In Canto 26, Dante, the pilgrim, encounters the great Ulysses (we know him as Odysseus) and learns of his history. Ulysses is being punished for the sin of fraudulent rhetoric. Instead of returning to Ithaca and home, Dante the poet invents a new ending of the story. From Circe’s island, Ulysses and his men set out to discover new worlds. Initially, his men don’t like the idea, but Ulysses inspires him men to return to sea and to seek out new lands in the world through the use of passionate rhetoric. He tells them that they must be the first to voyage “beyond, behind the sun, in a world they can unpeopled.” He makes them so excited to continue their travels that he can barely restrain them.
It’s probably worth noting that in this sub-circle of hell, individuals guilty of the sin of fraudulent rhetoric are being punished. You might pause to consider what Dante means by “fraudulent rhetoric” and why it’s such a serious sin.
Dante’s reimagined ending raises a point that I raised throughout our discussion of The Odyssey — the dangers of getting what you want. I talked specifically about the potential problems that home posed to the glorious hero, Odysseus. What if home wasn’t sufficiently interesting for man who has grown accustomed to excitement and a life of danger? What if Penelope wasn’t the best wife for a man who had grown accustomed to the love and adoration of nymphs? What if Telemachus wasn’t the son Odysseus had hoped for? What if — after all those years of searching, after all that Odysseus has lost — Ithaca is disappointing? Finally, what if, after everything, his journey fails to redeem his sins and transgression. Then what?
Dante the pilgrim is on a journey symbolically similar to Odysseus’s (Ulysses’s) journey. He’s trying to get back to a place that he lost by straying from the clear and straight path. He’s suffered from his own mistakes, but also the mistakes of others. He’s fallen from grace and is tortured by what he’s experienced in the world. He’s miserable and desperate to complete his journey to the place of redemption.
In this journal assignment, consider the similarities between Ulysses and Dante. How are their journeys similar? Why might Dante want so desperately to speak to Ulysses (he practically begs Virgil to let him speak to Ulysses in lines 65-69 of Canto 26)? What are some dangers that face Dante should he return to the “straight path” of redemption? Why might he be frightened of making it through hell successfully? In other words, why might Dante both desire and fear redemption?
Your journal must be at least 500 words long and it should address the questions raised in the previous paragraph. BE SURE TO USE SUPPORT FROM CANTO 26 (and other cantos, if you would like) TO ILLUSTRATE CLAIMS IN CLEAR AND DIRECT WAYS.
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