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Dante and the Feminine Ideal: Representation of Women in The Inferno

One of the most interesting aspects of The Inferno is Dante Alighieri’s representation of women. Dante’s feminine ideal is Beatrice, who is the whole catalyst for The Divine Comedy. She represents Divine Love, and it is her concern for Dante that drives her to seek out Virgil to be Dante’s guide through the Underworld. It is Beatrice who gives Dante the courage to undertake his journey into Hell. Her motive is made quite explicit: “Love called me here” (ii. 73). She has been sent with the prayers of the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucia and Rachel, who together are reminiscent of the Holy Trinity. Indeed, Beatrice can be seen as Dante’s own personal savior. It is through her love that Dante may find the way out of the Dark Woods of Error and into the true path of God’s light. After this initial meeting, Dante will not see Beatrice until Paradise. Angelic creatures like Beatrice are not to be found within the confines of Hell. The poet Virgil is to be his guide through Hell. Hell is a corrupt and perverted version of the order that is found in heaven. As Beatrice is the feminine ideal, all feminine creatures within Hell are, in some way, her antithesis. This can be seen in the second circle of Hell: the Realm of the Lustful. Here we find famous lovers from throughout history, as well as a couple from Dante’s world. They are Paolo and Francesca, and they are an excellent example of how Hell’s feminine denizens deviate from the divine feminine ideal in Beatrice. While Paolo weeps, Francesca tells the pitiful tale of their love: “Love, which in gentlest hearts will

soonest bloom / seized my lover with passion for that sweet body / from which I was torn unshriven to my doom” (v. 97-99). One should note how, in her tale, Francesca concentrates on the physical aspects of love. The love that Beatrice has for Dante is a divine love. Francesca’s love for Paolo was wrought out of weakness, and now they are damned to Hell, to eternally be swept up in the winds. Beatrice’s live for Dante came from holiness, so now she, if not physically, spiritually guides him to the path of God. The contrast between Beatrice and the feminine of Hell is not just visible in its human denizens. Many of the demons of the underworld also represent an inversed feminine ideal. The Erinyes (Furies) guard a tower near the Gate to Dis. Where

Beatrice is a calm, reserved symbol of love, the furies are “hellish and inhumane” (ix. 34), with “horned serpents [that grow] from their heads like matted hair” (ix. 37-38). They are so far from the feminine ideal that Dante’s only description of them that identifies them as female is skeptical: “Their limbs and gestures hinted they were women” (ix. 35). Their nature is so hideous that it shadows one of the most apparent characteristics: gender. Their outward appearance is a good indicator of their inward nature, and as soon as they see Dante they become hostile. “Call Medusa that we may change him to stone! Too lightly we let Theseus go free” (ix. 50-51). Virgil has Dante shut his eyes, and then puts his hand over them, to prevent him from being turned to stone by Medusa’s gaze, but only until an angel from heaven comes, can they pass safely into Dis. The forces that encourage Dante on through Beatrice protect him by deterring the Furies. The Harpies, kin of the Erinyes, do not even get specified as female by Dante, but have traditionally been represented as such. The Harpies are described in terms that,

perhaps, are even more hideous than those granted to the Erinyes: Their wings are wide, their feet clawed, their huge bellies covered with feathers, their necks and faces human. They croak eternally in unnatural trees. (xiii.13-15) The Harpies are residents of the Wood of the Suicides, and they subsist on the leaves of the suicides. To live they must inflict pain upon the trees of the grove. However, the pain they cause is not simply physical; with the opening of the wound, the tree is forced to relive the details of its life. The bark acts as a sort of armor protecting the soul from facing the outside world. In the case of the Suicides, their pain is, to some extent, self-inflicted. This is why the punishment of having their corpses hang on their branches on Judgment Day is such a horrible prospect for the suicides; on that day they will have to face themselves. The concept of the divine feminine is not just seen in the sinners, but also in those who were sinned against. In Circle 8 we find the seducers and panderers, who are in Hell for their crimes against women. Dante speaks with Venedico Caccianemico, who prostituted his sister Ghisola to gain political favor. Virgil points out Jason, who was Hypsiplye’s seducer and unfaithful husband to Medea. They are forced to walk quickly in a circle, driven by “horned demons with enormous lashes” (xviii. 35). By using women for their own means they rejected the divine femininity and destroyed its purity. In this sense Dante was somewhat ahead of his time. Dante lived at the end of the Middle Ages, and saw the very beginning of the Renaissance. At this time, women were viewed as far more libidinous beings than men, and frequently received the blame for any acts of adultery. Prostitution was a tolerated activity, probably more so than today, even. It was not uncommon for an upper-class woman to be used as a sexual bribe. The concept of

chivalry did not really come into favor until the Renaissance, which was a few decades after this book was written. Circle 8 is also the last place where we see a female character. She is Thaïs the flatterer, and she lives in the squalor of her sin. Virgil describes her as “scratching herself with dungy nails, the strumpet who fidgets to her feet, then to a crouch” (xviii. 129-130). Hers was a sin of the intellect, unlike Francesca, whose weakness was one of flesh. By being insincere, Thaïs rejected the position of the divine female. She had no love, not even a lustful love. Her punishment matched her crime. By cheapening the position of the woman, she sentenced herself to an afterlife of filth and decay. As Beatrice is the feminine ideal, the women of Dante’s Hell are judged by her standards. Dante’s treatment of women shows quite a lot of respect for women, especially given his time period. Dante’s infatuation for Beatrice influenced how he viewed women, and in turn, as a poet, the women of Hell. how he treated

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