Essay on Morality in Dante’s Inferno, Hamlet, The Trial, and Joyce’s The Dead

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Changing Morality in Dante’s Inferno, Hamlet, The Trial, and Joyce’s The Dead  

    Everyone remembers the nasty villains that terrorize the happy people in fairy tales. Indeed, many of these fairy tales are defined by their clearly defined good and bad archetypes, using clichéd physical stereotypes. What is noteworthy is that these fairy tales are predominately either old themselves or based on stories of antiquity. Modern stories and epics do not offer these clear definitions; they force the reader to continually redefine the definitions of morality to the hero that is not fully good and the villain that is not so despicable. From Dante’s Inferno, through the winding mental visions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, spiraling through the labyrinth in Kafka’s The Trial, and culminating in Joyce’s abstract realization of morality in “The Dead,” authors grapple with this development. In the literary progression to the modern world, the increasing abstraction of evil from its classic archetype to a foreign, supernatural entity without bounds or cure is strongly suggestive of the pugnacious assault on individualism in the face of literature’s dualistic, thematically oligopolistic heritage.

In analyzing this gradient of morality, it is useful first to examine a work from early literature whose strong purity of morality is unwavering; for the purposes of this discussion, Dante’s Inferno provides this model. It is fairly straightforward to discover Dante’s dualistic construction of morality in his winding caverns of Hell; each stern, finite circle of Hell is associated with a clear sin that is both definable and directly punishable. As Dante moves downwards in this moral machination, he notes that

Like lies with like in every h...

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...akespearean Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984. 234-7.

Fort, Keith. “The Function of Style in Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’.” Sewanee Review 72 (1964): 643-51. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard and Paula Kepos. Vol. 29. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1988. 198-200.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Ed. Robert Scholes. New York, Penguin/Viking, 1996.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books, 1992.

Ruskin, John. “Grotesque Renaissance.” The Stones of Venice: The Fall. 1853. New York: Garland Publishing, 1979. 112-65. Rpt. in Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1989. 21-2.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. T. J. B. Spencer. New York: Penguin, 1996.


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