Classical literature has numerous inherent values and should still be extensively read by today’s readers. Still, despite my love for Dante, I would argue that it also essential to read classical literature with a critical eye, especially as our concepts of human rights and equality have greatly transformed since these works were written.
In February, Katy Waldman wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker about reading Ovid’s works in the #MeToo era. Waldman discusses the poem by Ovid in which Daphne, a wood nymph is courted by Apollo. However, Daphne rejects Apollo’s advances because she wishes to remain a virgin. Still, Apollo refuses to stop pursuing Daphne, so she begs her father, a river god, to save her. Her father transforms Daphne into a laurel tree.
Ovid writes (translated by R. Mongan), “A heavy numbness seizes her limbs, / her soft breasts are girded by thin bark, / her hair grows into foliage, her arms into branches, / her foot, just now so swift, clings by sluggish roots.”
Still, Apollo refuses to relinquish Daphne. Ovid writes, “He gives the wood kisses … and the wood shrinks from the kisses. / The god said to her, ‘Since you can’t be my bride, at least / you will certainly be my tree!’”
Essentially, Ovid’s myth is a story of rape. Even as a tree, Daphne recoils from Apollo’s greedy and unwanted touch. Ovid’s myth is not a story of consent. After Daphne takes desperate measures to escape his pursuits, he still violates her body. This poem is just one tale involving rape and sexual transgression in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Hades kidnaps Persephone and imprisons her in Hades for half of every year; Zeus rapes Europa and Leda.
Ovid’s poems do not simply conclude with these tragic sexual transgressions either. Instead, Ovid — the mastermind of metamorphosis — transforms many of his female victims into new forms. Daphne turns into a laurel tree, and Leda gives birth to two eggs after Zeus rapes her. Through these transformations, Ovid dehumanizes these women and grossly abuses the victims of rape of sexual assault. The men of these tales escape entirely punishment-free.
Metamorphosis is traditionally typically about erotic, passionate love. Eros, this type of sinful love, is a subject that Dante explores extensively in the Divine Comedy. Dante studied Ovid extensively and engages with Ovid’s works in La Commedia. In his epic poem, Dante challenges Ovid and transfigures this process of transformation — often shaping metamorphoses into a perverted punishment of sin. Dante explicitly uses metamorphosis as a cruel, twisted form of punishment. Thieves transform into snakes and those who committed suicide are perversely turned into bushes and trees. Further parallels to Ovid can be drawn in Dante’s hell. Daphne was rendered a tree for all eternity — just as those in the circle of suicide were cruelly revoked from their human form.
In the Inferno, the circle of Lust is predominantly full of women, including Cleopatra, Dido, Helen of Troy and Francesca. Though Dante engages with a few famous male literary characters — such as Paris and Achilles — in this circle, Francesca gives the longest soliloquy. Francesca is one of the few women in La Commedia to be given so many lines, and yet her identity and actions are tied to two male figures. Francesca was killed by her husband when he caught her having an affair with her brother. Dante portrays Francesca as a beautiful, gentle seductress–even the poet temporarily succumbs to her enchanting words. Although Francesca’s story provides interesting commentary on the constraints of love and society, it is unfortunate that Francesca is one of the only dominant female voices in the Inferno. Dante’s work would be more nuanced if he developed other female characters whose roles were not tied to lust and sexual temptation.
In Purgatorio, Pia is the principle female voice with whom Dante engages. Pia is one of the first and only shades in Purgatorio to address Dante in a kind and respectful fashion. Unlike most shades, instead of an immediate demand for Dante to relay news of her place in Purgatorio to those on Earth, Pia requests that Dante remember her only after the pilgrim has “rested from the long journey.” Her time is brief, but Pia speaks some of the most beautiful and famous lines of Purgatorio:
“remember me: I am Pia; Siena made me, Maremma unmade me: he knows it within himself/who earlier, wedding me/had given me his ring and gem.”
Pia is one of the most beloved characters in the Divine Comedy despite her brief time because her tale is a beautiful tragedy that resounds with many readers.
The few female characters in La Commedia with significant character development are given beautiful stanzas. Similar to Francesca’s words in Canto Five of the Inferno, Pia’s words become immortalized outside of Dante’s world as representations of the tragedy of immortal love. As both Francesca and Pia were killed by their husbands, two of the most influential female figures in Dante’s poem have backstories tied to lust and domestic violence. Though Francesca and Pia’s words are entrancing, Dante suggests that the outcome of lives was dependent on the whims and wills of men.
