Stories of Sin: Storytelling as Confession in Dante

May 27, 2019 by Essay Writer

To tell a story is to narrate events, or to give an account. Within literature, storytelling becomes a frame within a frame, a story within a story. A character from the outer frame of the book creates a smaller frame in the form of his or her story. As Dante descends through Hell in his Inferno, he and his guide Virgil hear many damned souls tell stories. Some sinners foretell the future, as do the suicide of Canto XIII, the gluttonous Ciacco of Canto VI, and the heretics of Canto X. Others, such as the Jovial Friars and Navaresse barrater, identify other sinners and explain punishments distinct from their own. Most of the stories that the damned tell, however, are their personal confessions. The structure of each confession is usually tripartite, consisting of the sinner’s identification of himself or herself, narration of the occasion for his or her particular sin, and the description of his or her punishment. The suicide in Canto XIII, for example, begins his lengthy confession to Dante and Virgil by identifying himself: “I am the one who guarded both the keys to Frederick’s heart and turned them…” (Canto XIII, lines 58-59). He then explains how he was driven to suicide. He tells Dante and Virgil that he became the object of envy for his great influence with Emperor Frederick. Such envy, the sinner says, “inflamed the minds of everyone” against him (Canto XIII, line 67), and he committed suicide, believing that he “could flee disdain through death” (Canto XIII, line 71). The damned soul then completes the three-part confession structure when he gives a vivid description of the punishment for suicides, who become thornbushes in Hell and are eaten by harpies.These confession stories serve several functions. The confessions not only identify actual historical figures in Hell, but they also highlight certain differences between Dante the author and Dante the character. By identifying an individual soul and his or her sin, each confession gives a specific example of a particular sin. Since Dante the author places historical people in Hell, their confessions allow him to identify those people, thereby condemning their earthly deeds. The author creates the system by which these souls are eternally damned, and even invents the tortures with which these sinners afflicted, but Dante the character occasionally feels pity for a confessing soul, as he does for Francesca in Canto V: “Francesca, your afflictions/ move me to tears of sorrow and of pity” (Canto V, lines 116-117). Thus, the stories, because they identify the speaking sinner, provide occasion for the distinction of Dante the character from Dante the author.By expounding a sin’s unique punishment, the confessions give insight into the structure of Dante’s punishment system. Bertran de Born, for instance, in the eighth circle, where sewers of schism are punished, explains why he is punished with his head severed from his body. He says:I made the son and father enemies…because I severed those so joined, I carry‹alas‹my brain dissevered from its source,which is within my trunk. And thus, in meone sees the law of counter-penalty.(Canto XXVIII, lines 136, 139-142)This “law of counter-penalty” lets the punishment fit the crime. Bertran de Born severed father and son, and so in Hell his body is severed from his head. Most sins in Dante’s Hell are punished by counter-penalty. The suicides, for instance, are never to be reunited with or to resemble their bodies because, as the thornbush explains to Dante and Virgil, “it is not right for any man to have/ what he himself has cast aside” (Canto XIII, lines 105-106).An additional function of confession is to place each sinner in the appropriate circle. Upon entering Hell, each soul is assigned a punishment according to his or her sin by the creature Minos, whom Dante calls the “connoisseur of sin” (Canto V, line 9). Minos casts judgment only after a soul has confessed his or her sins to him. Dante explains that “when the spirit born to evil/ approaches him, it confesses all” (Canto V, line 7-8), and that “they speak and hear, then they are cast below” (Canto V, line 15). Speaking confession, that is, telling the story of one’s sins, is integral to the judgment and placement process for new souls in Hell.These souls before Minos are compelled to tell their stories, but the sinners who speak to Dante and Virgil are not so obliged. Most of the souls whom the sojourners meet volunteer to tell their stories, such as the heretic whose voice “burst so unexpectedly/ out of one sepulcher” that Dante is startled (Canto X, lines 28-29). But why do they speak? Why tell these stories? Each soul does not confess the story of his or her downfall simply to satisfy Dante’s curiosity, but, rather, is motivated by the desire for fame. For instance, in order to entice the soul of the suicide to speak further, Virgil encourages him, “But tell him who you were, so that he may,/ to make amends, refresh your fame within/ the world above, where he can still return” (Canto XIII, lines 52-54). The soul does indeed identify himself for Dante, and also adds, “If one of you returns into the world,/ then let him help my memory…” (Canto XIII, lines 76-77). The importance of telling one’s story is perhaps best illustrated by those who are not allowed to speak, the cowards of the Ante-Inferno. Virgil says of them, “‘The world will let no fame of theirs endure/…/ let us not talk of them, but look and pass'” (Canto III, lines 49-51). Of course, by simply looking and passing, Dante and Virgil do not speak to any of these, and thus prevent them from attaining fame by telling their stories. In fact, not one of the cowards is identified by name. In this way, storytelling, in the form of confession, is integral to achieving fame. The confession structure becomes for these damned souls the vehicle for memory and, thus, means of attaining or maintaining fame on earth.

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