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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl is a novel that focuses on a series of murders including that of Chief Justice Artemus Healey. The chief justice is murdered because of his neutrality about the issue of runaway slaves. After Healey’s death, Reverend Talbot and several other people are killed.

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The Dante Club consists of poets who are working on an English version of the Divine Comedy. The members notice the similarities the murders have with those in Dante’s Inferno. As a result, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, non-fictional characters, embark on solving the crimes with the fear that Dante’s reputation may diminish in the United States if people learned about the murders. As the story progresses, it is discovered that the murderer is ex-army man Dan Teal.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1546

The title of this novel refers to a group of Harvard University scholars who met weekly in Boston in 1865 to assist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in completing the first full-length American translation of Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic work, La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). Most of the characters are real historical figures, and the Dante Club did, in fact, help Longfellow to complete his translation. The murders and the scholars’ activities in connection with them, however, are entirely fictional. It is unclear whether the author has pressed the figures into the service of his novel or whether he has used his novel to honor the scholars and the work of Dante.

The central puzzle of the novel—a sequence of bizarre murders of a handful of Boston’s elite—is largely a device to provide the author with an opportunity to describe various scenes from Dante’sInferno and to explore its meaning. The first part of Dante’s magisterial three-part narrative poemThe Divine Comedy, the Inferno describes Dante’s imaginary journey through Hell. The poem, written in the early fourteenth century, has informed Judeo-Christian conceptions of God, divine justice, and Hell perhaps more than any single source except the Bible. It is the Inferno, for example, that describes the inscription above the gates of Hell, “All hope abandon, ye who enter.”

The Dante Club opens with the discovery of a grotesque murder of a Supreme Court justice, Artemus Healey, who had been dealt a blow to the head and left outside to suffer a horrific, agonizing death of being eaten alive by maggots and wasps. Later, the novel depicts another macabre death, in which the minister of Cambridge’s Second Unitarian Church is planted head-first into a hole and his feet set afire. Both murders are described in stomach-turning detail unusual for the Victorian-style genre, although perhaps this is done as a bow to the graphic depictions in Dante’s Inferno. Eventually Longfellow, fellow poet and medical doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the three other members of the Dante Club—literature professor James Russell Lowell, publisher J. T. Fields, and retired historian George Washington Greene—come to realize that these murders mimic punishments of the damned that are portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. With the linkage thus established, the book proceeds as a mystery novel, with periodic elaboration on Dante and The Divine Comedy.

In one of the novel’s somewhat awkward contrivances, the Dante Club poets decide that they cannot go to the police with their revelation about the connection of the murders to Dante. They (somewhat callously) worry that the linkage of the murders to Dante would poison public opinion against the Italian poet and his work before the poets could complete their translation for American readers. Even less plausibly, the poets believe that they...

(The entire section contains 1682 words.)

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