The System of Dante's Hell Characters

Amiri Baraka

The Characters

The method of characterization in The System of Dante’s Hell is as radical as are the novel’s style and structure. Although this is a highly populated work, none of its characters, with the exception of Roi and Peaches, is in any way developed. Rather, they are human analogies of the city’s various fixtures, occurring and recurring throughout. They are names more than they are people. They are zones of energy instead of being persuasively or engagingly individual. They seem to resemble members of a tribe, their social existence determined by rituals of self-assertion and self-protection, as opposed to being members of a complex, modern society. They flit in and out of Roi’s narrative as though they are sites of his experience rather than autonomous agents in their own right.

The kinds of work they do, their relationship to social institutions, their family lives, and their psychological and intellectual makeup are not directly emphasized by Baraka. Instead, the insistent stress is on the fact of their presence, as though the most important statement that can be made on their behalf is that they cannot be overlooked, avoided, or otherwise relegated to making a merely colorful, or minor, contribution to the problematic matter of Roi’s growth and development.

Roi’s peer group is presented as if it consisted exclusively of foreground and immediacy. This approach prevents readers from presuming to know any of these numerous minor characters with any degree of intimacy. The apparent irrelevance of their background keeps them at a distance and maintains them in Roi’s keeping. They are his...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

The Characters

The characters of The System of Dante’s Hell are basically types or projections of the author’s experience. They float in and out of the narrative, rarely with any delineation, except insofar as they contribute to the Narrator’s self-portrait. Sometimes the associations that they hold for Baraka are intensely personal, but the Narrator does not feel obliged to share these associations with his readers. For example, “powell” is a lawyer, “pinckney” a teacher. Does Baraka intend references to leaders of the black community? Does he desire to disparage them or their professions by spelling their names with the lowercase? Why does he consider simply naming their professions sufficient character description? There is no certain way to answer any of these questions.

Sometimes the persons mentioned form a kind of syllogism. For example, Baraka’s definition of “PROSPEROUS” (Baraka uses uppercase) is Dolores Morgan, who had had an illegitimate child. Calvin Lewis is the incarnation of “PRIDE” because he “gave it to her.” “Michael” is the result, at a beach in the warm tide. It is impossible to analyze such characters since they are the author’s typology, foils for presenting the Narrator. Accordingly, the cumulative effect of such passages is to suggest the Narrator’s point of view rather than to provide a more traditional “narrative point of view.” They indicate the Narrator’s way of thinking rather than explicating his thoughts.

After seven circles of such characterizations, the novel becomes more traditionally narrative with the “DRAMA” of “46” and “64” discussed above. The seduction that the “DRAMA” presents describes the Narrator’s severed personality. It is both literal homosexual seduction and “seduction by language.” Two “fast narratives” follow. In the first, called “The Rape,” the Narrator and a group of middle-class black youths that he leads decide to kidnap and rape a worn and drunken black woman who happens by. The Narrator does not really want to carry this through, but he wishes to prove his worthiness to lead. When the woman tells the youths that she has venereal disease, they toss her from the moving car. The Narrator’s warring personality emerges again here as does the theme of self-directed black violence. Peaches and the Air Force buddy, who appear in the “fast narrative” which follows, remain types, though they are more detailed because of the more extended narrative in which they appear.

Characters Discussed

The Narrator

The Narrator, the author’s persona, also called Leroi, Roi and Dante. He is a black intellectual from lower-middle-class origins, attracted to white culture and Western civilization but guilt-ridden and confused by the resultant denial of his black heritage. The narrator describes himself as in continual flux—“I don’t recognize myself 10 seconds later. Who writes this will never read it”—and empty at “the core.” He feels trapped in a Dantesque and nightmarish hell, torn between his black identity, which is violent and promiscuous, and his intellectual quest to rise above it. The entrance to his vision of hell, therefore, is inscribed with “You love these demons and will not abandon them.” In a disjointed, stream-of-consciousness-like flow of memories, punctuated by black English slang and expletives, he recalls in long and cryptic catalogs the inhabitants of his childhood streets and the ugliness and squalor of their lives; he relives the bewildering seductions of adolescence and the chain of lovers, male and female, who become momentarily tangled in his posing and his longing. People from his past loom up in memory, people doomed to the various circles of hell, and then fade away. The Narrator depicts his youth as a time of excess born of the blues, a time of “violence against others, against one’s self, against God, Nature, and Art,” a time of hunting and conquest and golden boys, of bisexual use and abuse. He lists the literary greats whose words have lured him toward their value systems (Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Dante, among others), indicts them as seducers, and cries out in self-disgust: “I am left only with my small words . . . against the day. Against you. Against. My self.” He nevertheless...

(The entire section is 731 words.)