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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes

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SYMBOLISM AND ALLEGORY

Suppose you're watching a detective movie, where the "good
guys" are trying to solve an ugly crime. Suddenly, you start to
get a feeling that this is more than just an action-packed
adventure. This crime is connected to all crimes. The "bad
guys" stand for all the evil in the world. And the detective
hero isn't just solving a case-he's showing us what happens
when good confronts evil. That's an allegory.



An allegory is a story that has one meaning on the literal level,
and another on a symbolic or metaphoric level as well. Very
often in an allegory the characters represent abstract concepts.
The action works out a moral, by showing how the concept
"characters" interact.

Is Dante's work an allegory? How would we know? He says it
is in a letter to his patron, Can Grande della Scala. (Some
critics have questioned whether the document is authentic, but
most recognize it as genuine.) In that letter, Dante claims he
wrote the Comedy with four intended levels of meaning:
narrative, allegorical, moral, and anagogical.

If we look at Dante's quest as he moves up in the hierachical
structures, we can see these levels of interpretation unfold.

  Level                          Movement between two poles (quest)         
-                                                                           
  Narrative                  Dante makes a literal journey from         
                             Hell to Heaven.                          
  Allegorical                Dante moves from a state of sin to         
                             salvation. Dante moves from a will       
                             frozen by acedia to an openness to       
                             the grace and love of God.               
  Moral                      Dante moves from simple perception of      
                             sin and punishment to an                 
                             understanding of what sin is, and        
                             what it does to the soul. Because        
                             he understands sin, he also comes        
                             to understand and desire the will        
                             of salvation.                            
  Anagogical                 Dante moves from the worldly to the        
                             spiritual ideal. This is the             
                             spiritual or mythical level in           
                             which Dante sees and is reunited         
                             with the One, the sublime.               

Naturally, each reader must decide for himself or herself
which of these levels of meaning is clear. Which meanings are
important to you? For example, on the first reading, maybe
only the literal level makes sense. The anagogical level we
suggest is probably the most abstract and impossible to see
unless you read the entire Comedy. The scholars who have
studied Dante intensely ask us not to be intimidated by the
complexity, just try to watch for it and appreciate it, like a
marvelous clockwork spinning many wheels all at once.

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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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