Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The form of The System of Dante’s Hell is consistent with its radical treatment of narrative and character. The most obvious element missing from the novel’s form is a sense of time. This absence makes problematic such considerations as growth and development, the historical background to Roi’s and the other characters’ existence, and a coordinated sense of forward movement. The novel does contain time signatures, referring to the seasons, times of day, and the like, but these occur in their own right, in relation to an overall immediacy of which they are part, and do not serve to give the novel a regulated pace or structure. The effect is to make The System of Dante’s Hell resemble less a piece of literature than a statement by a modern jazz ensemble, a resemblance that receives a certain amount of plausibility from the fact that Amiri Baraka has written prolifically on African American music.

Such a perspective suggests a characterization of Roi as soloist among a legion of sidemen and other spontaneous contributors to the social and cultural jam session that the novel represents. Roi’s, and the novel’s, elliptical and contracted language, and the cultural shorthand with which many of its references and resonances are conveyed, can also be seen to be inspired by jazz. The perspective also suggests the way in which Baraka adapts the conceptual underpinnings of Dante’s concept of hell. The author puts under the conceptual...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The principal theme of The System of Dante’s Hell is the quandary of the black intellectual educated according to Western values and traditions. Baraka believes that such a person finds himself in a hell not of his own making, one of middle-class values which estrange him from his origins and make him an imitation white. Such an individual can be articulate by white standards, even brilliant, but he loses his black heritage as a result. He stands between two worlds which he simultaneously loves and hates, a hated curiosity to both.

As a vehicle for its theme, the novel’s first half abandons traditional narrative and substitutes a series of disjointed reflections, impressionistic and intentionally neither completely in “black English” nor in “white” stream of consciousness. To have preferred either would have undercut Baraka’s thesis that his Narrator is caught between two worlds. Baraka’s spelling, capitalization, and syntax remain absolutely his own.

Baraka preserves Dante’s gyres, the circles which contain the various sins that his Narrator sees. While some of these are Dante’s classifications (“THE INCONTINENT: Lasciviousness,” “The Diviners,” “Thieves”), those who inhabit these circles are condemned by Baraka’s (or the Narrator’s) judgment, not that of Minos. Moreover, he feels no obligation to maintain the order of Dante’s classifications. He tells the reader that his own heretics belong at the lowest of the circles, logically, for these have been unfaithful to their own origins.