A Modern Teenager's Perspective on "The Divine Comedy"
By Hannah P.
I read Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” as an accompaniment to a study of the Middle Ages, just as I had done with “The Canterbury Tales,” which I read previously. Though both books were written during the medieval period they are very different. “The Canterbury Tales” is a collection of stories that cover a wide range of topics while “The Divine Comedy” is a continuous tale about divine retribution and virtue.
“The Divine Comedy” is a term for the combination of three stories told in verse by Dante. In these stories Dante himself is the protagonist, and the stories chronicle his descent into Hell (“The Inferno”), purification in Purgatory (“The Purgatorio”), and journey through bliss in Heaven (“The Paradiso”).
If I was to classify the book in a genre I would classify it is an allegory because each chapter (or canto) contains hidden meanings along with the literal. It is chiefly a historical and moral allegory although science, particularly astronomy, is regularly referenced. Dante makes the story deeply personal, drawing upon his own experiences and beliefs as well as including people that he knew. In accordance with the era’s influence by Greek and Roman legends, Dante combines myth and history by including mythological characters along with real historical figures.
The journey of Dante through the spiritual realm is awe-inspiring. Though the story is told through a poet who has no real conception of the glories to come, the detailed and artistic imagery is helpful in envisioning what Heaven and Hell could be like. This work is also helpful in understanding some of the spiritual philosophy of the day. The dominance of the Virgin Mary, the saints and apostles, and the entire book “The Purgatorio” are of purely Catholic influence.
Looking at the book as a religious epic, “The Divine Comedy” is well written, well paced and engaging for the most part. While I enjoyed many aspects of the book, in some places the pace lagged and became bogged down by numerous speeches and monologues on topics such as human sinfulness, morality and virtue. Given the nature and purpose of the story; it is a spiritual journey by a character that has strayed off of the path of righteousness and desires salvation, one can see that these speeches and monologues are necessary. However, as a reader I became bored by the tediousness and repetition and found myself desiring “less talk and more action.” Nevertheless the story’s adventures were interesting enough to keep my attention through the slow-moving sections.
I wouldn’t recommend “The Divine Comedy” to everyone. It is a harrowing tale in places with graphic descriptions of torment and affliction, particularly in “The Inferno.” The depiction of unrepentant sinners suffering punishment for their sins are dark and frightening and must be taken into consideration if one is interested in reading “The Divine Comedy.” Several scenes in “The Purgatorio” are also upsetting, as the Catholics believed Purgatory was a place sinners went to have their sins burned out of them. These sinners undergo various ordeals in Purgatory in order to become purified and ready for Heaven. As a result, “The Purgatorio” is less explicit and horrifying than “The Inferno,” but is still disturbing in places.
“The Divine Comedy” wasn’t considered a very significant work during the time when it was written but it came to be regarded as a classic masterpiece later on. Many famous writers (such as T.S. Elliot and C.S. Lewis) were influenced by “The Divine Comedy” or even cited it in their own works. It has been referenced in culture throughout the ages since the book was published, and can be seen in art, sculpture, film and even music. It is an essential read for anyone interested in the Middle Ages, and like “The Canterbury Tales” is a good companion to a Medieval history course. However “The Divine Comedy” stands on it’s own as a fascinating glimpse into the spiritual and mystical realms of Heaven and Hell.