The Women of Dan Brown’s Fiction, Sex—or Lack Thereof—in his Books, Gender Roles in Inferno, and a Few Thoughts about Dante’s Beatrice—Part II

This blog post is adapted from our book, Secrets of Inferno: In the Footsteps of Dante and Dan Brown. Spoiler alert: It contains references to the plot and characters of Dan Brown’s Inferno as well as his prior novels. This is the second of three parts.

Despite his intellectual interest in sex and gender, Dan Brown almost never writes sex scenes. Indeed, his work features an extremely rare absence of sex for bestselling fiction and especially for the action/adventure/thriller genres in which he works.

Robert Langdon, hero in each of the last four Dan Brown novels over the last 13 years, is unmarried. His beautiful female partner, whoever she is in any of his books, is never married either. Even though they are typically pressed together in incredibly intimate circumstances and share deep insights about themselves and life––and even though they are almost always attracted to each other––Brown studiously avoids showing his characters coupling sexually.

Angels & Demons, the first of the Robert Langdon novels, written in the 1990s and published in 2000, ends on a note of sexual promise. After a moonlit balcony feast in which Langdon refuses to respond to Vittoria pressing her bare legs against his beneath the table, Langdon returns to the bed to study Illuminati symbolism further. After some rom-com repartee about neutrinos, Vittoria finally straddles the reluctant gentleman and slips off her robe. When Langdon tells her he has never had a rapturous, religious experience in his life and does not expect to have one, she shoots back, “You’ve never been to bed with a yoga master, have you?” No details are supplied of what happens next. There, the book ends.

What sex there is in the Brown novels seems to be there for more for symbological and anthropological (and eventual cinematic) reasons, such as the scene in Da Vinci Code where Sophie recounts her memory of coming upon her grandfather and his friends engaged in a sacred sexual ritual that was part of the Priory of Sion’s worship of the sacred feminine.

In the anti-climax at the end of DVC (published in 2003), Langdon invites Sophie Neveu to meet him a month later in Florence when he will be delivering a lecture at a conference. He promises her the elegant luxury of the Hotel Brunelleschi. She agrees, but only on one condition: “No museums, no churches, no tombs, no art, no relics.” Langdon presumably will spend the next month after this romantic moment (when Venus, “the ancient goddess” was shining down on them and Sophie kissed him on the lips) wrestling with how one makes love to the last known living descendant of Jesus Christ.

Maybe this was too intimidating. It apparently took Langdon a decade, not a month, to get back to the Hotel Brunelleschi where he is staying in Florence for the plot of 2013’s Inferno. There’s no news of Sophie in Inferno, and, in any event, the plot action is in complete violation of her request to spend their time together in bed, and not in museums and churches. On his current trip to Florence for Inferno, Langdon starts all over again with Sienna in the next installment of Brown’s formula: Boy meets girl…boy and girl work race together against a 24 hour clock to save the world…boy and girl grow attracted to each other…nothing happens between boy and girl…boy and girl separate with vague plans to meet again someday.

Inferno provides an interesting exception to Brown’s rules, however. There is a sex scene that occurs more than halfway through the book, beginning on p. 287 (U.S. hardcover edition, May, 2013). The scene runs for less than three pages, and while most of the verbiage is devoted to a discussion of transhumanism, there are a couple of paragraphs of indicated sex: “In that moment all the awkward sexual fears and frustrations of my childhood disappear…evaporating into the snowy night…. For the first time ever, I feel a yearning unfettered by shame. I want him…. Ten minutes later, we are in Zobrist’s hotel room, naked in each other’s arms….”

As most readers come upon this passage, their instinct is to fall into the trap Brown has carefully set for them and to understand the scene in the Chicago hotel room as a homosexual encounter between the Ferris character and Zobrist. Brown uses clever storytelling craftsmanship to create this illusion. Indeed, at least one major newspaper reviewer and one author of an e-book decoding Inferno fell publicly for the trap.

But on p. 354, the exact words of the same sex scene in snowy Chicago from p. 287 are repeated. Now we understand that the incident in the hotel room six years ago was not an encounter between Ferris and Zobrist, nor was it homosexual in nature. It is Sienna’s memory of her heterosexual encounter with Zobrist. Sienna has been hiding from Langdon (and from the reader) until three-quarters of the way through the story the fact that she is Zobrist’s lover, muse, devoted disciple, and double-agent, who was there at the moment of his suicide, and whose interest in stopping the plague from unfolding is completely different than Langdon and Sinskey’s.

Brown is having some fun with his readers here. He is fusing and confusing homosexual and heterosexual encounters and using these moments to shape reader perceptions of the characters and to introduce a major red herring: He causes the reader to assume that Ferris, who already seems creepy and suspicious, is the lover/disciple of Zobrist and a traitor to Sinskey and Langdon. Meanwhile, he conceals for another 60 pages the fact that Ferris is an OK guy who suffers from allergies and that it is Sienna who is the double agent.

A lack of interest in sex is in evidence throughout Inferno. Although Langdon is one of the most eligible bachelors in Cambridge (we learned this in DVC), his idea of a good time on a Saturday night is attending a lecture alone at Harvard. Langdon is so prudish that he seems embarrassed by the overt sexuality of Renaissance statuary: “Normally, Langdon’s visits to the Palazzo Vecchio had begun here on the Piazza della Signoria, which despite its overabundance of phalluses (emphasis added), had always been one of his favorite plazas in all of Europe.”

Sienna apparently never had sex before her first encounter with Zobrist six years ago, making her a beautiful 26 year-old virgin at the time. Sinskey is sterile and her sterility is used primarily to foreshadow the nature of Zobrist’s virus he has unleashed on the world. But her inability bear a child, confessed to her fiancé many years ago when she was last in Venice, drove him away and caused the relationship to end. It seems that she never married after that, and even though she is a world class doctor and head of the World Health Organization, never considered in vitro fertilization or any other new or old techniques (including adoption) to have a child.

More tomorrow.

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