As suggested by the title, Dante is an important presence in ‘ ‘Dante and the Lobster.” The medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote an epic poem, the Divine Comedy, in 1307-1308. It is difficult to accurately assess the importance of Dante’s accomplishment, but it is certainly not an overstatement to say that Dante brought classical literary traditions and Christian themes together more successfully than any other writer ever did, before or after, and that his poem showed writers that great literature could be written in local languages, not only in Latin or Greek.
The poem, written in 100 ‘ ‘canti,” or chapters, tells the story of Dante himself, who “in the middle of life’s journey” finds himself lost and aimless. He comes upon the gates to Hell and is guided through the underworld by Virgil, the greatest Roman poet. After witnessing the torments and punishments suffered by sinners, Dante exits Hell and journeys through Purgatory (where sinners wait to have their sins purged so they can be allowed into Paradise) and ultimately to Paradise, where his beloved Beatrice explains to him the mysteries of God and the heavens. The poem attempted to systematize Christian belief and to apply mathematical structure to Christian cosmology. It also, on a very human level, reassured medieval readers that punishments would be meted out in strict proportion to the offense and detailed the nature of sin in an attempt to provide a model for Christian comportment.
Beckett was an Italian scholar at Trinity University and knew Dante well. He was especially captivated by the figure of Belacqua, a character from the fourth canto of the Purgatorio who embodies laziness and aimlessness. When Dante asks him why he does not climb up into the entrance to Purgatory, he responds, “O brother, what’s the use of climbing?” Beckett was struck by this idea of futility, of incomprehensible forces bent on thwarting all efforts, and of the response of apathy and aimlessness. The world is cruel and life is suffering, Beckett feels, so what’s the use in striving? Belacqua in Dante and Belacqua in “Dante and the Lobster” both embody this philosophy.
As one who has adopted an almost dropout attitude toward the world, Belacqua is a character particularly attuned to feelings of futility. The story is full of images of being at an impasse or of the fear of being thwarted. In the first sentence, we learn that Belacqua is “stuck in the first of the canti of the moon”—he is “bogged,” he cannot get through this “impenetrable” passage. And then, the narrator tells us, “there is always something that one had to do next.” The next thing for Belacqua is to prepare lunch. This comes off quite successfully, for he takes great precautions: locking the door, keeping his head down in the street, making sure that his cheese is rotten enough. After his success in the cheese shop, though, the narrator again focuses on what holds Belacqua back: he has a “spavined gait, his feet were in ruins, he suffered with them almost continually.” Signorina Ottolenghi compliments him on his ‘ ‘rapid progress,” but he is stalled in his conversation with her; she neither explains the canti of the moon to him nor does she translate the phrase “qui vive lapieta quando e ben morta” for him. Just before he leaves, Signorina Ottolenghi contradicts her earlier positive statement, telling Belacqua that they are still “where we were, as we were.” No progress has been made. Finally, the story ends with the image of the lobster, who has been alive even though thought dead all afternoon, finally being killed—slowly. The only progress we can make, Beckett asserts, is to death—and that slowly.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Samuel Beckett, Published by Gale, 2002.