Last Updated 26 Jan 2021

Deceit and Sexual Women’s Sexual Sins in Dante’s Inferno

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Dante’s representations of women and feminine sexuality in the Inferno show contrasts within the various natures of women and their sexuality. His era’s vision of the perfect woman one that idealized beauty, passiveness and purity is represented by his life long love Beatrice. This ideal and its representation in Beatrice are contrasted with the dark depictions of women, their sexual sins, devious devices, and evil act, which Dante encounters in hell. This paper will argue that the severity of condemnation in hell for women’s sexual sins is related to the increasing degrees of deceit.

Dante’s perspective of the evil side of femininity becomes apparent from the opening of the inferno. Dante, in midlife, strays from his path into a “dark wood,” where he is able to see a bright mountain. In his quest to reach his goal, he is thwarted and driven deeper into the wood by the ravenous and promiscuous she-wolf described as “She tracks down all, kills all and knows no glut, but, feeding she grows hungrier than she was. She mates with any beast” Canto1, lines 92-95 [i] The she-wolf portrays the worst characteristics of women; she reflects lust, pride and avarice.

These traits and characteristics are a foreshadowing of the sins possessed by the many women whom Dante will later encounter. This monster is contrasted by Dante’s feminine ideal, his true love Beatrice. She reflects a divine love sent by the purest of women, the Virgin Mary, and even asks Virgil to guide Dante through the hell. Her motivation is clear “It is I Beatrice, who send you to him I come from the blessed height for which I yearn. Love called me here. Canto 2 lines 70-73[ii] It is her love that provides Dante with the courage to move through Hell and onto the path of God’s light.

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In many ways, she is his personal savior. Divine, virginal and pure in nature, Beatrice is the perfect woman and all feminine creatures or monsters within Hell are her contrasting antitheses. In the second circle, that of “the carnal” or lustful we find various famous lovers from throughout history buffeted about in a whirlwind of an endless storm. “And this, I learned, was the never ending flight Of this who sinned the flesh, the carnal and lusty Who betrayed reason to their appetite. Canto 5, 37-40 [iii] The women condemned to this level of hell knowingly lived their lives in tempestuous adultery and in whirlwind romances, deceiving the men in their lives. When Dante asks who is condemned here, Virgil mentions famous lovers from throughout history. For instance, Virgil mentions first the Empress Semiramis, the perverse Assyrian queen who legalized incest in her kingdom[iv] :“Lust and law were her one decree” Canto 5, 57[v] There as well are the adulterers Cleopatra, Helen (of Troy), and Dido, the Carthaginian queen who, when jilted by her love, commits suicide[vi],[vii].

The overwhelming impression given by the emphasis on women is that they are deceitful and at fault in these relationships. It is as if the men were simply swept along like dry leaves by the wind of lust or love. Dante then speaks to two lovers there called Francesca da Rimini and her brother in-law Paolo Malatesta, illicit lovers murdered by Gianciotto Malatesta Francesca’s husband. [viii] They explain that they fell in love reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, which was so romantic that they developed feelings for one another.

They present themselves as victims of the love’s trials, but there is more to this story than what they contest, for the marriage of Francesca to her husband was necessitated as a peace pact between two warring clans- the Rimini and the Ravina[ix]. The traditional story is that the wedding was arranged, and the handsome and dashing Paulo was initially used to deceive her from learning the identity of the true spouse, Gianciotto “the cripple,” but on the wedding night, Francesca learns the truth.

On their deaths Paulo was a fifty-year old father of two sons and Francesca was a mother of a nine year old daughter[x]. This love was clearly more than a moment of weakness or a whirlwind romance because it clearly was a lengthy affair. The start of this relationship was based on deception and they may believe that this is a sin of love, and they would be naively deceiving themselves by accepting little to no responsibility for their actions. Their greatest desire in life was to be together in a whirlwind love; ironically, this has become their fate.

Dante the pilgrim moves on through the layers of hell, seeing or meeting other women who represent other degrees of sin. Entering the eighth circle of hell, the circle of frau, in Canto 18, he enters the second malebolige of this level, reserved for the flatters. Here, he sees a woman scratching and scraping herself while she swims in a grotesque pool of excrement. Virgil informs him that: “It is the whore Thaius who told her lover When he sent to ask her, ‘Do you thank me much? ’ ‘Much? Nay, past all believing! Canto 18 lines 131-133[xi] Thais once was a beautiful courtesan, but she was a woman of degraded sexuality, who prostituted herself with both her body and her speech. She was a whore, who teased, seduced and sold herself to many men for her own gains. Her greatest sin that consigned her to wallow in this pool of feces, deeper in hell than the forlorn lovers, was not her pandering of bodily desires, but her intentional deceit through the “prostitution of words”[xii]. She was a victim of the salacious flattery she offered her lovers the while among the living.

More sinful than her exploitation of men through sex without love was the overwhelming and ridiculously insincere compliments that she gave men; those lies are now represented by the feces in which she exists. In one of the deepest pits of the underworld, as Dante moves through the eighth circle of hell and the tenth malebolige, he moves through the pit of falsifiers and the evil impersonators. There, he encounters Myrrha, the mother of Adonis. She is running about, much like an insane, vampiric beast, pale, naked and unclean, snapping her teeth as she runs by.

Virgil tells him that “that ancient shade in time above Was Myrrha, vicious daughter of Cinyras Who loved her father with more than rightful love. he falsified another’s form and came Disguised to sin with him just as that other Who runs with her in order that he might claim The fabulous lead-mare” Canto 30 lines 37-43[xiii] Myrrha is dammed in one of the deepest pits of hell for her incestuous relationship with her father, King Cinyras. Her intentional betrayal of her father the king, through her disguise as another lover to seduce her father, is a premeditated act of sexual treachery.

This disturbingly lustful act of deceit leaves her pursuing flesh, much like she did her father in life. The corrupt world of Dante’s Inferno allows sinners to get a perverted version of what they sought through out their lives. Dante’s true love, Beatrice, is a pure and virginal woman, which is a contrast to the women committed to hell. The depths of hell that these women are condemned to for their sexual sins are the result of the deceit with which they acted. The more deceitful and heinous the act or treachery, the more severe the punishment and the deeper that woman is in hell.

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