Canterbury Tales Compared to Dante's Inferno This study will explore the themes of innocence and guilt in the "Hell" section from Dante's Divine Comedy and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The study will focus on the uses each author makes of urban and more natural settings to convey messages about innocence and guilt. While both Dante and Chaucer make use of this motif in making their thematic points, a great difference exists between them. Chaucer's primary purpose is to present a humorous and compassionate portrayal of human existence including innocence and guilt, or goodness and evil while Dante's essential purpose is moral and instructional.
Chaucer uses urban and country references in his portrayal of the human condition as a means of drawing a contrast between the goodness and evil of humankind. Again, we must keep in mind that Chaucer uses setting to reveal truths about humanity from an empathic perspective. He does not want to judge, but to entertain and perhaps inspire compassion for self and others as flawed beings. Therefore, when he uses natural or urban settings, he is not saying that human beings are good when they are in Canterbury, and evil when they are out in the countryside. At the same time, that is precisely the apparent truth of the matter. As Chaucer paints the picture of human desire and passion, there is an intimate connection between that passion (which can lead to a loss of innocence) and a natural setting: When April with his showers sweet with fruit The drought of March has pierced unto the root And bathed each vein with liquor that has power To generate therein and sire the flower; When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath, Quickened again, in every holt and heath, The tender shoots and buds . . .
And many little birds make melody . . .
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)--- Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage . . .
To Canterbury, full of devout homage (Chaucer 159).
The clear suggestion by Chaucer here is that there is something very sweet but potentially very corrupting about nature, while the urban center of Canterbury offers relief from the guilt and sinfulness which nature engenders in the weakness of human flesh. At the same time, Chaucer knows that the apparent differences in the behavior of human beings in the city, or in a sacred environment, and in the natural setting where passions are free to work their wiles, as they will, are indeed only apparent differences. The nature of humanity, as perceived and portrayed by Chaucer, is a thoroughly corrupted one. However, unlike Dante, Chaucer does not have much to say in judgment of humanity for that corruption. Chaucer accepts the sinfulness, selfishness and loss of innocence of humanity as an integral part of the history and development of the race. In other words, people may agree to behave righteously when they are in the holy city, but once they are free again to behave as they will, they will quickly be consumed by their personal passions.
Nature is also shown in Dante to be full of powerful and dark forces, which can tempt a human being off the path of righteousness. Dante writes that Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost. Ah! How hard a thing it is to tell what this wild and rough and difficult wood was, which in thought renews my fear! So bitter is it that death is little more (Dante 1).
The "city" or the path of the true way is symbolized by the high hill, in contrast to the dark wood of the life of the passions and senses: "But after I had reached the foot of a hill, where that valley ended which had pierced my heart with fear, I looked upward, and saw its shoulders clothed already with the rays of the [sun], which leads man aright along every path" (Dante 1).
Here we see the light of goodness contrasted with the darkness of sin or temptation away from the state of innocence. It is no coincidence that the phrases "city of lights" or "city...
Cited: Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Cressida and The Canterbury Tales. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1987.
Dante. Divine Comedy. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1987.
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