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 upon a hill” are meant to stand in contrast to the “darkness” of the natural environment, a darkness which can bewilder human beings and lead them to take part in behavior which Dante clearly believes is both self-destructive and destructive to others. Dante’s depiction of Hell is not meant to entertain but to change the behavior of his readers so that they will choose behavior which will lead them to the “city” of Heaven, rather than behavior which will lead to the dark wood and, eventually, damnation: A place is there below, stretching as far from Beelzebub as his tomb extends. . . . My Leader and I entered by that hidden road, to return into the bright world; and . . . we mounted up . . . so far that a round opening I saw some of the beautiful things which Heaven bears, and thence we issued for again to see the stars (Dante 52).
In Dante, we read of the “wicked city” which represents hell (22), but it would be fair to say that human beings in Dante’s conception are subject to temptation, sin, guilt and the loss of innocence wherever they are on earth—in the city or in the country. Heaven is the only locale which offers human beings respite from such corruption.
In Chaucer, we find little of the kind of solemn judgment offered by Dante at every turn. For example, Chaucer writes of a friar—a religious man—who was “a wanton and a merry, A limiter, a very festive man” (Chaucer 162). His ribaldry is not affected by whether he is in a town or in the countryside—he is always willing to have a good time: “In towns he knew the taverns, every one,/ And every good host and each barmaid too” (Chaucer 163).
Despite the fact that Canterbury is seen as the goal of the pilgrimage and can therefore be said to be a city symbolizing goodness and innocence, or restoration of innocence through religious activity, this in no way suggests that Chaucer sees the city as the repository of goodness and nature as the repository of evil. Instead, Chaucer sees human nature as the abiding force at work in shaping the behavior of human beings. A human being can be good or evil in the city, just as he can be good or evil in a natural environment. The Clerk, for example, is shown to be a miserable creature, although he is full of the education and philosophy and sophistication, which the city of Oxford offers (Chaucer 164).
Again, the basic difference between Dante and Chaucer cannot be deciphered merely by focusing on the uses of urban and country settings in their works. The differences in the authors’ uses of settings do not shed essential light on the two texts without our awareness first that Dante means to judge and warn and Chaucer means to celebrate and understand.
To Dante, all settings—urban or country—stand full of temptations which can deliver human beings into the pits of Hell. The fact that Hell is portrayed in urban terms merely means that there is much organization in Hell, rather than perhaps the chaos we might presume. Dante by use of the city as the setting for Hell means also to place it in stark contrast to the glorious city of Heaven.
Dante wants to show that Hell is an essential part of the intricately organized and ordered machinery of the universe, and his use of the urban environment gives this sense of order and organization far more readily that would a natural setting. We must keep in mind the purpose behind this manipulation of setting—Dante wants to affect the behavior of his readers and he means to do so by warning them that a very carefully designed Hell—as carefully designed as a city—awaits them if they stray from the path of goodness.
Chaucer, on the other hand, aims to portray humanity in all its passion and waywardness, with a sense of acceptance and celebration rather than condemnation or warning. Chaucer gives the reader the clear sense that—whether in the country or in the city, whether in the midst of sin or the middle of innocence—the author is one with the reader. It does not matter whether the action is taking place in the city or the country in Chaucer’s tales—there is a sense of empathy bonding the author, the characters and the reader. Even when Chaucer enters into a lengthy treatise on the different sins and their remedies, the reader has the feeling that he is not the kind of strict judge of humanity which Dante is or would like to be.
The uses of setting in the two works is not particularly crucial to an understanding of the books overall, but such a focus can help us understand certain elements of the works, such as the organization of the city which allows Dante to show that hell is an integral part of the universe created by God and not merely an imaginary place of punishment. In addition, such a perspective is useful in showing the apparent contrast in Chaucer between the city of Canterbury and its promise of absolution from sin, and the natural environment which leads to the free expression of the passions of human beings which in turn lead to the commission of those very sins.
The city or country cannot be seen as symbolic of guilt or innocence in Chaucer, simply because Chaucer believes human nature to be susceptible to corruption in any environment. At the same time, whereas Dante judges humanity for its corruption, Chaucer tends to forgive and seeks ways to ease the suffering of guilt and sin.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Cressida and The Canterbury Tales. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1987.
Dante. Divine Comedy. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1987.