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Interpreting Dan Brown's Inferno
Reading Between The Lines
By Deborah Parker
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2013 Deborah Parker and Mark Parker
All rights reserved.
INTERPRETING DAN BROWN'S
Amid the excitement surrounding the release of Dan Brown's Inferno, some readers have wondered whether one needs to know Dante's Inferno to enjoy this new novel. It's easy to dismiss a concern like this as naive — surely all one needs to know to read a page-turner will be provided by the book itself. Millions of readers who knew nothing about Leonardo raced through The Da Vinci Code. Part of Dan Brown's craft is to present facts usually known only by specialists in intriguing and clear ways. Nevertheless, the question is a good one. It speaks to something more than the desire for pure sensation. Without dismissing the suspense and pleasure of a good read, the question asks us to think about how curiosity, in the most active and wide sense, might change how we read and how we enjoy literature.
So there are really two answers to the question, Does one need to know Dante to enjoy Dan Brown's Inferno? You can read Inferno simply for the pleasure of how Brown piques your interest with puzzles and mysteries and then solves them satisfactorily. You can simply go along for the ride. Or you can read more actively, with a curiosity that is less idle than deliberate. The latter method is particularly rewarding, even when applied to a book that works perfectly well when read differently. We assume that some readers will want to know more about Dante's poem and other adaptations of the Divine Comedy, both literary and popular. Such readers can then turn or return to Dan Brown's book with a sense of pleasure, both in the way it adapts this source and in the way it encourages us to think about Dante's poem. For every adaptation is an homage that testifies to the greatness of the earlier work.
Let's compare these two approaches by looking at the Sneak Peek of Dan Brown's Inferno released in the Spring of 2013. This teaser provides the opening two sections of the novel: a Prologue, spoken by someone who calls himself "the Shade," that traces a very specific itinerary through modern-day Florence from the Arno River to the Badia Tower, from which the Shade presumably jumps; and Chapter 1, which reveals an injured and confused Robert Langdon as he awakens in the hospital. After a break, this chapter cuts to a mysterious female figure who stares up at Langdon's hospital window as she dismounts a motorcycle. The excerpt also includes an epigraph that condemns "neutrality in times of moral crisis" and a page titled "Fact" that sets out a few guidelines for the reader.
The Prologue, read simply in terms of what Brown provides for us, does everything a page-turner should do. The opening line, "I am the Shade," is perfectly understandable in terms of the information in the Fact section. The Shade thinks of himself moving through a Dantesque underworld trapped between life and death. The Shade's narrative shifts rapidly between the real world of Florence — with its museums and street vendors — and what appears to be a visionary existence of suffering, prophecy, apocalyptic destruction, and persecution. Even readers who had not read Dante's Inferno would suspect that the Shade's words, especially those in italics, have something to do with the poet's vision. Phrases like "dolent city" sound old-fashioned, and visions of "lustful bodies writhing in fiery rain" or "gluttonous souls floating in excrement" suggest infernal punishments. We needn't understand all these references, any more than we needed to understand Silas's tormented religious ravings in The Da Vinci Code, to enjoy the suspense here. In fact, if we've read Brown's previous novels, we can rest assured that we'll be told all we need to know as the plot unfolds.
No reader of Dan Brown would find Chapter 1, which opens with Robert Langdon in an intriguing situation, unfamiliar. Langdon's slow and difficult return to consciousness is full of the puzzles, clues, and teasing references that Brown's other novels have used to keep readers on tenterhooks. The chapter continues the line of infernal references begun by the Shade, as Langdon recalls, in fragments, memories of a blood-red river, corpses, and suffering. In fact, his recollections and the visions of the Shade seem to coalesce, as Langdon surveys an infernal scene of torment: "hundreds of them now, maybe thousands, some still alive, writhing in agony, dying unthinkable deaths ... consumed by fire, buried in feces, devouring one another." Just about any reader, primed by the title of the novel, the short description of "Inferno" provided on the Fact page, and the Shade's apparent hallucinations would connect these references. And readers more attuned to Brown's narrative methods probably would know that Langdon's last formulation of these memories — a veiled woman standing near a river of blood surrounded by corpses — should be kept in mind as one reads on. The puzzle has taken shape, and the solution can be expected shortly.
