Hello again everyone, and welcome to the first of a series of reviews on The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. This past spring I took a class on Dant...moreHello again everyone, and welcome to the first of a series of reviews on The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. This past spring I took a class on Dante in which we read the entirety of The Commedia. After taking some time to think and digest this massive poem, I think I am finally ready to write my review. I will write one review for each canticle, starting with The Inferno, Dante's trip through Hell.
At the opening of the canticle, Dante awakes to find himself lost in a dark wood. Unable to leave the valley, he is greeted by the shade of Virgil, who tells him that he has been sent by Mary and Dante's dearly departed Beatrice to guide Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and eventually to the highest parts of Heaven. Although Dante is initially reluctant to go, he eventually follows Virgil down into the mouth of Hell.
While the idea of reading such a long old poem seems daunting, the language and imagery that Dante uses makes it as compelling and fresh as if it were written yesterday. It is, first and foremost, a journey, and the sights the pilgrim sees on his journey to the bottom of Hell are described in vivid and sometimes gross detail. Hell is a very physical place, full of bodies and bodily functions, and Dante doe snot skimp on the imagery. But as often as his language is crude, it is at times stunningly beautiful. There were similes that absolutely stopped me in my tracks with their perfection and beauty. If you want to read the Inferno for the first time, read it like a novel. Jump in, enjoy the story, gawk at the imagery, and stop to relish the beautiful passages.
Just as Dante the pilgrim takes Virgil as his guide through Hell, Dante the poet uses Virgil as a poetic guide in his attempt to write an epic that encompasses religion, politics, history, and the human experience. In each circle, Dante meets a new group of sinners who are in Hell for different reasons. The first thing to note about the damned is that they seem to be mostly from Florence. Seriously, sometimes I think Dante wrote this just so he could shove everyone he didn't like into the fiery pit. But in all seriousness, Dante's goal wasn't just to describe the afterlife, he was also trying to describe life on earth. By putting people from Florence in Hell or Heaven, Dante was commenting on what was happening in Italy at the time. Most important for Dante was the corruption he saw in the church, so there are entire cantos of the Inferno devoted to religious leaders, especially Popes, and especially Boniface, who was Pope at the time Dante was writing.
The other thing to note about the damned is how relatable they are, at least in the beginning. When you meet Paolo and Francesca in Canto V and listen to Francesca's story, you can't help but be drawn in and pity her. Dante the pilgrim pitied her too, and swoons (again, seriously, he spends like the first 10 cantos swooning left and right) due to his empathy for them. Again and again the pilgrim pities the damned, but as the canticle goes on this happens less and less. By the end of the canticle he has stopped pitying the shades at all, and instead feels that their damnation is deserved. Why did Dante the poet make the pilgrim transforming such a way? Just as the description of Hell also serves as a description of Earth and of the nature of the human soul, the pilgrim's journey through the afterlife mirrors the soul's journey from the dark wood of sin and error to enlightenment and salvation. Dante is at first taken in by the sinners because he is not wise enough to see through their excuses. He is too much like them to do anything other than pity them. As he goes through Hell, he learns more and shakes off the darkness of the wood, so that by the time he gets to the bottom he no longer pities the damned. Still, even in the lowest circles, the shades are all deeply human, and their stories of how they ended up in Hell are incredibly compelling.
Dante the poet shows again and again how similar the pilgrim and the damned really are. He constantly explores sins that he could have committed or paths that he could have taken, exposing his own weaknesses and confronting what would have been his fate if Beatrice and Mary had not sent Virgil to save him. I think it speaks to his bravery as a poet that he insisted on exposing not just the weaknesses in society, but also the weaknesses in his own character.
Dante the poet is also brave, I think, for tackling some very serious theological, political, and psychological issues. When Dante the pilgrim walks through the gate of Hell, the inscription on the gate says that the gate and Hell itself were made by "the primal love" of God. Here, Dante tackles one of the greatest theological questions; how can a just and loving God permit something as awful as Hell? While the real answer doesn't come until the Paradiso, Dante was brave to put that question in such stark and paradoxical terms.
Dante's constant indictments of the political and religious leaders of his day show bravery, intelligence, and a good degree of anger on his part. Before writing the Inferno, Dante had been exiled from his home city of Florence for being on the wrong side of a political scuffle. He was never able to return home, and his anger at the partisanship that caused his exile mixed with his longing for his home make the political themes of the poem emotionally charged and interesting to the reader, even now.
