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. 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...