Book Review

Book cover image
The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri
Alfred E. Knopf,1995, 798 pages


F ew subjects have fired the imagination of Westerners as much as the concept of Hell. Dante's allegorical Inferno is not only a literary masterpiece, but also a window into the mind of 14th century Christianity and social values in the late Middle Ages. Dante used his vision of Hell to criticize the failings of his countrymen; while modern-day readers may be mildly amused to discover that Hell is full of Italians, Dante finds people from Genoa and Bologna, city-states that competed with his native Florence, particularly well-represented among the ranks of the damned. Dante also reserves a place for Muhammad and Popes Anastasius and Nicholas III, which reflects his political views as a White Guelf, a political party which opposed papal power. This may explain why he also takes a swipe at the French, who, with the help of Charles of Valois, aided the Black Guelfs in seizing power in Florence and casting Dante into exile. Dante reserves the ultimate penalty, however, for the historical figures Judas, Cassius, and Brutus, who are condemned to be devoured for all eternity by the mouths of Lucifer in the icy center of the 9th level of Hell. Unlike the abstract concepts of hell found in the works of existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre, Dante's hell is concrete and visual. The Divine Comedy trilogy (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) is not only a voyage of discovery and redemption for Dante, but the great influence this work had on our modern-day literature (especially T.S. Eliot), on our vision of Christian mysticism and medieval social values, or for that matter on our modern-day computer games, attests to the tremendous power of Dante's imagination.
April 14, 2002 Back