To go deep into a “representative masterpiece” (the Sewanee course I have just finished teaching), try comparing it with a modern version. In her final essay for me, Gray Shiverick compared Dante’s Inferno to The Good Place, the highly lauded television series.
In Good Place (spoiler alert) four people with dodgy pasts find themselves—seemingly mistakenly—assigned to Heaven rather than to Hell. Eventually, however, Eleanor figures out that they are actually in the Bad Place. Having grown weary of tortures taken out of Dante, the demons now torture sinners in a new way: they group them together and watch them torture each other.
The show has undoubtedly been inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit rather than Inferno, but given that Sartre himself draws on Dante, the comparison still works. To veer for a moment into No Exit, three recently departed sinners, expecting to be greeted with “racks and red-hot pincers and all the other paraphernalia,” instead find Second Empire couches and each other.
In what sounds like a joke, a coward, a lesbian and a nymphomaniac are all stuck in a room together and proceed to drive each other crazy. The coward needs the lesbian’s approval, the lesbian lusts after the nymphomaniac, and the nymphomaniac craves the man. Towards the end of No Exit, Gacin voices the play’s most famous line—“Hell is other people”—and decides he would rather face medieval torture instruments:
Open the door! Open, blast you! I’ll endure anything, your red-hot tongs and molten lead, your racks and prongs and garrotes–all your fiendish gadgets, everything that burns and flays and tears—I’ll put up with any torture you impose. Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough.
In a similar revelation, Good Place’s Eleanor figures out what the demons are up to at the end of Season I:
Tahani tortured Jason by constantly trying to get him to talk, Jason tortured me because I was sure he would blow our cover, which was torture for Chidi, because he was responsible for me, which made Chidi seem like the perfect soul mate, and that tortured Tahani because he didn’t love her.
There are Inferno dynamics here as well, as Gray points out in her essay. First of all, that Eleanor sees the Good Place as a good place rather than a place of torment is like Dante’s sinners seeking out the circle of hell that fits them best. The damned don’t see Inferno as hell but as the condition that they’ve chosen while still alive. As Gray puts it, “For those suffering the punishments, it seems like normal life with their sins all-consuming. Hell is just an eternal place for sinners to suffer just as they did on Earth.”
Gray analyzes Tahani, a woman whose relentless need for approval leaves her in a constant state of agitation. (Gray compares her with the lustful in Dante’s Second Circle, who are blown about incessantly by hot winds.) In Good Place, Tahani’s “soul mate” at first appears to be a Buddhist monk who, because he is committed to a vow of silence, never affirms her. When it turns out he’s actually a stupid gamer, the situation is no better because now his affirmation is worthless.
Meanwhile, as Gray points out, the disguised demons who populate the Good Place “never give Tahani the satisfaction of achievement, of being the best at everything.”
Operating this way, the demons resemble Dante’s demons, who torture the damned in ways that are metaphorical equivalents for how the sinners tortured others and tortured themselves while still alive.
Gray doesn’t analyze the other characters, but one can see the same dynamics at work. Eleanor, who has spent her life pulling things over on people, thinks she’s pulled one over on Heaven itself. She can’t enjoy the Good Place, however, because she lives in constant fear she will be found out. Jason, the non-monk who proves to be monumentally shallow, is condemned to shallow relationships, including one with a robot.
Finally Chidi, a philosophy professor who is tormented by pathological indecision, is tormented by having a narcissist (Eleanor) for a soul mate. Having read and taught Plato’s famous work about soul mates (The Symposium) and being well acquainted with Aristotle’s concept of the good, he is driven to distraction by Eleanor’s inability to grasp higher ethical principles. In other words, he believes she should respect his obsessive need to find the best and most perfect solution to every problem, even though it drives himself and everyone around him crazy.
I’m a little sorry that Gray didn’t apply to Dante’s Vestibule of Hell to Chidi, which is where those people go who refused to make difficult decisions on earth. While alive, Chidi’s inability to make up his mind causes multiple catastrophes, including the wrecking of his best friend’s wedding. Dante’s punishment perfectly captures the interior life of such people:
Virgil: “No word of them survives their living season. Mercy and Justice deny them even a name. Let us not speak of them: look, and pass on.” I saw a banner there upon the mist. Circling and circling, it seemed to scorn all pause. So it ran on, and still behind it pressed a never-ending rout of souls in pain. I had not thought death had undone so many as passed before me in that mournful train. … These wretches never born and never dead Ran naked in a swarm of wasps and hornets that goaded them the more the more they fled, and made their faces stream with bloody gouts of pus and tears that dribbled to their feet to be swallowed there by loathsome worms and maggots.
We don’t see Chidi’s face literally streaming with drops of pus and tears, but he’s in perpetual mental agony, his mind circling and circling. His buzzing inner thoughts are like being perpetually pursued by wasps and hornets.
Gray goes on to make the point, however, that Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani don’t really belong in Dante’s Inferno because they are willing to become better people. Dante, Gray points out, has a moral compass whereas his sinners don’t think of anything but their own desires:
In the Inferno, Beatrice is a guiding figure who helps Dante become a better person. Dante is able to look up to a model person compelled by love to help him. We can see this through Beatrice’s introduction:
Beatrice am I, who do bid thee go;
I come from there, where I would fain return;
Love moved me, which compelleth me to speak.”
Beatrice is able to lead Dante toward heaven by improving his moral compass and his life. This character can be compared to Chidi,…who teaches Eleanor all about philosophy and morals so that she can become a better person. As a group, the four subjects could be compared to Beatrice as they all help to improve each other by using the best aspects of themselves put together. Eleanor explains this to Michael [the head demon], saying, “We improved each other, and the four of us became a team. So, the only thing you succeeded in doing was bringing us all together.”
The Good Place characters would quickly become boring if they were static and unable to change. Such stasis can be found in Inferno, especially frozen-in-ice Satan in the ninth circle. We need growth potential if our characters to engage our sympathies, and viewers of subsequent seasons (I’ve only seen the first) can tell me if the Good Place is at all like Purgatorio, where people work to shed the sins that weighed them down in life.
As we see in Purgatorio’s vestibule—Ante-Purgatorio—even a reprobate who has repented on his or her death bed has a shot at Paradisio. George Bernard Shaw has a hilarious parody of such figures in Androcles and the Lion, where the troublemaker Spintho figures he can sin all he wants as long as he ends up a Christian martyr since “every martyr goes to heaven, no matter what he’s done.” But Dante’s point is a good one: if we have even a tiny inkling of goodness, we have something to work with.
Some of literature’s most memorable characters, from Lear to Scrooge, fall into this category, and I suspect the Good Place characters do as well. Those who know the show, please let me know.