One might note how Brown has connected the Shade and Langdon. Both experience similar visions, albeit for different reasons, and these visions, even to readers unfamiliar with the Inferno, would be understood as referring to Dante's poem. The Shade's narrative concludes with his descent into what he terms the "abyss," and Langdon describes his last moments of consciousness before the sedatives take over as being dragged down into a "deep well." Finally, both men refer to one of Florence's most famous buildings, the Palazzo Vecchio. The Shade, as he moves from the river to the Badia, passes by "the palazzo with its crenellated tower and one-handed clock"; Langdon, from his hospital bed, is startled by the sight of "an imposing stone fortress with a notched parapet and a three-hundred-foot tower that swelled near the top, bulging outward into a massive machicolated battlement." We don't know how Langdon and the Shade are linked, but we know the connection has something to do with Dante's poem and the Palazzo Vecchio. The structure here is not subtle, but it creates the suspense necessary to pull readers into the next chapter. This teaser has done its job.
Now let's try an approach to the Sneak Peek that assumes some knowledge of Dante's poem. It's worth noting that Dan Brown's choice of title alone suggests that this is a good idea, as does his reference to Dante in the Fact page. Such attention finds reward at once, in the epigraph to the novel:
The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.
Ears attuned to Dante's poem will hear echoes of Canto 3, where the pilgrim encounters the neutrals:
the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise (Inf. 3.35–36)
Neither evil nor good, hateful both to God and to Satan, these beings stood apart during life, and they are cast out of both Heaven and Hell. Brown's reference to the neutrals in so prominent a place — as epigraph — asks that readers pause to consider it closely. First of all, the epigraph alludes to the poem but embellishes it. The Ante-Hell where the neutrals reside is not one of the "darkest" spots in Inferno, although Dante clearly deems neutrality despicable. The epigraph signals that Brown's use of Dante's poem in the novel will be more active than faithful. Second, the epigraph points readers to an episode in Dante's Inferno that, like Brown's own work, features a mystery. The neutrals are unnamed — that is part of their punishment. But the pilgrim takes note of one of these damned, and he does so emphatically:
I saw and recognized the shade of him who made, through cowardice, the great refusal. (Inf. 3.59–60)
Commentators to the poem have long argued who this individual might be, but he is usually identified as Celestine V, who was briefly Pope in 1294, abdicating after five months. The importance for Dante of his "great refusal" lies in his successor, Boniface VIII, whom Dante detested. For the poet, the reign of Boniface was a catastrophe. Brown's reference to the neutrals is thus a mystery that refers to a mystery.
The first words spoken by the Shade in the Prologue open even more possibilities for readers attuned to Dante:
I am the Shade.
Through the dolent city, I flee.
Through the eternal woe, I take flight.
These words evoke the opening lines of Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno. Dante and his guide, Virgil, have reached the Gate of Hell proper, and Dante reads the inscription over it:
Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost. (Inf. 3.1 — 3)
Brown's echo of the original is somewhat more precise than this translation. "Dolent city" feels a bit old-fashioned, but it renders the Italian "città dolente" in a way that makes the allusion more secure. For readers who know their Dante, the Shade's words prompt us to compare his situation with that of Dante the pilgrim in Canto 3 of Inferno.
So where is Dante as he stands before the Gate of Hell? He approaches the river Acheron, surrounded by sighs, groans, and cries of the neutrals, those who lived "without disgrace and without praise." As the pilgrim approaches the river, he sees the recent arrivals — damned souls waiting to cross into Hell proper in high Greco-Roman style, by means of Charon, the infernal ferryman. Curiously, the poem never specifies how Dante crosses: He faints on the banks of the river, awakening on the other side. The line that ends Canto 3 reads "like a man whom sleep has seized, I fell" (Inf. 3.136).
The parallel is not point by point. No good adaptation should be too faithful. The trick here is to transform the original in interesting ways, and Brown, after evoking Canto 3, concludes his Prologue with a different kind of fall for the Shade, who apparently steps off the Badia Tower. The parallel continues in the last words of the Shade — "[I] take my final step, into the abyss" — which echoes Dante's situation as he revives in the next canto: "I found myself upon the brink/ Of an abyss" (Inf. 4.7–8).
Note how these considerations thicken the experience of the novel. The Shade imagines himself as a new Dante, an infernal traveler who retraces the steps of the poet's journey, but in some transformed way. And this explicit parallel suggests a less obvious one, which places Langdon — someone who awakens (from some violence) and steps into an abyss (the stupor of sedatives) — in similar circumstances.
