Should Readers Sympathize with Dante’s Famous Lovers, Francesca and Paolo?

Classic Remarks


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Do you think readers should sympathize with Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s Inferno?

Should readers 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!

18 thoughts on “Should Readers Sympathize with Dante’s Famous Lovers, Francesca and Paolo?

  1. kat says:

    I’m thinking I need to reread The Inferno now. Since I read it while still a very innocent teen, I just remember feeling scandalized by Paolo and Francesca and moved on from them very quickly. Based on what you presented here, though, I’d have to agree I would sympathize, especially when I consider there was a time when girls were married off very young, before they even knew what love was and what’s right and wrong.


    • Krysta says:

      I think Dante would say that being scandalized is the right reaction! Dante himself doesn’t seem like he was very faithful as a husband (at least in thought–we don’t even know if his wife went into exile with him, and he was writing poetry about other women at the time!) and so I think he would be more sympathetic to Francesca and Paolo’s situation, as he was perhaps guilty of the same sorts of desires. But he puts Francesca in hell, so he also seems to be aware of the greater implications of his desires.

      Interestingly, Francesca was married probably when she about 20 years old. I believe she knew was she was doing by cheating on her husband, especially as Paolo was married, as well. I also imagine that, as a noblewoman, the need to maintain womanly virtue would have been a lesson taught to her from a young age. But, since she is a soul in hell who has the opportunity to tell Dante-Pilgrim a story about her life, a story he will carry back to the living, I believe she takes this opportunity to try to make her failings appear attractive. This is her chance to create her legacy–and she takes it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • kat says:

        It’s been years since I cracked open my copy of The Inferno, but this finally made me do it, if only to check out the notes in an early 2000s copy. It actually mentioned what you said: Francesca taking the opportunity to create her legacy, especially since Paolo doesn’t say a word. If I were better versed in, well, verse, and The Divine Comedy, I would probably make more comment on it. But, as it is, my mind is spiraling away into unlikely realms. It makes me wonder if maybe Paolo hadn’t actually had a choice in the matter or maybe she silenced him somehow in order to make her own version known. Of note, though, my edition included a timeline of Dante’s life and, some years after his exile, his wife and children did join him and a daughter became a nun under the name Sister Beatrice.


        • Krysta says:

          I don’t know why Paolo doesn’t speak! My first instinct says that Francesca is the more interesting/sympathetic one. She’s the young woman who thought she was marrying the handsome Paolo only to find out she was marrying his ugly older brother. Paolo’s just the guy who was married with kids and had a lengthy affair with another woman. If I wanted to draw out my readers’ sympathies, I’d probably highlight Francesca, as well!

          Ah, that’s quite interesting. I’ve never read anything suggesting that we know that Gemma went into exile with Dante. I even did a quick internet search on her this morning to try to find more information, and I couldn’t find anything that says she did so. I’d be interested to know which book you have so I can find out more! I have read this his children probably joined him at some point, and I knew he had a daughter named Antonia whom scholars now believe is the one who later took on the name of Beatrice. But Gemma proves so elusive!

          Liked by 1 person

          • kat says:

            I’d have to agree. Most women, even now, never really get much of a say when they’re accused of adultery. I’m not quite sure of what to make of Dante giving her a voice given when he wrote it, but I suppose there’s always that dramatic angle. I also wonder if maybe she had been swayed by Paolo and now this is her chance to explain herself and maybe get herself out of Hell while Paolo can’t say anything because she speaks the truth.

            It’s an older copy from 2003. I think it’s this one: At least, it has the same cover and publication date, but I don’t know if any of the information has been updated or removed. My copy says that, between 1319 and 1321, two of his sons, Antonia, and his wife join him in Ravenna and Antonia joined the convent of Santo Stefano degli Olivi in Ravenna. I have no idea where that information came from, but it’s interesting!


            • Krysta says:

              Interesting take! I really have no idea, so it’s fun to speculate! Did Dante know Francesca? Or only about her? (I think I read once he at least had probably met Paolo.) Was he trying to make her look good to impress her relatives? Did he just know her story and feel moved by it? (Even if he puts her in hell, he probably felt bad she was murdered by her own husband, right? Most people would?) If only Dante could tell us!!

              Ooh, thank you!!! I like reading about Dante, so I will have to see if I can track that copy down. I’ve been putting in interlibrary loan requests, but I have no idea if the library is even filling those right now. But it can’t hurt to ask!

              Liked by 1 person

            • kat says:

              It is a ton of fun to speculate! I wonder if maybe Dante and Paolo just didn’t like each other, so Dante chose to give Francesca a voice instead. I’d probably feel bad about someone who was murdered by their own spouse, but then I remember that, even now, women are stoned to death by their communities if they’ve been accused of adultery. Maybe this was Dante’s way of saying it isn’t right and the woman needs to have a say. It would be nice if someone could unearth some notes he wrote about why he wrote The Divine Comedy the way he did. But, honestly, I haven’t met anyone else who’s read The Divine Comedy, so it’s been a lot of fun having this discussion with you. Thank you so much for posting about it and getting me thinking!