Lastly, Dante shows both bravery and a great deal of literary skill in his treatment of Virgil. Virgil is Dante's guide through Hell and, later, Purgatory. He leads Dante every step of the way, teaching him like a father would, protecting him from daemons and even carrying him on his back at one point. It is clear that Dante admires Virgil, and in some ways the poem is like a love song to him. Virgil, living before Christ, was obviously not Christian, so Dante's choice of Virgil as a guide through the Christian afterlife is really quite extraordinary. It shows that wisdom can be attained from the ancient world, and that the light of human reason, which Virgil represents, is necessary for the attainment of enlightenment and salvation. Dante believed strongly that reason and faith were not opposites, but partners, and his choice of Virgil as a guide is a perfect illustration of that principle.
But, despite Dante's love of Virgil, Virgil is, to me, one of the most tragic characters in literature. Virgil, as a pagan, cannot go to Heaven. He resides in Limbo, the first circle of Hell, home of the virtuous pagans. There, he and the other shades (including Homer, Plato, and others) receive no punishment except for their constant yearning for Heaven and the knowledge that they will never see the light of God. Virgil, at the request of Mary and Beatrice, leads Dante toward a salvation that he can never have. Human reason can only lead a soul so far; to understand the mysteries of Heaven one has to rely on faith and theology. Virgil's fate is the great tragedy of this otherwise comic poem, and we are reminded of it again and again throughout the first two canticles. And while it makes sense thematically and in terms of the plot, Dante makes you love Virgil so much that his departure in the Purgatorio never really feels fair. I still miss him.
The Inferno is a long and complex poem, filled with vivid imagery, vast psychological depth, scathing social commentary, and deep theological questions. It is also a journey, a real adventure in a way, and a pleasure to read. Though the real fulfillment of Dante's themes does not come until the Paradiso, the Inferno is well worth reading on its own. Even if you don't go on to read the other two canticles, reading The Inferno is time well spent.
Rating: 5 stars Recommendations: Read it. Skip the boring parts if you want to, but just read it. (less)
Last semester I took a seminar class on James Joyce, and of course no class on Joyce would be complete without reading Ulysses. We spent the last half...moreLast semester I took a seminar class on James Joyce, and of course no class on Joyce would be complete without reading Ulysses. We spent the last half of the semester on Ulysses, and now that I've reviewed both Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist, I think it's finally time for me to talk about my experiences with Joyce's most famous/infamous novel.
Ulysses picks up approximately one year after Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ends, and begins with our old friend Stephen Dedalus, who is navigating the world of Dublin, working as a teacher, and still trying to be an artist in a place that continuously leaves him feeling isolated, alone, and without a home. While the first three chapters focus on Stephen, the rest of the book focuses on a new character, the famous Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew who, after eating a breakfast of mutton kidney, leaves the house to go about his daily business, all-the-while knowing that his wife, Molly, is planning an affair later that afternoon. That knowledge, the isolation he feels from his fellow Dubliners, the death of his young son ten years ago, and many other things weigh on his mind as we follow him about the affairs of his day. His path crosses and recrosses that of Stephen, and eventually the two outcasts finally meet and have a real conversation. Taking place in slightly less than 24 hours, Ulysses is an epic of the ordinary, a single day that contains every conceivable high and low.
Now, if you've ever heard anything about Ulysses, I'm sure you've heard that it's nearly impossible to read. It has gained a nearly mythic status in the bookish world as an impenetrable wall of stylistic experimentation and dense allusion. The only hope for the intrepid reader is to consult many guides and source-books that will lead them through the labyrinthine. To be honest with you, this is partially true. There were plenty of times when I didn't know what was happening, and I assure you that I missed most of the allusions and references to historical events. And yes, I did use a guide when I read it, which was a big help. More importantly, I also had a class full of people to discuss each chapter with and to keep me on schedule. (I do recommend reading this book with a friend. It's more fun that way.) But I want to make one thing very clear:
The myth is only partially true.
Because while I did not catch many of the allusions and references, I mostly understood what was happening in terms of plot and location. While I may not have understood the meaning of every sentence, I did understand the meaning of most paragraphs. And while I didn't always see exactly how each stylistic invention connected thematically to Bloom's journey, I could certainly appreciate the beauty and craft of Joyce's writing. Reading Ulysses is like being at the ocean; you have to let the waves of text wash over you without trying to analyze every single piece of sand. Understanding every single allusion is not necessary to enjoy the novel as a whole. You might miss a few of the jokes, but I promise you will be ok. The guide I used and which I would highly recommend, James Joyce A to Z, had brief summaries of each chapter in terms of plot and any major thematic elements, and that is all I needed in order to thoroughly enjoy myself. I think that oftentimes we as readers get too caught-up in "getting" the book that we forget to really read it. Ulysses is, first and foremost, an experience. If you get too caught up in trying to "understand" it, you'll miss all the fun.
