Dante’s Divine Comedy


Concepts of life after death are among the oldest and most constant elements of all cultures, and among the compelling stories that humans tell is that of a journey to an underworld or an afterlife. But the representation of a passage through the afterlife is, of course, a kind of journey through this life. It is usually a voyage of suffering and redemption; and it posits a life after death where “divine” justice corrects all of the injustices that we experience in our time on earth. The telling of this story does many things: It illustrates and exalts the capacity of an individual for transformation; at the same time, it distills and reflects a set of values and helps to regulate life on earth by defining good and evil. And, perhaps most vividly, concepts of heaven and hell serve traditionally as repositories for dreams of ecstasy and fantasies of horror. In the Christian West, these images have taken many forms. In literature, they are usually visions or journeys to some kind of other world. In visual art, they are often in the form of Last Judgments or illustrations of visions. In film, they have taken on aspects of science fiction. And in psychology, they are the record of out-of-body experiences. This course will focus on Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is the most complete codification of the afterlife. In conference projects, students may study antecedents and analogues that might include books of the Aeneid and of the Odyssey, Platonic myths, books from the Old Testament and New Testament, medieval mystical literature, as well as pictorial representations of the Last Judgment and contemporary films. The course will be taught in English and is open to students with some background in literature. It is also open to students at the advanced level in Italian, who can do class reading and conference work in Italian and also have weekly meetings with the language assistant.