  2. Michael J. Miller says:

    For me, one of the things that is so fascinating about the Divine Comedy is it takes a theological framework – hell, purgatory, and heaven – and naturally populates it based on a very human framework of morality. No, obviously, this is the only option open to us. We, as finite and created beings, can’t comprehend the infinite nature of divine transcendence let alone understand with any certainty what happens after we die. All we can do is to try and allow our morality to be informed by our understanding and experience of the divine. However, the fact that Dante has placed Francesca and Paolo in hell ultimately says more about Dante and his understanding of God/God’s will than it does about the true nature of God/God’s will. And again, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. It’s literally the only way we can do theology. But it means the Divine Comedy opens us up to that contemplation because ultimately we can be no more certain of Francesca and Paolo’s fate than Dante.

    Ultimately, I would say Dante judged them too harshly. I believe our desires are ultimately rooted in God. The issue/struggle is how we go about sating those desires. Francesca and Paolo were drawn to each other because they desired a relationship where they were sexually, emotionally, and intellectually fulfilled. We all do. That’s natural and I’d bet heavily God wants that for us. In our modern age, we can have conversations about ending relationships and finding ones that suit our needs. However, in the 13th century? If this was the only path open to their fulfilling that innate desire, then I’d bet God was ok with it.

    Also, I’m of the mind that God is ALWAYS in favor of love, that God is, in fact, love. So I’d always wager love is the highest law :).


    • Krysta says:

      Very true observation! Dante is writing within his framework of Catholic teaching in the Middle Ages, but he is also putting his own perspective into the depictions of morality! I think that is part of what is so interesting about the text. I think Dante really does feel sympathy for Francesca and Paolo, but he’s also living in society and time period where he would have been taught that following one’s lustful desires and cheating on one’s spouse was wrong. So it is interesting that he seems compelled to put the pair in hell because, hey, they’re wrong, right? But then he makes it sort of subversive by making the two look admirable. And he also puts them in the first circle of hell, with the least serious of sins (according to him).

      I wonder, too, if some consideration of the marriage vow would have come into place here. I know that Francesca was married off for political reasons, and I have read that she may have actually been expecting to marry Paolo instead of his brother. (Paolo was even the proxy for the wedding.) But would she have at that time made a promise to be faithful to her husband? (I don’t really know what weddings looked like at the time.) If so, is that part of what Dante finds problematic with Francesca? Is it about her decision to follow her desires instead of her wedding vow?

      Dante interestingly places Piccarda Donati in the lowest sphere of heaven, the Moon, because she broke her vows as a nun when her brother forcibly removed her from the convent and married her off for political reasons. Dante is apparently sympathetic to Piccarda–she’s in heaven–but he considers her breach of vows a valid reason for her not to have attained a higher place in paradise–even though I suspect most people would argue it wasn’t her fault and it was against her own wishes. So it seems to me that Dante takes vows quite seriously.

      But I think these questions, about the nature of love, where it comes from, what it means, what it does, lie at the heart of the Comedy. And I think Dante’s working it out as he goes along. Often you get the feeling that he doesn’t really agree with his own decisions–like placing Virgil in Limbo. Dante likes Virgil! It’s not Virgil’s fault he was born before Christ and couldn’t be baptized! But Dante the Catholic has been taught that Virgil can’t go to heaven if unbaptized, so there it is. Dante’s not happy about it, but he’s apparently not going to go completely against Church teachings. His depiction of Francesca and Paolo suggests, I think, a similar uneasiness. You get the sense he’s questioning things, but he’s not going to completely contradict the Church on adultery. These tensions are what I find so compelling about his work!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Agreed! The Catholic Church was THE institutional authority in Europe in the Middle Ages. It held Europe together after the fall of Rome. It helped hold them together through the Dark Ages and, when the more stable kingdoms rose in place of the warring tribes, the Catholic Church was tied into all of them. I mean, at that time, it was widely believed that there was no salvation outside of the church. You were a believing Catholic in good standing with the church or you weren’t reaching heaven (at least not right away, with purgatory). So like you said, the subversive nature of this text inherent in his questioning and playing with this line is so fascinating to explore within that framework which we often forget as modern readers who don’t see religion’s place in our lives in the same way.

        A few years ago I had a few students who were writing a big paper on the Divine Comedy and they were struggling to see it as more than a quasi-boring slog. We started talking about this and I got so excited because there is SO MUCH here, from the literary side to the historical and theological. I love how much it holds and how much it calls the reader to contemplate. Because even Dante’s contemplations lead the reader to further contemplation on their own!


