If one test of a work’s greatness is that it can speak to readers in any historical moment yet still be firmly rooted in its own time, Dante’s Divine Comedy has few peers. Dante began writing the Comedy (Divine was added to the title two centuries later) around 1306 after being exiled from his native Florence in 1302 on a specious charge of political corruption. Formal features of the poem were revolutionary. Writing in Italian rather than Latin, the language of literature for Dante’s predecessors and contemporaries, Dante cast the poem in tertiary rhyme (terza rima), a rhyme scheme he invented to give poetic form to the narrative movement of the Comedy. The middle line of each three-line stanza rhymes with the first and third lines of the following stanza. The poem is full of references to Florentine politics, medieval Catholic theology, and the cultural life of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Florence. In part a tribute to Bice Portinari (called Beatrice in the Comedy), the girl with whom Dante fell in love when both were nine years old and to whom he remained emotionally devoted all his life, the Comedy is also intensely autobiographical, an examination of the poet’s soul at middle age. Infused with the specifics of Dante’s own life and the world in which he lived, the Comedy is nonetheless a profound exploration of questions that transcend Dante’s time and place: What is the nature of sin? Is perfect justice possible, in either this world or another? How can happiness be attained?
Dante chose to call his poem a comedy (commedia in Italian) because it ends happily. The poem follows a pilgrim who journeys through the afterlife to salvation and a vision of God under the guidance of the souls of the Roman poet Virgil, Dante’s literary model, and his beloved Beatrice. Before the Paradiso and its triumphant ending, the pilgrim must make his way through Inferno and Purgatorio, the first two parts of the poem. If Inferno, rather than Purgatorio or Paradiso, retains the strongest grip on our collective imagination, the best explanation for this is probably the simplest—the sinners of literature tend to be far more memorable than the saints. To take only two examples of Dante’s remarkably vivid creations, we meet in Inferno Francesca, whose sly story of her affair with Paolo is so moving to the pilgrim that he faints out of pity, and Count Ugolino, whose punishment for the sin of betrayal consists of gnawing eternally at the skull of a fellow sinner.
Among the poem’s most memorable characters is the pilgrim himself—in part a stand in for Dante, but also for the reader. By leaving the speaker of the poem nameless, Dante encourages the reader to identify with him. Before the pilgrim emerges as the subject of the poem in the first tercet (three-line stanza) of Canto I, which introduces both Inferno and the Comedy as a whole, he establishes his commonality with the poem’s readers: “Midway along the journey of our life/ I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/ for I had wandered off from the straight path” (p. 67). Moving from the generalization of “our life” in the first line to the specificity of the first person in the second line suggests that the pilgrim’s experience is meant to be understood not only as that of the character we follow through the poem, but as that of everyone. The trajectory of the pilgrim’s journey, from sin to salvation, and to self-discovery, is both literal, taking place in an afterlife given physical reality in the poem, and figurative, representing the ideal trajectory of every Christian life. Throughout the poem, Dante holds these two aspects of the pilgrim in tension with one another—on the one hand, his status as an individual with a particular past and a unique consciousness, and, on the other, his status as a kind of Everyman.
This tension between the specific and the exemplary is even more pronounced in the sinners the pilgrim encounters. Each of them is associated with a specific sin and therefore plays a symbolic role, yet each is based on a real historical figure. As the pilgrim moves through the successive circles of Hell, each circle inhabited by more offensive sinners than the previous one, his reactions to the sinners and their stories evolve. Again, Francesca and Ugolino are telling examples. In Canto V, Francesca tells the pilgrim how reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere caused her and Paolo to submit to their desire for one another. Beholding the lovers now bound forever at each other’s side, Paolo weeping continuously, the pilgrim is overcome by pity for them and faints. Francesca has told her story so as to elicit his sympathy, and she succeeds. The pilgrim sees her not as one of countless souls guilty of lust and deserving of their places in Hell, but as an individual whose present suffering is more affecting than the knowledge of her past sin. So too might the reader react to Francesca. In Canto XXXIII, however, the pilgrim displays a much different attitude toward the sinners. Count Ugolino tells the story of being imprisoned along with his children for betraying his political allies; all of them die of starvation. Before they die, however, his children offer Ugolino their flesh as food. Whether he takes up their offer before he dies himself is not entirely clear, but his punishment is to gnaw at the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri, the ally who in turn betrayed him. Like Paolo in Canto V, Ruggieri never speaks. Instead of sympathy for Ugolino, the pilgrim expresses outrage at the horrible death of Ugolino’s innocent children.
By the end of Inferno, the pilgrim’s attitude toward the sinners is more analytical. He seems less focused on the personal details of the stories they tell than on the sin itself. This could be due, in part, to the fact that the gravity of the sins increases as he descends; but it could also be because he has come to see their punishments as just. Yet the power with which Dante renders the stories and suffering of the souls in Hell seems contrary to persuading the reader that the absence of mercy with respect to these souls should not be questioned. The change in the pilgrim’s reactions to the souls he encounters suggests that his emotions are eventually stirred, not by the suffering of the damned, but by the suffering of those affected by their sins. This kind of awareness on the part of the damned would have prevented their sinning in the first place. Indeed, for Dante, the capacity to temper one’s desires with rational thought, so as to fulfill them in ways pleasing to God, is the key to earthly happiness. As the pilgrim’s guide, Virgil embodies an ideal balance between feeling and rational thought and provides a kind of model toward which the pilgrim strives. (Virgil resides in Hell only because he lived before Christ.)
