“As a reader and writer, I was always drawn to historical fiction; later, I added writing narrative nonfiction to my interests, often with a historical bent. Dante’s Comedy projects a variety of lessons in those arenas. Dante recruits mythological and historical figures and mixes them into a high stakes story filled with danger and risk, much like we often do in historical fiction. In the process, Dante sometimes reshapes our perspective on those figures. Ulysses, for example, appears during Dante’s trek through hell, and Ulysses’s brief monologue marks one of the most striking versions of that character outside of Homer. Dante, of course, was not perfect, and his refashioning of his own persona through the course of the poem conceals some of his questionable life choices, including his failure to try to reunite with his wife and family after his political exile. As modern readers, we also have to contend with the fact that Dante’s attitudes toward other religions (outside of Catholicism, and an idiosyncratic version of Catholicism, at that) is very problematic.
“Purgatory is the middle child of Dante’s poem, sandwiched between the terrors of hell’s punishments and the heights of salvation in heavenly paradise. But Purgatory was always my personal favorite canticle (Dante’s term for each of the three sections). This canticle contains the most dramatic storytelling structure, in which Dante must carve out an independent track from his mentor Virgil (one of the historical and literary figures recruited into the story), and must rediscover his lost love, Beatrice (another historical figure). Beatrice’s appearance is one of the more surprising moments of the whole poem. I still have the first copy of Purgatory I read in college, and I remember reading the scene in which we finally meet Beatrice while on the edge of my seat.” [. . .] –Matthew Pearl, Crime Reads, September 16, 2019.
Check out more of Matthew Pearl’s work here.