Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.
Dante’s Inferno is the first part of a three-part epic poem, followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. This first part is Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell, guided by the poet Virgil. At the beginning of the story, a woman, Beatrice, calls for an angel to bring Virgil to guide and aid Dante in his journey, so that no harm will befall him. Interestingly, the inspiration for the poem seems to be the real-life Beatrice, Dante’s love (in life) who died young. She plays a minor role in Inferno but will likely be more prominent in the later books (since Dante would hardly place Beatrice in Hell). The nine circles of Hell are (in order of entrance and of severity): Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, Treachery.
3 – Characters well-developed.
As an epic poem, characterization is not likely to be a strong point. I debated writing a general review rather than my typical, structured review for this reason. Having been written in the early 14th Century, though, the characters do seem more rounded and developed than some of those in the earlier Greek and Roman plays (comedy or tragedy – and which is this, by the way?). Dante’s character is a bit flat, but the way he interacts with the people he meets, and with his guide Virgil, is interesting to watch and is round (his character responds harshly to those he believes have sinned greater, and his character reacts warmly to those he might pity, such as his mentor). I couldn’t help comparing this to the Robin Williams movie, What Dreams May Come which is an interesting spin on Dante’s story, but which does much more with characterization. Had Dante perhaps spent a bit more time on the Beatrice sub-story, for instance (which, admittedly, will likely come later) or had the Dante character had to endure more personally, rather than just being inquisitive and asking “Oh, what famous people do we know in this circle, Virgilius?” all the time- it might have enhanced the story elements a bit.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
I read the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow edition of this book, which was the first American English translation. I did this for two reasons: first, to stay as true to the main story as possible, while reading it in English (Longfellow was in fact criticized by some for how literally he interpreted the Italian – which is what I wanted) and second, because I wanted to simultaneously read something by Longfellow (sure, it’s not his story – but it’s his translation and that is definitely something). In any event, it turned out to be a great decision. Longfellow kept the story in its original structure (9+1) and managed to make the language and delivery work. He did seem to overuse certain words at times – it seems he would get a particular word in his head for a while, let it go, then find another word to reuse for a while. Aside from that, though, and some minor “clunkiness” due to the literal translation, which at times made the story read like a book narrated by Yoda, it was generally beautiful. I did not expect the pages to turn as they did, nor did I expect some of the more graphic imagery (one man eating another’s brain, for instance, or demons tearing limbs from torsos). The prose is what kept the story advancing, when characterization just wasn’t doing it for me. Striking.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
Admittedly, quite a bit of this poem went over my head, as I am not all that familiar with ancient Christian history, ancient Italian political/social history, or even that much Greek and Roman mythology. I have read Ovid, Plato, Sophocles, Euripides, and others, so I was certainly familiar with many of the main characters (the Greek gods and heroes), but not as familiar as I would like to be, seeing as this poem was so referential to those classics. A deeper understanding of not just who they were, but of what they did and why Dante might see them in a certain light would have been helpful. Still, that Dante re-writes these classic characters in a way (placing treasured and beloved gods and heroes, like Paris and Achilles, in Hell) that is so daring was truly interesting to read. It certainly caused me to pause and reflect on the lessons Homer and the gang may have been trying to tell, versus those of Dante. Also, the commingling of Christian themes and pantheistic themes was surprising, not just in its presence but in how well it was done and in how natural it seemed. Medusa and Judas in the same story – why not?! Dante’s Inferno is absolutely brilliant – in a truly brilliant way, not in a “that ice cream flavor is EPIC” kind of way. It helps to have a strong background in the histories and mythologies, but the prose and story itself are enjoyable either way. I look forward to finishing the next two books in The Divine Comedy.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult (High School +)
Interest: Mythology, Ancient Literature, Italian Literature, Christianity, Heaven/Hell
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