s poetic masterpiece can seem intimidating, preventing many a reader from picking it up. Even so, it has entered our cultural consciousness and it can feel like we know Dante even if we have never read him. But not everything you may have heard about Dante is true.
Beatrice Isn’t Really Dante’s Lover.
According to the Vita Nuova, Dante first sees Beatrice when the two are nine. She is dressed in crimson, the color of charity. From that moment she becomes for Dante a physical sign of divine love, always pointing Dante towards the greatest good, God Himself. The two are never involved romantically and are, in fact, married to two different individuals. After Beatrice’s early death (cause unknown), Dante resolves in the Vita Nuova to write no more until he can write something worthy of Beatrice, the blessed one. That work would become the Divine Comedy.
Beatrice Doesn’t Lead Dante Through Hell.
Beatrice’s role in the Inferno is to descend from heaven to ask Virgil to leave his place in Limbo and lead Dante through hell so that he may understand the true nature of sin and repent. Beatrice will not appear again until the end of the Purgatorio, just in time to answer some of Dante’s questions and guide him through heaven in the Paradiso.
The Inferno Isn’t All About Gruesome Punishments.
The Divine Comedy is an intricate work that mirrors the order of God’s universe. The whole work contains 100 cantos–33 for each book plus an extra one to serve as an introduction to the Inferno. Each canto is written in terza rima, a complex rhyme scheme that goes aba bcb cdc, etc. Dante is very interested in using his creation to reflect God’s work and his poem is an extended look at divine justice, divine charity and mercy, and the nature of free will. His work is full of philosophical and theological musings, as well as moving histories of the people who populate his hell. Even though pop culture focuses on the gore and horror, there is a lot more going on in his work.
Dante Sometimes Struggles with Catholic Teaching.
In Canto V, Dante meets the lovers Paolo and Francesca, who had an adulterous affair and now suffer eternally for their lust by being buffetted by winds. He feels so much sympathy for them (and perhaps some guilt over his own role encouraging lust through his older love poems) that he faints. This is just one moment in which Dante seems to struggle with the teachings of the Church, sympathizing with sins he himself might be guilty of.
In other moments, he questions why his models such as Virgil and the other virtuous pagans must suffer in Limbo by being separated eternally from God. They lead upright lives, but, because they were born before Christ, they could not be baptized and go to heaven. It all seems so unfair! Far from accepting whatever the Catholic Church says without any thought, Dante reveals a questioning and curious mind, one that modern readers can relate to.
You Don’t Need to Know Everything About Everything to Understand the Inferno.
Theology, science, politics, history, classical writers, Italian poets. The allusions throughout Dante’s work can sometimes feel overwhelming. However, you don’t need to understand everything about European history and politics to follow the trajectory of the poem. If you get a translation with a few good footnotes, you’re on your way.
14 thoughts on “Dante’s Inferno Isn’t What You Think It Is”
I like that you are recommending the Inferno to those who might feel intimidated by it. A friend I had who had no literary pretensions whatsoever devoured the book. Purgatorio and Paradiso, on the other hand, take some grit to get through.
With respect to the conflict with church dogma, I would like to point out that it occurs early on when Dante, the pilgrim, is not yet acclimated to god’s vision. That would not be complete until the end of Paradiso with the vision of god. The character of Virgil himself begins to lose his luster soon after entering ante-purgatory where he is no longer in his element. This speaks to Virgil as a symbol (ooh, that word again) of pagan virtue without the knowledge of the christ who is lost once faith matter.
Yes, you are right that Dante-Pilgrim grows throughout his journey to become Dante-Poet, who can place sinners in hell that his character self still feels sympathy with. I personally think Purgatorio and Paradiso are even more beautiful than Inferno, but I recognize that Inferno is the most popular book, generally speaking. Mary Jo Bang even did an interesting “modernized” translation to try to convince skeptical readers it’s accessible and relevant. But no word on the modernized Purgatorio!
I have been intimidated about this book….I wand to read it but feel I won’t understand it and I’ll feel stupid. But I do eventually want to give it a try!
I think the key is to find a good translation with footnotes. I wouldn’t start with something older like Longfellow’s translation and I’d definitely want something that was annotated, though there are also plenty of annotated websites. Princeton, Columbia, and Dartmouth all have Dante sites with texts and often annotations.
I have to confess that I don’t know much about Dante’s Inferno. This does make it sound less intimidating, though.
Haha! Well, I tried! 😀
I’ve only read a graphic novel adaptation, “The Young Inferno” by John Agard. I love Victorian literature, but other than Austen, I am super intimidated by anything earlier. I respect older literature’s role in the development of language and culture, but am leery of actually reading it myself.
I haven’t heard of that graphic novel. I might have to check it out!
I think the translation helps. Reading Longfellow’s translation of Dante WILL make it seem dated.
The only thing I remember about the Inferno is Beatrice and frozen Satan flashing his wings and freezing himself in place. Great imagery, there.
Ah, yes! That is a famous image! 😀
As someone who loves to read and has also dedicated his professional life to the study and teaching of theology, I’m a little embarrassed to say I’ve never finished the ‘Divine Comedy.’ I’ve read ‘Inferno’ (of course) and then I got half way through ‘Purgatoro’ before tagging out. I didn’t INTENTIONALLY not finish…I just sort of got distracted and moved on. So I never made it to ‘Paradiso’ which, hahaha if I’m being honest, may be an accurate reflection of how I’m living my life sometimes. I’m close to heaven…but still falling a little short from getting there :).
Haha! I love how you made your attempt link back to your life. I think Dante would approve! Personally, I think each book gets successively better, so I obviously think it’s worth another try some day! 😀
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Really? Coolio! I’ve always wanted to go back and finish it (or, rather, reread ‘Inferno’ and then follow the journey through to the end). Now I have some motivation to do so! Everyone always talks about ‘Inferno’ too so I’m excited by your saying ‘Paradiso’ is even better.
My guess is most people don’t read Paradiso because many classes only have time to teach one book. And they naturally choose the first one!
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