by Dante Alighieri
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Sympathetic, Reverent, Authoritative
Dante cares deeply about his subject matter—the improvement of man’s soul through penance and hard labor. He doesn't shirk from showing us how physically and emotionally difficult this process is, but he does show us how earnest the penitents are in their desire to wash away their sins and join God:
[...] like a child who weeps and laughs in sport;
that soul is simple, unaware; but since
a joyful Maker gave it motion, it
turns willingly to things that bring delight.
At first it savors trivial goods; these would
beguile the soul, and it runs after them,
unless there’s guide or rein to rule its love. (Purg. XVI, 86-93)
Again and again, we’re given favorable accounts of the penitents. Unlike the sinners in Hell, they don't not whine about their punishment, they realize how just it is for them to suffer, they are grateful for this second chance to prove their worth, and they take joy when others are purged and ascend to Heaven.
Because Dante has learned to harden his heart against harsh punishment, through his lessons in Hell, we do not see as much crying and fainting from him on behalf of the sufferers. Rather, to prove his sympathy, he sometimes shares in the sinners’ punishments—bending over with the Prideful, walking through the dark smoke of the Wrathful, bearing the burning flames of the Lustful.
You can't even count the number of times Dante praises God. This is where the reverent part comes in: Dante is clearly deeply awed by God and his miracles. This awe comes out most clearly in passages about God’s artwork—whether it be the sculptures of Gentleness, the picturesque landscape of the Earthly Paradise, or Beatrice’s blinding beauty.
However, this does not mean he goes around wide-eyed and gape-jawed all the time. In fact, he’s very confident about the material he writes, about both its truth and its quality. Remember that pride is his greatest fault? Well, that comes through quite well in passages where he fumes about the state of politics in Italy, the corruption of the Church, the greed of politicians.
He’s also not afraid to assert that he’s a good poet. In fact, he’s the best poet, and he hails from a line of poets that is groundbreaking in its inventive new style. But that’s not enough for Dante either. Not only does he have to be head of the dolce stil novo style, he must also be the sole heir of to the genre of epic quest poetry, handed down by Virgil and Statius. Dante, however, makes epic poetry better, by putting a Christian reading on his texts. Only towards the end do we find Dante humbled a little by Beatrice. But even then, it’s only character-Dante who’s humbled; author-Dante is still as solid and commanding as ever as he writes himself towards Paradise.