A man in his mid-30s opens his eyes in the middle of a shadowy forest. He looks up and sees sunlight trickling through the leaves of the trees. He’s disoriented, unsure of how he arrived there (see Figure 1). He begins to run frantically, with no particular destination, and stops short when he reaches a beach. We see a large hill framed behind him. He sees a catastrophic scene before him: the wreckage of a plane crash, the same crash that brought him to the island. He fainted just before the plane made impact and doesn’t remember anything between then and the moment he awoke in the forest. He is lost.
This is the first scene of the television series Lost, a scene that, like Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, starts in medias res. It is a scene thatany dantista would recognize as an allusion to the first canto of Dante’s poem. “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost” (Inf. 1. 1-3)1; “I cannot really say how I entered there, so full of sleep was I at the point when I abandoned the true way” (Inf. 1. 10-12)2. The allusion grows stronger when the viewer realizes that this man, Jack Shephard, also in the middle of his journey (in his mid-30s), is a damaged soul, a man who lost the “straight way” or “diritta via” in his own life. In this essay, I propose that the similarities between the Divine Comedy and Lost don’t end with the works’ opening scenes. In fact, the sixth and final season of Lost needs to be seen as a reinvention of Dante’s Purgatorio3.
In order to better understand why Dante’s text serves so well as inspiration for a television series, let us briefly consider the existing corpus of visual arts inspired by the Divine Comedy. Amilcare Iannucci writes that Dante’s poem emerges as a vehicle adapted to both television and film because it represents a perfect medieval system of knowledge, whose cosmology is driven by visual images (ix). For Francesco Tigani Sava, the extreme visibility that Dante gives to his language is what attracts the visual arts. It’s as if Dante’s language could give “body to music, smell and color to landscapes, concreteness to senses, visibility to feelings” (13)4. But perhaps the most significant reason the Divine Comedy is so well suited to adaption is that the poem itself performs the process of adaptation in its intertextual borrowings from the Bible, the stories of Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, the poetic style of Dante’s Florentine and Sicilian precursors and even the medieval art Dante grew up seeing in his childhood. Dante’s poem is rooted in various intertexts, and it generated 700 years’ worth of its own textual afterlife or “post-text.”
Different media have tapped the visual potential of the Divine Comedy. In Dudley Andrew’s book Concepts in Film Theory, he established three types of adaptation: intersecting, borrowing and transforming (98-104). If we are to use these categories, works like the film Inferno by Francesco Bertolini, Giuseppe de Liguoro and Adolfo Padovan and the miniseries A TV Dante by Tom Phillips and Peter Greenaway would fall into the category of intersecting, whereby the uniqueness of Dante’s text is preserved and refracted by the lens of the camera, i.e. these films are the poem as seen by the cinema. Works like Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the tv shows The Sopranos, Frasier and How I Met Your Mother and Mario Mattoli’s Totò al giro d’Italia, on the other hand, are simply borrowing or employing material from Dante’s earlier text. Lost, however, falls into the category of transformation: It takes the most essential and eternal parts of Dante’s poem—its ideas of redemption, salvation, sin, love, suffering, enlightenment, free will, the nature of being human—and gives them a modern interpretation5. In fact, Lost manages to overcome the obstacle that Iannucci says all adaptations of the Divine Comedy face: rewriting the 700-year-old work for a modern audience (xvi).
Sarah Cardwell has written extensively about the intertextual approach television adaptations must take when reinterpreting classical novels. She posits that we cannot take the adaptation out of its historical context, ignoring the chronological gap and many subsequent adaptations that fill the time between the standard-whole source text and its adaptation the way traditional comparative approaches would have us do (19). Any modern adaptation is necessarily working from an open, infinite “meta-text” that is “constantly growing and developing, being retold, reinterpreted and reassessed” as it draws not just from the original text but from any subsequent adaptations (25). This could not be truer than for a text like Dante’s poem, which, according to Harold Bloom, serves as the heart of the western canon (Western Canon 46). In fact, T.S. Eliot once wrote that Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them (51)6. It would follow, then, that the Comedy would have an influence on a television show such as Lost, which is known for its mixture of genres, mythologies and philosophical ideas and for using parts of precursor texts to underscore thematical concerns of certain episodes and to provide viewers with a new way to interpret the show7. Take, for instance, the opening scene of Lost discussed above. Sarah Clarke Stuart, who identified more than 70 books that make an appearance in Lost either through direct or indirect citation, had previously suggested that the opening scene was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s book Island, published in 1962. Island opens with its protagonist opening his eyes after shipwrecking on an island and seeing “a glade among trees and the long shadows and slanting lights of an early morning forest” (Clarke Stuart, 139-140). Island postdates the Divine Comedy by about 700 years and could easily be reinterpreting the Comedy’s opening scene, which itself is probably reinterpreting Brunetto Latini’s Tesoretto in which the narrator loses himself in a wondrous forest, and all three could be pulling from Homer’s Odyssey, which also beginsthe narration in medias res8.
