Seen below is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's depiction of the story of Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo -- on the left as their transgressive relationship began while reading a book of fiction. In the center and on the right, Virgil and Dante-the-pilgrim observe the lovers swirling around in perpetuity in the winds of Hell.
The scenes are from Dante-the-poet's "Commedia," or "The Divine Comedy" as it is generally known.
Rossetti, the London-born son of an Italian who emigrated to England, was named Gabriel Charles Dante, but put Dante first in honor of the Italian poet, who lived much earlier. Rossetti founded an artistic movement known as The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The watercolor painting is owned by the Tate Gallery in London and the image is borrowed from the museum's website for non-commercial purposes.
Why read fiction?
For entertainment is surely the most common answer. A good thriller, a compelling romance, a dystopian epic -- in short, a "page turner" of one sort or another.
Alternatively, people talk about reading stories because they identify with a character and perhaps better understand themselves as a result. Sometimes, they become so absorbed it is hard to return to "real life."
Reading fiction is also a way to travel without leaving one's armchair -- a series of detective stories set in Venice, or at British horse race tracks, or in ancient Rome. Less tedious perhaps than reading about the same places without a narrative and a compelling character or two.
Of course there are other reasons as well, perhaps many.
This topic came to mind as I was, rather late in life, reading Dante's "Commedia," the most well-known episode of which is undoubtedly the story of how Francesca and Paolo ended up in the Inferno, albeit in one of the outer regions where the form of torture is far, far less drastic than those which lie deeper within.
Francesca da Rimini (1255 - c. 1285), daughter of the ruler of the Italian city of Ravenna, was married off at about age 20 for political reasons to the head of a rival family that ruled the near-by city of Rimini. There she apparently quickly fell in love with her husband's married younger brother, Paolo. They carried on an affair for about 10 years until they were discovered by Francesca's husband, who then killed them both.
Dante appropriated the affair, placing Francesca and Paulo in the circle of Hell reserved for the lustful, using their story to illustrate what happens when love, a fundamental human attribute in his view, is misdirected. In the circle of lust, the poet's chief protagonist, a fictional pilgrim named Dante exploring the afterlife initially with the Roman poet Virgil as his guide, questions Francesca as to what happened.
What does this have to do with the question "why read fiction?" Seems pretty obvious: adultery is wrong and in a Christian context, sinful. While the religion allows for confession and proper repentance, the two lovers, caught in the act and immediately killed, clearly had no time or opportunity for that. So off to Hell they went, intertwined forever.
But that's not the whole story and arguably, not even the most important aspect of it in the mind of Dante-the-poet. Dante-the-pilgrim doesn't condemn Francesca. Rather, he faints in sympathy when he understands the consequences of her love for Paolo, who, it has been pointed out, she doesn't mention my name. Nor does Dante-the-pilgrim question him as to what happened. And, in real life, it seems we know little about him -- how he married and why he preferred Francesca to his wife, for instance. It's all about a desirable, but fallen young woman and presumably far more interesting that way.
Moreover, among the ruling classes at least, where it was common for marriages to be arranged to secure alliances or for other non-romantic purposes, adultery was not uncommon. In Francesca's case, she was married to an older man who, although described as brave, was lame. Probably not what a 20-year-old woman, ready for a passionate romance, had in mind. So it's not unreasonable to be sympathetic.
But back to the story. According to Francesca, she and Paulo were reading the Arthurian story of Lancelot and Guinevere "for joy" or "for delight" (as the Italian can be translated) and couldn't resist kissing when encountering the scene in which Sir Lancelot first kisses Guinevere, King Arthur's wife. One thing led to another in both cases.
In Dante's time (1265 - 1321), fiction was not to be read for entertainment, for joy, or for delight, as Francesca put it, but rather for ethical instruction.
Francesca and Paolo should have somehow suppressed or ignored the feelings the scene engendered within them and learned a moral lesson from the tale instead, When they failed to use their God-given power to reason correctly, that transgression was as bad misdirecting love toward lust. They should have learned the lesson that when Lancelot and Guinevere's affair was discovered, it caused a civil war that resulted in the end of Arthur's kingdom.
Which brings me back to the question, why read fiction? Why are you reading it?
Before ending, I should note that Dante's rendering of Francesca and Paolo's affair spawned a host of paintings, plays and operas plus alternative versions of the story, one of which, by Boccaccio, I will hopefully address later.