Francesca's Style In Canto V Of Dante's Inferno

5171 words - 21 pages

Francesca's Style in Canto V of Dante's Inferno

Canto V of Dante's Inferno begins and ends with confession. The frightening image of Minos who «confesses» the damned sinners and then hurls them down to their eternal punishment contrasts with the almost familial image of Francesca and Dante, who confess to one another. In a real sense confession seems to be defective or inadequate in Hell. The huddled masses who declare their sins to Minos do so because they are compelled to declare or make manifest in speech the character of their offenses and although they confess everything (each soul «tutta si confessa», v. 8) it is not an admission of guilt prompted by true contrition or the timely desire to reform their lives. In Hell confession is a formal ritual that is not especially «good» for the soul. This is a confession that serves only as a sign that identifies and seals their eternal fates. The brief and compressed description of Minos and his «offizio» would suggest that this confession of the sinners is largely a formal requirement full of sound and fury signifying only the level of their eternal degradation. Minos is not caught up in the sinners' confessions, and, indeed, Dante's concise description of the entire process of confession and judgment («dicono e odono e poi son giù volte», v. 15) is accomplished with dispatch and aesthetic distancing.1 Unlike Dante the wayfarer who will be moved to pity by Francesca's confession, Minos, the brutish judge, is not captivated by the texts provided by the sinners and seems to represent a fierce but orderly administration of justice. Within the moral architecture of the Commedia Francesca's own words identify and confirm the justice of her punishment, but as the structure and nature of this moral architecture are only fully comprehensible for the pilgrim and for us at the end of his journey, i.e., when Dante the pilgrim becomes Dante the poet who can now communicate his vision and experience, our first encounter with Francesca, much as the pilgrim's initial encounter with her, is a naive encounter that does not necessarily enable us to place or situate her confession within that moral system that is just unfolding; and if our initial encounter is naive then no less so may be our (including the pilgrim's) first reading of Francesca's confessional text.

Dante structures the Commedia in such a way as to enable the pilgrim to function as a progressively more sophisticated reader of confessional texts throughout his journey, and as such he becomes a reflection of our own possibilities as interpreters of these canti. Our initial attempts at interpreting the equivocal texts provided by the sinners are fitful, inadequate, and constantly in need of later correction and reassessment, thus reflecting the pilgrim's own progress. In the reading and re-reading, these confessional passages and canti define themselves as exercises in humility: as understanding becomes the product of a series of...

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