Fun? Yes, fun, because Ulysses is a deeply funny, witty, engaging, and beautiful book. First of all, Joyce is a phenomenal writer, and it would be a challenge to find a novel with more beautiful or more varied writing than this one. Some passages are just heart-stopping in their elegance. I literally stopped and reread some passages just so I could hear them again; they were that beautiful. Others were incredibly technically impressive, showing Joyce's amazing command of the English language (and others). Joyce's amazing skills as a writer mean that he is capable of making the wittiest puns and the funniest satires I have ever read. No, really. From the pub to the graveyard, from political arguments to prostitution, from the romantic novel to the epic catalog, there is nothing that Joyce can't laugh at. I never thought I would say this, but Ulysses literally made me laugh out loud. But of course this novel isn't all fun and games. There are tender, honest moments here more touching than nearly anything else put into print. There is heartbreak here, not of the cheesy faux-tragic kind that you find in a Nicholas Sparks novel, but honest emotion felt by ordinary people in situations that are all too real. Though Ulysses very often made me laugh, on a number of occasions it also made me cry. It touched me, because it spoke to that part of me (and, I think, of many of us) that knows what it's like to feel alone, regretful, and lost. That realism, that honesty of emotion and situation, is what sets Ulysses apart. The strange style, the encyclopedic allusions, the weird diversions, all of these serve to represent reality in all of its complexity, beauty, and sadness. Ulysses is funny, crafty, beautiful, and heartbreaking, but it is all of those things because it is real.
If you've ever read my reviews before, you'll notice that this one is rather different. This time I haven't talked very much about technique or writing style, though really this would be the perfect novel to do that. And part of me does want to pull out my analytical brain and tell you all about Joyce's tricks and techniques and themes. I would feel accomplished for breaking down such a complex novel, and you would maybe feel like you learned something. But I don't think I'm going to do that this time. This time I think I'm going to focus on other things.
Because despite all the intellectual enjoyment I got from untangling and discussing the themes and techniques, and despite the aesthetic enjoyment I found in Joyce's language, what struck me the most about Ulysses was it's emotional honesty, especially in the characterization. For the first three chapters I felt nothing but empathy and pity for Stephen. I wanted to be his big sister, to comfort him, to let him know that he wasn't alone and that he could make it. And then I met Leopold Bloom, and slowly, cautiously, not without reservation, I fell for him, completely and utterly. Not in a romantic way, but as a human being, an all-too-real human being who had emotions and quirks that I could see and understand like those of an old friend. I fell in love with the way that he always tries to figure things out, to calculate, explain, and reason, even if his explanations are often incorrect, more pseudoscience than real science. I fell in love with his desire to please everyone, to make everyone happy, to avoid conflict wherever possible. I love the way he always walks on the sunny side of the street, is conscientious about his money, and loves food. I wanted nothing more in the world for him to actually meet Stephen, because I needed to see what would happen when these two characters whom I cared so much about finally met. And yes, sometimes Bloom creeped me out a little with his thoughts about sex or bodily functions. Sometimes I got annoyed with him for being so passive, and I yelled at him to stop being such a pushover already. But when he had the chance to finally show some courage, I cheered him on with all of my heart, and when he stood up for Stephen my heart nearly burst I was so proud of him. Leopold Bloom was so lonely, so hopeful, and so real, and in the end it was the force of his character (and, to a lesser extent, Stephen's) that really made Ulysses shine.
Ulysses is a novel that takes place in a single day, and yet somehow seems to encompass the whole world. It's strange and difficult and sometimes frustrating, and to be honest I wouldn't recommend it to those who don't like their books to be a puzzle or who get frustrated when they don't understand what is going on. But if you do like a challenge, then I think you'll find that every frustration in Ulysses is paid back a thousand times over in beauty and enjoyment. I promise that you won't catch everything on your first read-through; I know I didn't. But that did not take away from my enjoyment of the novel in the slightest. I know I'll come back to it some day, maybe a chapter at a time here or there, and that no matter when or how often I return it will always have something new to offer me.
Rating: 5+ Recommendations: Don't get too weighed down with guides. Just read it and enjoy it, and check chapter summaries or historical events if you get lost. Ulysses is an experience, so just dive in.(less)