Dickens as an Adapter of Dante
Today, I turn to Susan Colón’s work “Dickens’s HARD TIMES and Dante’s INFERNO,” in which she makes the case that Dickens’s work Hard Times includes imagery, descriptions, and “moral analysis” of his characters in a way suggestive of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In particular, she focuses on the “protagonists’ journey from a state of sin to a state of grace,” descriptions of the protagonists “silent rebellion,” which is “frequently symbolized by smoldering fire,” and direct references to the second sin of Dante’s fourth circle of his Inferno: “there was an air of jaded sullenness in them both, and particularly in the girl,” (Colón 31; my italics).
Colón contends that both protagonists, Louisa and Stephen Blackpool, are at first subject to Dante’s sin of sullenness, but that each, like the spirits in Dante’s Purgatorio, inevitably overcome their sin and enter into “a state of grace.” Louisa herself comments, “There seems to be nothing [in the chimneys], but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out, father!” and “From that moment [Louisa] was impassive, proud, and cold—held Sissy at a distance—changed to her altogether” (Colón 31-32). In the first description, typical imagery from representations of hell are included: smoke and fire, both of which feature prominently in parts of Dante’s Inferno, though fire does not figure in Circle Four among the sullen but in Circle Seven, among the violent against God/Nature/Art who run without rest across the burning sands of a fruitless desert while burning flakes of fire unnaturally rain down upon them:
Alas, what wounds I saw in their members, recent
and old, burned into them by the flames! It still pains
me when I remember.
At their shouts my teacher paused; he turned his
face toward me and: "Now wait," he said, "to these
we should be courteous.
And if it were not for the fire that the nature of
the place pours down, I would say that haste would
more become you than them." (Inf., 16.10-18; my italics)
And the general landscape of Hell itself is described as dark, grimy, tearful and colorless (though sometimes crimson):
And when I gazed beyond them, I saw people on
the bank of a great river; so I said, "Master, now
that I may know who those are, and what
disposition makes them seem so ready to cross over,
as I can discern in spite of the weak light."
And he to me: "These things will be made known
to you when we stay our steps on the gloomy shore of
Acheron." (Inf. 3.70-78; my italics)
As he finished, the dark landscape trembled so
violently that in terror my memory bathes me again
The tearful earth gave forth a wind that flashed
with a crimson light which overcame all feeling in me,
and I fell like one whom sleep is taking. (Inf. 3.130-136; my italics)
Colón then shares Hard Times’ second protagonist, Stephen Blackpool’s, common refrain: “‘Tis a muddle” (Colón 32; Colón italicizes the first three words of mud-dle) which connects his own mental state to the physical state of Dante’s sullen sinners’ morosely aquatic habitat beneath the muddy waters of the Styx River:
And he to me: "Over the slimy waves you can
already make out what they are waiting for, if the
fumes of the swamp do not hide it." (Inf. 8-10-12; my italics)
While we were coursing the dead channel, before
me rose up one covered with mud, who said: "Who
are you, who come before your hour?" (Inf. 8.31-33; my italics)
Just as Dante represents the souls of the sullen dead as physically filthy and muddy, so does Colón suggest that Dickens represents his sullen characters as verbally and mentally muddled. Elements of Dante’s Inferno and The Divine Comedy as a whole, share allusive and potentially adaptive descriptions with at least three of Dickens’ works: A Christmas Carol (1843), Hard Times (1854), Our Mutual Friend (1865). This section of the argument concludes,, I confess, somewhat inconclusively with a final statement by Bertman on the connection between Dante’s and Dickens’s work:
Did Dickens model A Christmas Carol on The Divine Comedy deliberately or are the parallels we have noted the result of mere coincidence? Does any evidence exist that Dickens was sufficiently familiar with The Divine Comedy to be influenced, even on a subconscious level, by its form and content when he set out to write A Christmas Carol? (Bertman 169)
Though the strength of this evidence is more suggestive than conclusive of a conscious relationship of adaptation and allusion between Dante and Dickens, I will leave it to the intelligent reader whether she wishes to add Dante’s Divine Comedy to her annual Christmas reading list!
Bertman, Stephen. “Dante's Role in the Genesis of Dickens's A Christmas Carol.” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 3, 2007, pp. 167–173.
Colón, Susan. “Dickens's HARD TIMES and Dante's INFERNO.” The Explicator, vol. 65, no. 1, 2006, pp. 31–33., ISSN: 0014-4940.
I think it’s a oddity that a protagonist would be represented by a fire given it’s what might ultimately destroy the body that housed the sinner, through incineration or a death sentence with devaluation. A more true depiction of a protagonist might, in my opinion, take the form of ice such that a demonstrative value of making an example out of someone who did bad things could be had such that ideally less evil would come to exist in the world.