A Daughter of Eve
When Dante encounters Francesca among the lustful in the Second Circle, she is the picture of genteel grace and femininity. He is enchanted by her, and is so moved by her story that he faints in pity. “Alas, how many gentle thoughts, how deep a longing, had led them to the agonizing pass!” (Inferno, Canto V, 112-114). Apparently Dante is convinced that Francesca and Paolo are guilty only of their intense, passionate love, for which they suffer the disproportionate punishment of an eternity in hell.
Like many women, both in literature and in real life, in Canto V Francesca successfully employs her charm and feminine wiles to make an unsuspecting man believe what she wants him to believe. She graciously greets our traveler with “O gracious being, living and benign” (Canto V, 88.), and continues to flatter him throughout the passage. Then having gained his favor, she weaves the story of her demise in a way that could elicit only the deepest sorrow for her plight. She portrays herself as a frail and helpless creature, defenseless against the power of love. And so Dante sees her as the victim of a cruel fate, and not as the temptress she is.
Francesca draws parallelisms between her love affair with Paolo and that of Guinevere and Lancelot’s.
“When we had read how the desired smile
was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
this one, who shall never be parted from me,
while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.” (133-136)
In doing so, she both absolves herself of guilt and reveals the true nature of her sin. In the medieval romance Lancelot du Lac, Lancelot is a timid lover who in brought together with Guinevere only through the machinations of Gallehault. Urged on by Gallehault, it was Guinevere who initiated the affair by placing her hands on Lancelot’s chin and kissing him. “A Gallehault indeed, that book and he who wrote it, too” (137-138). Francesca blames Gallehault for the medieval lovers’ fate, as she blames the book for hers. Dante the Traveler does not seem to notice that Francesca has altered the story of Lancelot and Guinevere to fit her purpose. In her version of Lancelot du Lac, Francesca has Lancelot kiss Guinevere first – as she claims Paolo kissed her first. Yet if indeed their stories are parallel, and it was the passage from the book that inspired their romance, then it was Francesca, as it was Guinevere, who was responsible. This would explain why Dante the Writer has Francesca speak at length while Paolo wordlessly weeps at her side. As the seductress, Francesca better represents the sin of lust.
Francesca’s manipulation of facts and misrepresentations of herself are familiar to anyone who has tried to justify a consciously committed sin. We rationalize our actions, we blame circumstance. We may even convince others of our innocence, as Francesca did Dante. Yet we cannot fool ourselves, though we are all too willing to be deceived.