This implied female dependence on male power appears frequently. In Canto Nineteen of Purgatorio, Dante has a dream of a siren who initially appears as a monstrous figure who becomes beautifully transfigured under Dante’s male gaze. Here, the siren’s image is tied to Dante’s attention, which illustrates the poet’s belief that beauty is dependent on male attention. Dante is momentarily entranced by the siren’s song. However, Virgil comes to Dante’s rescue by tearing open the siren’s clothing to reveal a stench emanating from her belly. Through this violation, Virgil claims to divulge the siren’s “true nature.”
Dante’s dream acts as an allegory of the false promise of the fulfillment of human desires. According to Dante, this false promise is at the root of modern capitalism and the thirst to gain material goods as means to achieve our desires. Through this allegory, Dante comments on humankind’s attempts to maintain beautiful illusions at whatever cost. In Paradiso, Dante uses this dream to reveal the futility of this quest; he shows that base human desires are rotten at their core despite possessing a shiny, or appealing exterior. However, though I agree with Dante’s intent, this dream is deeply problematic. Once again, Dante genders vice and uses a woman figure to represent the dangers of false promises and the fulfillment of sinful desires through earthly lust.
As Dante reaches Eden at the end of Purgatorio, his trusty guide Virgil is forced to return to his place in limbo. Dante suggests that Virgil can go no farther because the pagan cannot be part of the divine eternity of Eden or Paradiso. Beatrice takes over from Virgil to guide Dante through Paradiso. Prior to her untimely death, Beatrice was the object of Dante’s earthly affection and the inspiration for his love poetry La Vita Nuova. However, the version of Beatrice who Dante describes in La Commedia has been entirely desexualized. In Columbia University’s Dante Women & Gender Encylopedia, scholar Teodolinda Barolini describes Beatrice’s transformed role and personality.
Barolini writes of “the courtly ideology that exalts the lady as a Platonic ideal, rather than viewing her as a human agent with her own inner life and subjectivity. She is supreme, but within a context in which the frame of reference is entirely determined by the needs of the lover-poet.”
Essentially, Dante has removed all of Beatrice’s earthly qualities and human appeal. She is instead rendered as a divine figure — a flawless symbol akin to the Virgin Mary. Through Paradiso, Beatrice serves as Dante’s divine guide, but the personality, beauty, and characteristics that caused Dante to fall madly in love with her on Earth no longer exist. Instead, Beatrice preaches to Dante and reprimands him when his faith appears lacking in some way.
The third canticle of La Commedia, Paradiso, displays an interesting conundrum because it contains both hierarchy and equality at same time. Though everyone in Paradiso has been saved by God and lives in bliss, Dante creates different spheres of heaven and assigns characters to each. Those in spheres closer to the center and to God are considered to have greater amounts of love. Aside from Beatrice, the two women primarily featured in Paradiso are in the lowest sphere. Dante meets Paradiso’s version of Francesca and Pia, Piccarda Donati. Piccarda was a Black Guelf. One of her brothers is in the Inferno and the other in Purgatorio. In Paradiso, Piccarda rests in a lower sphere because of her violent death. Early in Piccarda’s life, she was a nun, but was forced into marriage. However, despite the fact that she did not choose to marry, she exists in a low sphere Paradiso because by marriage, she broke her vows to God. In the same domain Dante places another woman, Constance, who also broke the vows she took as a nun.
Through the placement of these women in a lower sphere of Paradiso, Dante asserts that even actions that are produced through fear or coercion are still independent choices. The poet ascribed to the theory that people voluntarily surrender free will when they make vows with God. Thus, Dante assumed that if Piccarda had been fully faithful to God, she would have refused marriage at whatever the cost — even if this would lead to her death. However, this depiction is incredibly harmful. Ultimately, what choice did Piccarda really have? She was forced into marriage, which was a direct violation of herself and her personhood. Essentially, Dante blames the female victims of these violent abuses and assaults for their actions. His attitude is close-minded and dangerous. However, though Dante faults Piccarda for breaking her vow under duress, I would note Dante is referring to her absolute will, not her relative will. Fortunately, Dante believed that men and women were equal in their freedom of will and their agency in choice.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante’s depictions of women primarily consist of either pure virgins, or duplicitous seductresses. This is much too binary and condescending. The Divine Comedy is an incredible work of literature that has contributed so much to the understanding of human nature, love, and intellect, but the poem should not exist in a vacuum. Thus, when reading Dante’s work, we should apply lessons of our modern times. Though La Commedia is well-deserving of praise, I find Dante’s portrayals of women critically lacking. In his time, Dante refined and advanced literary devices such as metamorphosis and symbolism, but his depictions of women are not much more progressive than those of Ovid. Dante and Ovid are two of the greatest poets in history, but they could use a good lecture on feminism.
Contact Sophie Stuber at sstuber8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.