Use of Irony in “Inferno” and “Utopia”
Dante Alighieri is considered as Italy’s one of the finest poets who has a major contribution in impacting the Western culture. The Divine Comedy is one of his masterpieces and is regarded as an epic poem in the world of literature. It has been divided into three parts, Inferno, Paradiso, and Purgatorio. The whole piece offers an encyclopedic description and overview regarding the attitudes, mores, philosophies, beliefs, material aspects, and aspirations of the modern world. This epic work demonstrates the poet’s journey through Heaven and Hell. The most famous and majorly studied portion of the whole piece “The Inferno” depicts the experiences of the poet while he traveled through the various parts of the Hell. He was being led by his protector and a mentor who was the Roman poet Virgil. The Hell was constructed in the form of a big funnel having nine descending circular ledges. There had been a chamber, huge and meticulously organized. Sinners had been carefully categorized in the chamber depending on the nature and level of their sins. They had to undergo dreadful punishments for which the poet gave a ghastly consideration to detail. People who had realized and expressed guilt and embarrassment on their committed sins had been given a chance to enter Paradise by means of the grueling procedure of purification. The author continues this part in the other section known as Purgatorio. The whole piece “The Divine Comedy” gained enough fame and popularity which faded in the time of Italian Renaissance. It got its significance back in 19th and the 20th century. People started studying and examining its structural unity, symbolism, and the narrative strategy. The philosophical and philological aspects of the poem were studied by the philosophers, theorists and the linguists. The poem depicts the harsh and bitter reality of the human condition into the rhyme of eternal magnificence.
“Utopia” is the most popular work of St. Thomas More who was an English knight who later became the Chancellor of England. The book “Utopia” is a dialogue among More, the sailor Raphael Hythloday and More’s friend Peter. The topic discussed in the dialogue is regarding the different issues and problems with the European governments as compared to the Utopian nation. The sailor Hythloday believed in unorthodox moral and political position and conveys his beliefs and thoughts in relation to the story of his stay at Utopia which according to him was an ideal government and society. Peter and More discuss politics with Hythloday who demonstrates his complaints and issues against the English law. The law which disturbs Hythloday the most is the death penalty of the thieves in England. According to him, death punishment gives an urge in the criminals to kill or murder the people they rob. Apart from this, Hythloday commented on the corrupted European leaders and that whoever decided to serve them would merely be giving up his morality and virtue.
“Either they will seduce you by their evil ways, or… you will me be made a screen for the knavery and folly of others” (More). The author makes use of the ideal government or society ‘Utopia’ in order to condemn the real society in which he was residing. The people of Utopia did not argue or fight over the religious subjects, did not own private property, did not give importance to the accumulation of wealth, and kept their people away from the undesired combats. They valued freedom of expression and tolerated various beliefs. The book plays a role of a comment on the political and social problems of his time. It gives the readers a thought and a vision that how a perfect and an ideal society could be established.
Use of irony in “Inferno” and “Utopia.”
Dante, being the narrator of the story of his journey through Hell, makes use of the irony to give a meaningful thought at the way people make their choices which then lead them either to Hell or Heaven. Their decisions and choices of this life impact the results of the afterlife. The people suffering from the punishments of the Hell were displayed making use of the situational irony. It occurs when the results are the opposite of the person’s expectations. Dante first tells that how ironic it is that a person lives his life full of desires and wishes, not realizing that death will overtake him sometime.
“I was so full of sleep just at that point
When I first left the way of truth behind.”
These lines (11 and 12, Canto 1) tells the bitter reality of life that all the human beings are busy in leading their lives full of wishes and desires or as the author said “full of sleep” that it makes them away from the path of truth. This is the main irony of all our lives. We all expect that whatever we are doing will lead to something good, and nothing bad can befall us. The author uses leopard, lion and the she-wolf as the metaphors for the desires of a man. He says that a man’s hope in God becomes weak in front of all the lusts and desires waiting to be followed (lines 44 and 45, Canto 1).
“But hope was not so strong that I could stand
Bold when a lion stepped before my eyes!”
