Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Dante’s The Divine Comedy is the beginning of Italian literature and the single most significant work of the Middle Ages because its allegory emphasizes the importance of salvation and divine love in a work that is inclusive and tightly structured. It is so thoroughly infused with Christian ethics that any overview has to touch on major Christian themes, beginning with the plot being set during Easter week 1300.
The work is a complex narrative with many allusions to biblical stories, classical myths, history, and contemporary politics; however, the plot’s symbolism provides clarity in that it celebrates the ideal of universalism, where everything has its place in God’s world, and its ultimate goal of salvation triumphs over the contemporary reality of the power struggle between worldly and religious leaders.
The structure of the entire work, as well as of its parts, is symbolic of the story it tells, as the use of numbers shows. The number 3 (symbolic of the Trinity: God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) and the number 10 (the “perfect” number: 3 × 3 + 1) are the most conspicuous examples. The Divine Comedy has three “cantiche,” or parts (Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven). Each cantica has thirty-three cantos, or songs, with the exception of the first cantica, which has thirty-four cantos, adding up to a total of one hundred (the perfect number squared: 10 × 10). Each canto is written in terza...
(The entire section is 857 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Divine Comedy represents the mature Dante’s solution to the poet’s task annunciated in The New Life. Its three canticles (the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso) display a nearly limitless wealth of references to historical particulars of the late Middle Ages and to Dante’s life. Even so, its allegorical form allows these to function as symbols. The Pilgrim’s journey through Hell to Heaven thus becomes an emblem of all human experience and a recognition of life’s circularity. The “Comedy” of its title is, therefore, the situation of life and the accumulation of experience that attends it.
Correspondingly, however, chronological placement of the narrative from Good Friday through Easter Sunday, 1300, particularizes the experience even as it implies the death and rebirth that attends a critical stage of any person’s life. The poet tells his readers in the first line of the Inferno that he is midway through life, and indeed Dante would have been thirty-five years of age in 1300. Though he maintains present tense throughout the poem, he is, however, actually writing in the years that follow the events that he describes. This extraordinary method allows the Poet to place what amounts to prophetic utterance in the mouth of the Pilgrim. Dante thus maintains and further develops the thesis of The New Life, that the progress of the Pilgrim corresponds directly to the progress...
(The entire section is 2131 words.)
Dante's Divine Comedy is bewilderingly complex to the first-time reader, even on the literal level. (This complexity remains after many rereadings, but for many readers, it enhances the poem's appeal rather than hindering the reader's understanding.) Trying to keep track of the poem's more than five hundred characters often produces frustration, as do attempts to sort out thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Florentine politics and the city-state's conflicts with the papacy. However Dante lived during a time when categorization—the orderly arrangement of knowledge—bordered on the obsessional, and his Divine Comedy is no exception. Indeed, it is a prime example of this drive to order. Therefore, its very structure helps the reader navigate and make sense of its complex world.
The poem is divided into three books or cantiche. Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each book is then broken down into canti or what we might call chapters: Inferno has thirty-four, Purgatory has thirty-three, and Paradise has thirty-three. There are, then, a total of one hundred canti, and each volume has thirty-three chapters. (The first one in Inferno introduces the entire poem and thus in a sense stands alone.) This ordering system is a prime example of medieval Christian numerology, the science of attributing religious...
(The entire section is 2653 words.)