Themes and Meanings
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.)