Dante Alighieri

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Dante Short Fiction Analysis

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Viewed as a whole, The Divine Comedy is a poem of such grandeur that it defies any simple classification. While being related to the great epic journeys of Homer and Vergil, it is like many medieval works relating journeys beyond the limits of this world for the edification and instruction of a sinner. It surpasses those spiritual journeys in that it ranges over the entire culture of the Middle Ages. Simultaneously it is a work of doctrine, science, philosophy, theology, vision, autobiography, praise of women, and allegory. In fact, The Divine Comedy is an encyclopedic compendium of practically all medieval learning. Some have called it the single most significant document inherited from the Middle Ages.

Dante called it a “comedy” both because of its happy ending and its style, which lies between that of the tragedy and that of the elegy. He chose to write it in the Italian of Florence, incorporating into it many Latinisms. From the all-pervading misery, adversity, avariciousness, and corruption surrounding him, he wished to show the path to goodness, the salvation of the human soul guided both by reason and divine grace. Dante intended the work to be read on four levels: the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Structurally, he wrote the poem in hendecasyllabic lines (eleven syllables) which are grouped in threes to make interlocking tercets; this form is called terza rima (aba, bcb, cdc, and so on). The tercets are grouped together into conceptual units or strophes of approximately 150 lines each and called “cantos.” The entire poem has one hundred cantos consisting of an introductory canto and three principal divisions or canticles of thirty-three cantos each: the Inferno (Hell), the Purgatorio (Purgatory), and the Paradiso (Paradise). Each of these divisions corresponds to Dante’s conception of cosmology.

Dante’s cosmology is essentially that of ancient Ptolemic astronomy. The earth has Jerusalem at its center and is the fixed center of the universe. Hell is shaped like a vast funnel, a cone-shaped pit beginning near the earth’s surface and extending to its center. The sides of the funnel form a series of diminishing concentric rounds in which various types of impenitents receive their punishment; the severity of punishment increases with each level of the descent. This abyss was created by the fall of Lucifer, and it is he who is punished at earth’s center, that point farthest removed from God. In the Southern Hemisphere and on the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem, there is a conical-shaped mountain presumably formed by the ground displaced by Satan’s fall. This is the Mount of Purgatory where souls find themselves on seven ledges carved into the mountain. The ledges correspond to the seven capital sins: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Added to the ante-Purgatory at the base and the garden of earthly paradise at the summit, they form nine divisions on the mount. Paradise is composed of the nine heavenly spheres which revolve ever more rapidly and in ever wider orbits around earth. Crowning all creation is the Empyrean, where God is surrounded by the spirits of the triumphant blessed.

For good or for ill, readers have tended to single out individual portions of The Divine Comedy and to view them as brief fictional narratives. Such selecting is not new. Because of the interesting nature and dramatic intensity of certain episodes, they seem particularly worthy of special, critical reading; individual readers tend to identify with and to select certain episodes from the rest. Among those episodes most frequently chosen for explication are those of...

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Francesca (Inferno, canto 5), Brunetto Latini (Inf. 15), Farinata and Cavalcante (Inf. 10), Piero delle Vigne (Inf. 13), Vanni Fucci (Inf. 24), Ulysses (Inf. 26), and Satan (Inf. 34). To these one might also add Cato of Utica (Purgatorio 1) and La Pia (Purg. 5). The Inferno contains most of the frequently cited episodes; of these, the stories of Francesca, Ulysses, and Ugolino offer especially interesting examples of Dante’s narrative art and technique. They will be examined here because of their high drama, which approaches tragedy, and their striking similarities.

Dante’s real Hell begins only in the second circle, where the lustful are forever borne about on the warm winds of tempest. It is there that Francesca da Rimini tells Dante her sadly tragic tale. As if thinking aloud, she tells of how she and her brother-in-law, Paolo, were reading together the romance of Lancelot. They were particularly drawn to that part describing how Lancelot was overpowered by his violent passion for Guinevere. Francesca and Paolo were alone, never fearing their weakness. “We were reading one day for delight of Lancelot, how love seized him: We were alone and unsuspecting.” The immediate characteristics of this narrative are concision, speed, directness, and energy. She continues by saying that the story made them lift their eyes several times and blush. It was the climax of the story that conquered them; when Lancelot kissed his lady, Paolo kissed Francesca. The romance, she says, and its author were both panderers. That day they read no further. During the narration of this tale Paolo weeps, and out of pity Dante “swooned as if in death and dropped like a dead body.”