But this view of sin and punishment raises an important question: Of what value is forgiveness? If the pilgrim moves ever closer to God by extinguishing responses that are contrary to the absolute finality of Hell’s punishments, does Dante mean to suggest that his readers adopt such a view of sins committed by others? Furthermore, even if the pilgrim has come to accept the justice of God’s punishments, he seems no less susceptible to emotional impulses. As he encounters each of the sinners, he duplicates their sins, and this is as true in Canto XXXIII as it is in Canto V. Just as reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere drove Francesca and Paolo to lose control of their lust, so listening to Francesca’s story drives the pilgrim to lose control of his pity for them. After hearing Ugolino’s story of betrayal, the pilgrim betrays another sinner by making a false promise, telling him that if he does not obey the sinner’s request to remove the frozen tears covering the sinner’s eyes, he will drop below the ice. The pilgrim does not keep his promise, but he made it knowing he would drop below the ice anyway once his journey resumed. The pilgrim may have overcome his feelings of pity for the sinners in Hell by the end of Inferno, but it would be hard to argue that he has completely overcome unrestrained emotion.
Virgil can only lead the pilgrim into Purgatory. It remains for Beatrice, representing love, to lead him to Paradise. Dante writes in a letter that his purpose in writing the Comedy is “to remove those living in this life from their state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity.” If the love required for salvation results from desires that, if misdirected, can lead to sin, is it possible to conceive of the “state of felicity” without the “state of misery”? If not, it is Dante’s ability to address theological issues and, at the same time, powerfully portray so much of what makes us human that leaves us wondering whether the yoking together of felicity and misery is a result of our fallen state or a fate for which no explanation exists.
Italy’s most revered writer, Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 in Florence. Much of what is known about his life can be found in his own writing. Although its fortunes had declined by the time of Dante’s birth, his family had a noble lineage. Dante took an interest in poetry at an early age, using contemporary Italian masters as his models. He met Bice Portinari, whom he called Beatrice (“the bringer of blessings”), when both were nine years old. Though he only loved her from afar and she died in 1290, she inspired his work for the rest of his life. The stylistically innovative La vita nuova, written between 1283 and 1291 and comprised of thirty-one lyric poems and a prose commentary, sanctifies Dante’s love for Beatrice. After completing La vita nuova, Dante immersed himself in the study of classical and medieval authors, including Virgil, whose Aeneid would have a profound influence on the Divine Comedy.
Throughout the thirteenth century, Florence was embroiled in fighting between two political factions—the Guelfs, who favored papal authority, and the Ghibellines, who favored imperial authority. The Guelfs, with whom Dante’s family was allied, gained control of Florence in 1300. The party then split into the Blacks, supported by Pope Boniface VIII because they encouraged his plan to bring Florence and Tuscany under papal control, and the Whites, who opposed this plan. Dante sided with the Whites. While he was on an ambassadorial trip to Rome trying to resolve the conflict, the Blacks consolidated their power. Dante was ordered to pay a fine after being convicted on specious charges of corruption. Because he was not present to pay it, he was condemned to death should he ever return to Florence.
Dante married Gemma Donati around 1285, but, once exiled, he wandered Italy alone and impoverished. All of his subsequent writing, especially the Comedy, reveals his longing for his native city, which he never saw again. Between 1304 and 1306, Dante began two works concerned with the formal qualities of poetry, De vulgari eloquentia and Il convivio, neither of which he completed. He began writing the Comedy around the same time. A religious allegory conceived on a grand scale, the Comedy was revolutionary in its execution. With its now iconic imagery and language that achieves startling combinations of literal and figurative expressiveness, the Comedy possesses a rare power. As soon as it was circulated, it was recognized as a masterpiece. Dante’s last home was Ravenna, where he died in 1321.
Giovanni Boccacio, The Decameron (c. 1350s)
To pass the time while taking refuge from the plague, ten Florentines tell each other one hundred stories over ten days that are variously bawdy, insightful, surprising, and morally instructive. Like Dante’s Comedy, this work is a monument of medieval literature.
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
In this classic example of Christian allegory, the hero, Christian, journeys toward heaven and salvation, meeting on the way other pilgrims and many challenges, including the Slough of Despond and the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (c. 1390s)
On their way to Canterbury from London, a group of pilgrims from all walks of life tells stories that form the richest literary portrait of medieval England. Often considered the first great English poet, Chaucer was, in his way, as much concerned with the relationship between this life and the afterlife as Dante.
John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
The vision of Christianity that emerges from this epic poem is rich and ambiguous. In the story of Adam and Eve’s fall, it is Satan who often proves to be the most compelling figure, much like Inferno stays longest in the minds of readers of Dante’s Comedy.
Virgil, Aeneid (19 B.C.E.)
In one of the great epic poems of Western literature, the destiny of Aeneas is to become the founder of Rome, but not before he has overcome war, the challenges of the gods, and his love for Dido. His visit to the underworld served as a model for Inferno.
For Further Reflection