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 third of three parts.
Is there a larger purpose to the genre-defying disinterest in sex that runs throughout Dan Brown’s Inferno (as we have seen in the last two blog posts)? Yes, and in three different ways.
First, Brown is rebelling against what he perceives (correctly) as our oversexed culture. In particular, he has decided to say no to the extent of explicit and often kinky, over- the-edge sex most writers feel compelled to put into a novel (or movie or TV show) to qualify for popular entertainment. If you want to write a novel of ideas––and there’s no doubt Brown wants to be a novelist of ideas in spite of the pop culture format of his books and the critics’ bashing of him––why do you also have to write about sex at every turn? (One also suspects from his often clumsy prose, that Brown would only detract from his readership were he to attempt to augment his stories with more sexually explicit scenes.)
Two, Dante himself makes significant use of metaphors and allusions regarding fertility and sterility. In Dante’s Inferno, sexual sinners encounter the metaphoric punishment of wandering permanently in a barren desert with hot flames engulfing them. Later in the Commedia, Dante will have a dream that involves the two wives of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, one who is extremely fertile, and one who appears sterile until later in life when she produces Jacob’s two favorites sons. In Dante, most people would read reproductive fertility as a reward and metaphor for a virtuous life, while sterility is a punishment and a metaphor for going against God’s injunction to “be fruitful and multiply.” In Dan Brown’s Inferno, on the other hand, where all the women (Sinskey, Sienna, etc.) are sterile or childless (except Marta, the pregnant curator who gives birth at the end of the story) and the men (Langdon, Zobrist, Ferris, the provost, etc.) are presumably unmarried and childless as well, these elements are spun in different directions in accord with Brown’s plot about suggesting sterilization as a cure for overpopulation.
Three, there is a metaphor buried in Inferno‘s sexlessness that pertains to Dante and Beatrice. If we are to believe Dante (which is not to say we should), Beatrice was his platonic ideal of the perfect woman, not his sexual fantasy of the perfect woman. They met only a few times, and his love for her was unconsummated physically. Yet he spent his whole life dreaming of her. For Dante, Beatrice is the embodiment of spiritual, not physical love. Dante’s creation of Beatrice-as-muse is more in keeping with the chivalrous songs and romances of French medieval troubadours and storytellers who devote artistic works to a duchess, queen, or lady who is their muse, not necessarily their personal lover. Most scholars agree this French cultural vernacular tradition was a major influence on Dante’s creative development. Dante devotes two decades to writing the Commedia, and, in the end of the story, while he is rewarded by seeing Beatrice again in Paradiso and it is Beatrice who guides him through Heaven. Dante, like Langdon, does not “get the girl.” He returns to his normal life in the real world—and his real-life marriage to Gemma–with his love for Beatrice still only an unconsummated memory. The Commedia has a happy ending (qualifying it for the Italian meaning of a “comedy” in Dante’s era, in addition to being written in the vernacular and focused on characters other than the nobility), but Dante and Beatrice do not live happily ever after together. Instead, they live on separately. After Dante’s journey to the afterlife (which accounts for exactly as much elapsed time as the plot of Dan Brown’s Inferno), Beatrice will remain in Paradiso. Dante, having learned from all that she and others have shown him, will return to the real world to try to live a more moral and spiritual life on earth.
Exit, in separate directions, Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks, just like Dante and Beatrice, with no sex having occurred between either couple.