Whereas Lancelot’s kiss had fallen on his lady’s “smile” (riso), Paolo’s fell on his beloved’s “mouth” (bocca) and hence is delineated a transformation of the spiritual into the physiological, a descent from idealized courtly love to realistic physical love, from the romanticism of an imagined “ideal” to the realism of the salatia amoris. Courtly love is replaced by eros, lust, and adultery, and that replacement is clear in the two words riso and bocca. While reading a tale of the ideology of courtly love, Francesca and Paolo were seduced and forgot the ugliness of sin and its inevitable consequence. That Dante swoons on hearing this tale must be seen to represent more than an act of compassion. On one level, his physical fall represents their fall. On a more complex level, he must have identified himself with the seductive nature of courtly love, for he began his literary career as a poet of the dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style) and sang the praises of courtly love.

Most modern readers would probably agree that Francesca’s story is not a great tragedy but rather a melodramatic Liebestod, a romantic drama. Of great interest is the fact that Paolo, eternally bound to Francesca, never utters a word during the canto; of equal interest is the fact that Dante places this sympathetic, moving couple in Hell. His great compassion and sympathy for sinners condemned to Hell can be explained by the recognition of one of the most salient characteristics of the entire The Divine Comedy. Dante writes with a double point of view: He is simultaneously the poem’s author and a character in it. Hence, while Dante the earth-bound pilgrim can show interest, sympathy, and compassion, Dante the moral and theological poet can justify condemning the lovers to Hell. His double point of view permits him both to express romantic love and to condemn the participants in it for impenitence.

Duality of viewpoint is nowhere more apparent than in the episode of Ulysses and his final voyage. In the twenty-sixth canto, Dante and Vergil, his guide, are in hell’s eighth circle, an assemblage of ten ditches collectively called Malebolge. As they look down from the bridge leading from the seventh to the eighth ditch, Dante says that he experiences great grief sufficiently intense to cause him to want to curb his poetic gifts; yet he writes lyric, idyllic poetry as he describes all the small lights he sees below—to him they seem like the fireflies seen by the peasant resting on a hill on a summer eve. Suddenly he is reminded of Elisha, whose eyes could not distinguish anything but the flame as Elijah rose to heaven in his fiery chariot. The pilgrim Dante is so intent on the sight below that he almost falls; he entreats his guide to identify the approaching double-crested flame which reminds him of the funeral pyre of Eteocles and Polynices. Vergil identifies the sinners therein as Ulysses and Diomed, and he states the triple treachery of which they are guilty: the ambush of the Trojan horse, the deception of Deidamia to lure away her Achilles, and the theft of the sacred Palladium, the image of Pallas Athene. Dante is so insistent on meeting Ulysses that the reader is prepared for a meeting with a special character.

After complimenting Dante on his lively interest, Vergil asks Ulysses to relate the events of his final voyage. What follows is a pure invention by Dante, who had never read Homer. He says that from the greater part of the double flame came details of Ulysses’s death. Having left the sorceress Circe, he was still overcome by the passion to “gain experience of the world and of the vices and worth of men.” Not fondness for his son, not duty to his father, not love for his wife could calm his passion. He put forth on the open sea with his old and winded crew. When they arrived at Gibraltar, the “pillars of Hercules” across whose face was printed the warning to sailors not to venture beyond (“Nec plus ultra”), Ulysses easily persuaded his men to sail on. He counseled them not to deny experience and told them they “were not born to live as animals, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” Off they sailed toward the Southwest in a mad flight (“folle volo”) and continued for five days. Suddenly they came in the Southern Hemisphere within sight of a high brown mountain which is held to be the mount of Purgatory. Before they could reach its shores, which, as pagans, they had no right to see, a huge water spout surged from the sea. It whirled the ship about three times, and the fourth time plunged it to the bottom.

The narration of Ulysses’s final voyage is so engrossing that some readers have viewed him as a tragic hero rather than as a sinner in Hell for the sin of false counseling; but this view loses sight of Dante’s double point of view. Ulysses is in the eighth bolgia because that is where false counselors are punished by being enclosed in flame. He is bound in the same flame with Diomed his accomplice because their burning eloquence was used to conceal their real mind. Just as the peasant in the lovely simile introducing the episode might be seen as the lover of honesty, home, and family, Ulysses can be seen as the opposite—the arrogant one who scorns all such homely virtues. Vergil clearly states Ulysses’ triple treachery, and the ancient hero himself confesses that he has no regard for his love or duty to son, wife, and father. He also is impenitent as he brags about how effective his flattering words were in leading his sailors: “My companions I made so eager for the road with these brief words that then I could hardly have held them back.” He clearly deserves his spot in Hell, and one might easily wonder why then Dante treats him with such tragic grandeur.