Dante depicts in the poem that how the wishes, false hopes, and desires make a man live in despair, and the consequences are even more distressing. “… who had made many live in wretchedness” (line 51, Canto 1). When the poet meets Virgil, he takes him through the Hell to make him listen to the “groans of hopeless men” (line 115, Canto 1). These hopeless men are the sinners who have been suffering from the punishment of the Hell and wish for “a second death” (line 117). The term ‘second death’ has been used ironically here which implies that the sinners want another life so that they can lead their lives according to the commandments of God and be completely away from the sins. Then the Virgil talks about those people who are in the fire for some time, and they’re waiting for their purification and salvation so that they can be among the blessed people. When the author feels coward, he calls upon the great-hearted man who says to the author (lines 45-48, Canto 2),
“Your spirit has been bruised by cowardice,
Which many a time so weighs a man’s heart down
It turns him from a glorious enterprise—
As shadows fool the horse that shies away.”
Here the phrase “as shadows fool the horse that shies away” is used ironically for the cowardice Dante who was fearful to move further on this journey through Hell. Finally, when the author gained the courage to come near to those who were suffering in pain and misery, he heard the cries of despair. And when he asked about what these cries were all about, the answer came (lines 34-36, Canto 3),
“And he to me: “This state of misery
Is clutched by those sad souls whose works in life
Merited neither praise nor infamy.”
This is an extreme ironical comment on those people who think that if they haven’t committed any sin and nor did any good to the people, are not the sinners. Thus, Dante’s work “Inferno” is an irony on all kinds of humans living on this Earth who thinks they will not be judged for what they did, or their bad deeds will be gone forgiven, or their wishes and desires will lead them to the right path. Hence the irony is regarding the views and perceptions of humans about death, afterlife and the system of God.
On the other hand, “Utopia” is an account of the irony of how people are governed and how they would like to be governed. When the author’s friend Peter told the seaman Hythloday that due to his great knowledge and ideas, he could be very useful to the king. Hythloday replied that he wouldn’t be a slave, to which Peter clarified that he isn’t asking him to become a slave. In response, Hythloday said, “The change of the word does not alter the matter” (More, pp.16). The author presents the irony in the form of a dialogue and covers all the aspects of the government. “For your lords are readier to feed idle people than to take care of the sick” (More, pp.21). Here, Hythloday makes an ironical comment on God that he takes much care of the idle people who do not want to work for their living or are corrupted people than healing the sick ones. Hythloday points out to those corrupted leaders that why would they rob when their stomachs are already turned out of doors (More, pp.21). The seaman sensibly raises an ironic argument that what kind of justice is this that the system itself produces thieves and criminals, and when they’re caught, the same system punishes them.
The society which Hythloday presents is the ideal society in front of him and should be formed, but the author More uses this idealism as an irony that this so-called ideal government or the system of society cannot be accepted without a question since it represents a system which can be gained by complete removal of one’s individuality and whose wealth is dependent on slavery. People aren’t allowed to do what they want or move as they please. This implies all faithfulness and allegiance to the country though there are many other factors which are significant as well such as the family. Putting the two pieces of the works together, it can be observed that the “Inferno” by Dante presents an irony on the human’s views about the afterlife while “Utopia” is an irony on people’s views about an ideal society or the government. Hythloday proposes various stances and arguments in the dialogue “Utopia” on how a government and a society should be which can neither be attained nor is this society helpful for so many reasons.
The author asserts that this is all the game of mind about how we think what the ideal society is, otherwise if such a society came into being, it would no more be an ideal society or an ideal government. These ironical comments and discussion take place in the form of dialogue while Dante’s ironical statements are in the form of poetry. The poem is an irony on the government of God while the dialogue is an irony on the government of the people. “And Dante dooms his wily, prideful Ulysses to Hell for false counsel” (theimaginativeconservative.org). Here, Ulysses is Hythloday of “Utopia” who could have been in the Hell of “Inferno” for his false counseling and justifications.
“Dante Alighieri.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/dante-alighieri.
“Utopia.” History-world.org, http://history-world.org/Utopia_T.pdf
“Dante Inferno.” The Modern Library New York, https://online.hillsdale.edu/file/great-books-101/week-9/Week-9—Smith-GB-101-2014-Readings.pdf.
Gray, Kerry. “Irony in Dante’s Inferno.” Study.com, Study.com, study.com/academy/lesson/irony-in-dantes-inferno.html.
More, Thomas. “Utopia, ed.” E. Surtz and JH Hexter. New Haven, CT (1965).