WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?
Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.
HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?
Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!
(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)
THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:
Do you think readers should sympathize with Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s Inferno?
In Canto V of the Inferno, Dante meets Francesca da Rimini in the circle of hell reserved to the lustful, along with her lover Paolo. There, they are being buffeted about ceaselessly by winds, to punish them for being guided by their passions in life. Dante asks how they came to this fate and Francesca explains how she and Paolo read a book together about Lancelot. Enthralled by the romantic story, they gave in to their own passionate desires. After hearing Francesca’s story, Dante faints in pity.
The meeting with Paolo and Francesca is one of the most famous scenes in Dante’s Inferno, one that has inspired many artistic renderings. Francesca, the only woman to speak in the Inferno, is a gentle-born noble who tells her story eloquently; it is truly difficult to listen and not to feel sorry for her. Does she deserve to be punished for love?
Readers who know more of Francesca’s background than Dante tells will also be aware that Francesca was married off to Giovanni Malatesta, an ill-formed man, in a political match. She ended up falling in love with Giovanni’s younger brother Paolo, and they carried on their adulterous affair until her husband caught them and killed them both. This knowledge makes Francesca seem even more sympathetic. She never asked to married to a man she did not love! She certainly didn’t deserve to die for it!
However, even though Dante’s description of Francesca and Paolo’s fall is sympathetic, readers have to keep in mind several other things that are happening in the text. The first consideration is that Francesca, and not Dante-Poet (the narrator) is telling her story. Of course she wants to sound sympathetic! But can readers trust her account of what it means to be in love? She is, after all, condemned to hell for the sin of lust. Dante-Poet is suggesting, by placing Francesca and Paolo in hell, that they were wrong. Readers should probably think twice about accepting Francesca’s story, and her interpretation of what love is, at face value.
Also interesting in this scene is that Francesca blames a book for bringing about her fall. She calls the book a panderer or go-between. Dante spent his youth writing erotic poetry–much the same stuff that Francesca says lead to her destruction. In this moment, Dante-Poet is reflecting on his own role as an artist, and the power that words hold. He is implicitly blaming himself for potentially leading readers astray with his earlier work. Now, however, in the Comedy, he uses his talents to try to make his readers understand the nature of sin and its ugliness, and how they should reflect on their lives in order to choose good instead of evil.
So are Francesca and Paolo sympathetic? Certainly! Even Dante-Pilgrim (the character our narrator Dante-Poet is writing about) thinks so! But Dante-Poet also suggests that if readers think the pair are sympathetic, there is something wrong with their perspective. They should never feel sympathy for something that is wrong. And that is the great power of Dante’s Comedy. All at once, he makes us feel the contradictions of what it means to be alive, and to be human. We feel sorry for Francesca and Paolo, and perhaps recognize something of ourselves in them, even as we recognize logically that we should not feel sympathetic for adulterers. How do we reconcile the two views? How do we accept our human emotions but also accept that perhaps there is something beyond emotion? That struggle is at the heart of Dante’s Comedy–and a key reason I keep returning to the text.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts and links in the comments below!