  3. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I, unfortunately, have never had the pleasure of reading The Divine Comedy. I look forward to reading it someday! Great job with this post — while I know the overarching plot (if you could call it that) of The Divine Comedy, I don’t know this particular passage. You have given me a lot to think about.

    Based on your post alone, I agree that Francesa and Paolo are sympathetic because they can tell their own story. But the context of the entire story must be taken into consideration. This is a trip through Hell. Why are people there? Is it just that people are there? What role does the Church play in this text and how does Dante-poet portray those perspectives (I don’t know!)? These additional questions make me wonder if I’d be sympathetic as a contemporary of Dante reading this, or whether I’d be wishing them their deserved glory in Hell.

    I know as a modern woman, I am conflicted. Adultery is abhorrent to me. But most adultery occurs because people are incapable of communicating their needs, wants, desires, and passions. It’s a complex thing with many sides of struggles. Between the lovers and their partners, between the lovers themselves, between lovers and society, between lovers their partners and society- very complex.

    Okay, now I really want to read this!


    • Krysta says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Dante is one of my great literary loves–I return to his work all the time!

      It is interesting to think about the context Dante is working in. My understanding is that he had a lot of influences, both Catholic and I suppose what would have been called pagan. He likely read or was familiar with works from Boethius, St. Augustine, and Aquinas, but also clearly loved authors like Virgil. So he’s working within a clearly Catholic framework of morality, but he’s drawing from the philosophies of specific Catholic writers, while also adding his own perspective, which was also influenced by non-Catholic thinkers. I think what makes the text so interesting is that Dante clearly often feels tension between Church teaching and his own thoughts. And I think people still have some of the same questions he has, such as: Why can’t you go to heaven if you’re a good person, but unbaptized?

      Often Dante raises these questions, but he usually ends up bowing to the official Church teaching on morality. He does add in touches of his own, however. For example, there’s a guy so apparently evil that Dante puts him in hell while he’s still alive–his body is still walking around on earth! That’s definitely not a thing that can happen to you per Catholic teaching, as far as I am aware.

      I think Dante’s contemporaries may have felt similarly to modern readers. I think, like many contemporary readers, they probably had an idea that adultery is wrong and that it’s pretty awful for someone to cheat on their spouse. (I mean, come on. Paolo is sleeping with his own brother’s wife! That’s some soap opera drama there. Can you imagine that happening in real life? The gossip would not be in his favor.) On the other hand, when I read about the past, it seems pretty clear that their fidelity rates weren’t any higher than ours, even if they supposedly have more societal expectations around sexuality. I think Dante’s readers may have thought, “Hm, yes, adultery is bad, but also can you blame Francesca?”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        Ha! Are you sure Briana is the one who studied Medieval Literature? You are so well-versed in this, Krysta! Did you study Medieval Lit as well?

        I think the conflict Dante has with his beliefs and understanding of the world as compared to what the Church preaches can also be seen in the fact that The Divine Comedy was written in Italian at a time where most everything even slightly Church related was written in Latin. He wrote this in exile of Rome, right? I love that this poem can be explored as a text that questions the Church teachings while also gives Dante the space to explore what he is pondering and questioning, not just about the Church but about life.

        The drama of Italy, Medieval or not, is extreme. All of Italian history is filled with people sleeping with the spouses of siblings. Casanova is Italian, for goodness sake. I’m glad to hear that you think Dante’s contemporaries might be pondering the same things we are. Arranged marrage must really suck if you’re young when it happens. Can you imagine being a teenager, being super horny and always in love with the next dude over something tiny and then being wisked away for a political marriage? Gag.


  4. Never Not Reading says:

    I didn’t participate this week because I’ve … never read Dante… BUT! It’s kind of funny that they were led into their adulterous affair because they were inspired by a BOOK, lol. I see your point about Dante making this scene (and, let’s be honest, probably every scene) about him and what he can learn from it, but it’s still funny. You readers of romance novels beware!!


    • Krysta says:

      Never read Dante?! Gasp! 😉 Actually, no one participated in Dante this week, so…you’re not alone!

      Haha! It IS kind of funny! But we also still have similar conversations about media, I think. Like, will playing video games lead to violence? Is listening to certain types of music bad for you? The media has changed, but not the concern.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Never Not Reading says:

        Wow, I wouldn’t have made that connection! It’s so true! Like, we don’t want kids reading THUG in school because reading the f-word will turn them into hooligans and cause them to drop out and get addicted to crack.

        To be completely honest though, I understand the fear of romance novels leading to … whatever. Intimacy with a life partner is a tricky thing to navigate, and all kinds of things can really mess with that. While I don’t necessarily think reading romance novels will turn you into a sexual deviant, I can understand why religious people might find sexual content inappropriate, or why inexperienced people might be concerned it will give them unrealistic expectations, and so forth.


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