Let's look at other Dantesque elements in the Sneak Peek. The Shade, after his opening references to the inscription on the Gate of Hell, follows Dante's text pretty closely. As the Shade moves past the bustling Piazza San Firenze, he reminds himself: "Here all hesitation must be left behind" — an exact translation of words spoken by Virgil, Dante's guide through the Inferno. In the poem, Dante is confused and fearful about the journey ahead, and Virgil seeks to rouse his courage. Here the Shade, also facing a portal — "the iron gate at the base of the stairs" — makes his retracing of Dante's steps emphatic.
In fact, the Shade sees himself as Dante. Just down the page in Brown's Prologue we find him aligning himself yet again with the poet, this time with Dante's life. "Ungrateful land!" recalls many passages in Inferno where Dante angrily denounces his fellow Florentines. The Prologue continues with a barrage of Dantesque visions: "As I climb, the visions come hard ... the lustful bodies writhing in fiery rain, the gluttonous souls floating in excrement, the treacherous villains frozen in Satan's icy grasp." Each of these images points to a specific passage in the poem. The lustful appear in Canto 5, pummeled by winds; the gluttons, harassed by Cerberus, endure a cold and everlasting rain in Canto 6; and the last region of Hell, Cocytus, harbors traitors of several kinds, some immersed in ice up to their necks, others being flayed and eaten by Satan. These are memorable torments, chosen for their value as spectacle, and they work perfectly well to establish the Shade's state of mind as he climbs the stairs. But a reader familiar with Dante's poem might notice something else. Brown's references are all a bit askew. The fiery rain does not torment the lustful, although the blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers in Canto 15 and 16 do endure this punishment. The gluttons are not "floating in excrement," although the rain they endure is foul enough to make the earth stink; submersion in excrement is the fate of the flatterers in Canto 18. And the last image seems to confuse punishment of some of the traitors. Some are indeed frozen, but only three archtraitors are eaten by Satan (Judas, Cassius, and Brutus), and these three do not seem to be frozen.
This difference between the Shade's visions and Dante's poem raises interesting questions for readers. These allusions could be errors on Brown's part. But it could well be that we should understand them as mistakes made by the Shade, or, even better, a reworking of the poem by this avenger in what seems to be his last few frenzied minutes of life. The Shade's next reference to Dante, as he stands above the city on the tower, has a similar imprecision: "Far below is the blessed city that I have made my sanctuary from those who exiled me." Florence, in fact, exiled Dante, and although the poet fondly recalls the church where he was baptized in Inferno 19, he more frequently disparages his home city as fractious, indecent, and decadent. The Shade perhaps twists Dante's poem to his own uses, remaining true to its spirit but not its literal language. Whether slips or signs, the Shade's use of Dante's poem begs our attention.
Robert Langdon's confused return to consciousness in Chapter 1 also features recognizable allusions to Dante's poem. As in the case of the Shade's visions, there is a certain imprecision to the references. Moreover, Dan Brown adds elements to Dante's poem:
Langdon took a step towards the river, but he could see the waters were bloodred and too deep to traverse. When Langdon raised his eyes again to the veiled woman, the bodies at her feet had multiplied. There were hundreds of them now, maybe thousands, some still alive, writhing in agony, dying unthinkable deaths ... consumed by fire, buried in feces, devouring one another. He could hear the mournful cries of human suffering echoing across the water.
This passage evokes but also builds on the Inferno. "Consumed by fire" has many possible references in the poem, from the heretics burning in their tombs (Inf. 9 and 10), to the rain of fire that punishes the blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers (Inf. 15 and 16), to the simonists roasting upside down (Inf. 19), to the fires that enclose the false counselors (Inf. 26). "Buried in feces" is more specific, referring to the flatterers immersed in excrement (Inf. 18). "Devouring one another" is quite exact: In Cocytus, the traitor Ugolino chews on the head of his enemy, the archbishop who betrayed him. But the most precise reference comes a bit later in the chapter: "a writhing pair of legs, which protruded upside down from the earth, apparently belonging to some poor soul who had been buried headfirst to his waist." This punishment is easily located in Dante: It is the fate of the simonists, church figures who sold spiritual goods or ecclesiastical office. Langdon's memory of this vision, however, adds one mysterious element — the letter "R" written in mud on the sufferer's thigh. Again, the presentation asks readers to link the Shade and Langdon, who call up Dante's poem but also supplement it.
Excerpted from Interpreting Dan Brown's Inferno by Deborah Parker. Copyright © 2013 Deborah Parker and Mark Parker. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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