Dante’s Representation of Women and the Ideal Woman in the Inferno

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When researching the ideal woman nowadays, every website provides scientific studies and cultural research, which all point to the same results: that men prefer a small waist, long legs, and a large chest, with nothing about the woman’s personality characteristics. One of the most compelling facets of the Inferno can be the portrayal of females by Dante Alighieri. He paints the picture of the quintessentially perfect female through the character Beatrice. She serves as the stimulus in The Divine Comedy. Through the guidance of the Virgin Mary, St. Lucia convinced Beatrice to send an angelic messenger to Virgil to convince him to direct Dante on his expedition into the netherworld and through the different levels of Hell. In this way, Beatrice may be discerned as Dante’s guardian angel and protector. It is Beatrice’s adoration for Dante that lights the way for him to leave the Dark Woods of Error and enter God’s light. Because of Dante’s love and affection for Beatrice, she characterizes his ideal female, and thereby becomes the standard by which he compares all other women which is shown by his descriptions of the female sinners, those who were harmed by other people’s sins, and the demons of the underworld.

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Beatrice is only in the Inferno for a short while, since such divine beings only exist outside of the boundaries of Hell, which is described as a corrupt, twisted version of the hierarchy depicted in Heaven. Since Beatrice is deemed by Dante as the perfect model of femininity, all of the feminine creatures that Dante encounters in Hell are essentially her antithesis. In the second circle of Hell: the Realm of the Lustful, Dante encounters historically infamous lovers along with a couple from his own world, Paolo and Francesca. It is in Francesca’s tale of their love, which the reader can see the deviation between the female occupants of Hell with Beatrice, the exemplary female. Francesca describes their history as:

Love, which in gentlest hears will soonest bloom seized my lover with passion for that sweet body from which I was torn unshriven to my doom (v. 97-99).

In her tale, the reader can see a greater concentration on the physical characteristics of love, whereas the love of Beatrice for Dante can be described as a pure, divine love. The difference in the types of love that the two couples share is ultimately drawn down two what their love was rooted in. The love Francesca hold for Paolo was cultivated through weakness, the temptation of her body, which damns her and her lover to Hell where they are to be eternally flooded by wind. However, Beatrice’s love for Dante is rooted in holiness, which helps her guide him on his own road into the light of God.

Dante also encounters a female character in the eighth circle of Hell, the flatterer Thais, as she resides in poverty for her sins. Unlike Francesca, whose weakness was her temptation, Thais’ sin was one of her own intellect. She devalued the station of women in society by her rejection of the feminine ideal and by treating herself and womankind as filth, she was sentenced to decay in filth in her afterlife.

Dante not only juxtaposes the feminine ideal with sinners, but also with those who were sinned against. It is in the eighth circle of Hell in which we find those which sinned against women, panderers and seducers. It is here where Dante finds Venedico Caccianemico, who prostituted Ghisola, his sister, in order to gain political favor, as well as Jason, who was the adulterous spouse of Medea and seducer Hypsiplye. It is the men of this circle which repudiated and warped the feminine ideal. During the Middle Ages, in which Dante lived, prostitution was a common activity and women usually held the blame for acts of adultery. The way Dante respects and views women didn’t become a common viewpoint for a couple more decades during the Renaissance.

The deviation between the feminine inhabitants of the underworld and Beatrice is not only visible in the human sinners as many of the demons which Dante encounters also represent a reverted form of the feminine ideal. Dante encounters the three Erinyes, or Furies, close to the Gate of Dis where they guard a tower. As opposed to Beatrice’s serene, quiet personality, Dante describes the Erinyes as heliish and inhumane (ix. 34) as their claws tear at their own chests, with horned serpents [that grow] from their heads (ix 37-38). With their looks and actions being so far away from his representation of the perfect female, he seems unsure himself as to whether they are actually female, however he bases his conjecture of their femininity based on their limbs and gestures (ix 35). It is when they see him and call Medusa to turn him into stone that an angelic messenger, thought to be sent by Beatrice, comes to protect him from Medusa’s deadly gaze and lets Virgil and Dante pass safely through the gates of Dis.

Although not specifically identified as female characters in the Inferno, the harpies, kin to the Erinyes, are commonly portrayed as having the face of a woman and the body of a bird in literature. Dante describes these monstrous creatures in which: Their wings are wide, their feet clawed, their huge bellies/ covered with feathers, their necks and faces human (xiii. 13-14). As inhabitants of the Wood of Suicides, the harpies survive off of the leaves of the trees and have to impose pain upon the trees in order to live. With each wound they inflict upon the tree, the bark of the tree, which acts as a suit of armor guarding the soul, cracks and the soul is forced to encounter the world which it wanted to escape. In this way, that the harpies make their living by inflicting pain and suffering onto others.

As the quintessential perfect female, Beatrice’s kind and loving nature is the standard by which Dante judges all other females which he encounters. Because of Dante’s love and respect for Beatrice, he shows a heightened regard for females compared to the rest of society, especially considering the age in which he lived. His love for Beatrice was a substantial influence on his perspective of females in the world around him, and also how Dante described the female inhabitants of Hell.

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