John D. Sinclair has written: “It is the greatness of Ulysses that makes his doom so overwhelming, and such greatness and such doom together give to this canto more than any other in the Inferno the quality and power of high tragedy.” One can only explain the seeming contradiction between Ulysses the condemned sinner and the exalted tragic hero by recalling Dante’s double point of view. Dante the pilgrim-character admires Ulysses for his “insatiable human hunger and quest after knowledge of the world”; the ancient hero’s motivation is not unlike Dante’s own in his pilgrimage. At the same time, however, Dante the poet and creator of the episode feels justified in condemning the ancient sailor for sin. To admire Ulysses as does Dante the pilgrim is to forget the sin for which he is condemned. To understand Dante the poet-creator is both to refuse involvement in the intense drama of the character’s tragic situation and to accept the rightness of divine judgment.

The dilemma posed by the Ulysses episode is also evident in that of Count Ugolino. Ugolina della Gherardesca, count of Donoratico, was a noble Pisan politician who was often forced by expedience to change political party or allegiance. Dante discovers him in Hell’s lowest circle, Antenora, where the treacherous to country or to cause are punished. There is no fire or tormented screaming in this region, for it is at the point in the universe which is farthest removed from the sun and God. Everything is frozen. Imprisoned in the frozen Lake of Cocytus, the traitor Ugolino gnaws with bestial hatred on the skull of his bitter enemy and rival, Archbishop Ruggiero Ubaldini. Dante begs the count to tell of how he died and not, significantly, of his sin. That which causes the count to comply is the desire that perhaps his words will “be seed that may bear fruit of infamy” to the archbishop.

The Ugolino episode is the longest in the Inferno. Ugolino tells of how he was with four of his sons in a Pisan tower for several months. One night he had a dream which revealed the future to him—in it a father and his sons were torn apart by hunters’ dogs, “hounds lean, trained and eager.” When he awoke he heard his sleeping children crying from hunger. Then, at the hour they were usually fed, they heard the tower door being nailed shut. For a day and night Ugolino remained speechless and without tears. When he bit his hand from grief the following day, one of his sons thinking that he was hungry offered his father the flesh of his children to eat. Four more days they remained in silence. The son Gaddo begged his father for help and died. During the fifth and sixth days the other three sons died. Ugolino grieved for two more days and “then fasting had more power than grief.” This means that he died of starvation rather than of grief and not, as some have held, because he ate of his sons’ flesh. When he finishes telling his tale, Ugolino throws himself again into the furious task of gnawing the archbishop’s skull with his teeth. Dante is so moved that he inveighs against Pisa and calls for its destruction. Even though Ugolino had betrayed his political parties, his city’s strongholds, and his grandson and rival, Nino Visconti, the evil archbishop had no right to make his sons suffer and die of starvation. Theirs is the “most horrible tragedy” of the Inferno.

There is a certain quality of tragic grandeur in Ugolino. He says nothing of his treacherous political dealings, he accuses nobody, he indulges in no recriminations, and he does not attempt to justify himself. He asks for no pity. In comparison with the tragedy of which he was the protagonist, his past seems insignificant to him. He was forced to stand by impotently and observe the agony of his sons. His tragic situation is summed up in the cry of his son: “Father why do you not help me?” That plea must continue to torment him and cause much of the bestial rage he vents on the silent archbishop.

In the Ugolino episode, as in those of Francesca and Ulysses, one is tempted to forget the sin of the character in the face of his tragedy and inner appeal. In all three one must recognize Dante’s admiration of the character and condemning judgment of the sinner. All three episodes are characterized by a succinct rapidity of narration uncontaminated by useless detail or editorial commentary. All three sinners tell their own tales, and each is condemned for eternity to be bound with his accomplice in sin. It is Dante’s viewpoint as pilgrim and Everyman that establishes the tragic stature of the three narrators; and it is Dante’s viewpoint as the poet trained in theology, scholastic philosophy, and morality which justifies placing all three in hell.


Dante Poetry Analysis