The Divine Comedy, Chapter 5: Summary
In Dante Alighieri’s classic work The Divine Comedy, the poet describes his version of the spiritual life of the soul after death as a reflection of the type of life they led. In Canto 5, he arrives at the second circle of Hell, which is actually the first level because the souls found before this was left undisturbed as good people who had lived before Jesus arrived to provide them with a means of ascending into Heaven. The second level of Hell is the place for unrepented sinners – those people who died before they confessed and were forgiven their sins. In many cases, these individuals were people who had given in to their lustful desires outside of the bonds of marriage.
Within this level of Hell, Dante encounters a couple of souls that are seen to be forever together within the hurricane. These are the souls of Paolo and Francesca, lovers who were murdered by Francesca’s jealous husband. As Francesca tells her story, she reveals that the two lovers knew what they felt in their hearts as they read through the story of Launcelot and Guinevere in a book. Although they recognized their own feelings, they didn’t act on it until one day when Launcelot finally kissed Guinevere in the story and Paolo finally kissed Francesca in reality. While she tells their story, the soul of Paolo simply weeps at her side. Francesca doesn’t say how far that kiss went, only that the two lovers did no more reading on that day. When her husband discovered them, he murdered them and now a different level of Hell awaits him. However, they are trapped here both because they gave in to their carnal desires and because they had been killed before they could repent their sins.
Dante is so affected by their story that he falls into a dead faint. There are many reasons why he might have been so affected by this story, most of which are revealed when one looks into the background of the story a little deeper. History tells us that Francesca was a young woman married for political reasons to Gianciotto Malatesta, a deformed man who sent his handsome brother Paolo to attend the wedding ceremony by proxy. She fell in love with the man she thought was to be her husband only to find out the next day that he was the brother, not the spouse. This woman was also the aunt of the person who provided Dante with shelter toward the end of his life and thus would have commanded a great deal of sympathy from the poet. Another element of Dante’s history that might have fed into his overwhelming sense of despair at hearing her story is the contention that Dante was in love with a woman who was not his betrothed, although there is no evidence they ever gave in to that feeling.
One of the potential reasons there are so many women in this part of hell is because of the medieval belief that women were ruled more by their passions than men. It was much easier for them to give in to their desires than to adhere to their marriage vows. However, I think it’s more likely than men’s transgressions simply weren’t considered transgressions by the same standard as women’s transgressions, and the need for women to repent for their sins was considered to be greater because of their original disgrace through Eve. What this excerpt reveals about the medieval conception of Hell is that there was a very literal translation of the Biblical texts regarding sins committed, but that these people had a difficult time believing that relatively innocent love would be punished to the same degree as contemplated murder. The concept of the layers of Hell also reveals that some of the mystical beliefs regarding numbers were still held.