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First Year Seminar, P.


Paper 4

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, how he treated

the women of Hell.