In his book The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom talks about the problem that all modern writers face: a “poet” is inspired to write by reading the poetry of another poet and produces poetry that is derivative of the existing poetry. This can happen even if the modern poet has never read the precursor’s work (Anxiety of Influence 70)9. Bloom identifies six different ways in which a modern poet feels the anxiety of the influence of his precursors. The one that best describes the producers of Lost, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse,is “tessera,” defined in the following way:
A poet antithetically “completes” his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough. (Anxiety of Influence 14)
Robert Stam posits a similar theory in the context of film adaptations (which we can extrapolate to television adaptations as well). He says that film adaptations are caught up in an ongoing whirl of transformation, intertextual reference and transmutation so that there is no clear point of origin for any one plot line, character or theme. All the practices of a culture, an entire history of communicative utterances, reach the adaptation “not only through recognizable influences, but also through a subtle process of dissemination,” i.e. the synthesis of previous texts could be conscious or unconscious (64). Thus, even if the producers of Lost never read the Divine Comedy as an original, whole-source text, they are most certainly synthesizing it, even if only subconsciously.
Let us now turn to how Lost transforms the essential themes of Dante’s poem to create something new. There’s a moral dimension to the Divine Comedy that allows the reader to understand the challenge of being human. What does it mean to be good or evil? What happens when we lose the true path? In an interview with Time, Cuse said that the conflict between good and evil is the basis for all epic stories, so he and Lindelof tried to find a way to tell that conflict differently. In order to separate themselves from the pack, Lindelof and Cuse decided to place emphasis on the individual (Poniewozik). Dante, of course, also emphasizes the individual. The Divine Comedy doesn’t simply tell the story of God and the devil or angels and demons; it tells the story of individual souls, imperfect and divine. Above all, it tells the story of the pilgrim Dante, the everyman, who begins his journey lost and damaged but ends it enlightened and joyous. Wandering through the dark wood of sinand the desire to overcome vice in order to find God (or salvation in general) are universal human characteristics personified by the character of Dante, as well by the other souls he meets along his journey. Jack (the protagonist of Lost) is also a key personification of these characteristics; though they are present in the other survivors of the plane crash as well. The structure and the important ideas are the same; therefore, Lost conserves the terms of the poem but conveys them in a different sense. In Dante’s world, souls arrive at Purgatory (or Heaven) only if they accept Jesus Christ as their savior during life, and it is God who judges all of our souls in the end, but in Lost’s world, the group of souls include a Muslim, an unrepentant conman, and a woman who killed her father (who, by Dante’s system of judgment, would be sent to the ninth circle of Hell). It isn’t Christ who has saved all of their souls, because with Lost we aren’t delimited by Christian concepts; judgment belongs to the souls themselves.
Dante’s conception of purgatory is his most original of all the imagined realms of the afterlife. The medieval Church believed that Purgatory existed to exact the due punishment for sins not paid on earth, while Dante created a place in which souls were not simply paying their dues but were given the chance to redeem themselves10. “And I will sing of that second realm where the human spirit purges itself and becomes worthy to ascend to Heaven” (Purg. 1. 4-6)11. The idea of purgatory as a separate place was also very new in the 1300s. Due to these divergences from the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, Dante’s ideas of purgatory could be considered somewhat controversial for their time. The purpose of Dante’s Purgatory isn’t for God to seek punitive justice for the sins of the souls but to instill a corrective discipline in those souls so that they may overcome their vices. In short, Dante’s Purgatory offers redemption for lost souls, an incredibly optimistic concept that also inspired the producers of Lost. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Cuse said that he found the idea of redemption infinitely attractive because human beings are all imperfect. The question he wanted to answer was, “If we acknowledge our imperfection, and if we ask for forgiveness for our imperfection, are we able to actually reset the clock?” (Gilmore) Janne Stigen Drangsholt envisions the island of Lost as a mythical space of rebirth, one “that awards the characters with the opportunity to regenerate their own beings” (215).
Like the souls of Dante’s Purgatorio, all of the plane crash survivors in Lost have reached a dead end of destructive behavior and need to overcome their vices. They require forgiveness, healing and transformation. The sixth and final season of Lost represents a spiritual journey for them. Not unlike the spiritual journey Dante undertakes, the characters of Lost approach moral perfection progressively until finally they reach salvation. However, there is one very big difference between Dante’s journey (and the journey of all the souls of his Purgatorio) and the journey of Lost’s characters: For Dante, only God’s grace can save a soul, but the producers of Lost propose a more modern notion of salvation—forgiveness of oneself through the love of other human beings. As Lindelof explains:
They were all fucked-up, sad individuals who were lost in their own lives and hated themselves and somehow they found some fundamental community amongst each other. If they hadn’t met each other and spent all that time on the island, then they would never have been able to forgive themselves for their past sins and break through to some sort of level of self-awakening and forgiveness. (Topolsky)
This modern notion of redemption completely rewrites Dante’s Purgatorio, substituting love of others for love of God.
Purgatorio is the cantica in which Dante most emphasizes the concept of community. Loving one another is what enriches the spiritual life of the souls in Purgatory. The greater the number of souls who love, the more each of them can love, because the good of one is the good of all. This is the reason why when a soul overcomes sin and finishes his penance, the entire mountain of Dante’s Purgatory shakes with joy and all of the souls sing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Purg. 20. 136). “When I felt the mountain shake like a falling thing, and a chill seized me such as takes him who goes to death” (Purg. 20. 127-129)12. This divine earthquake (which in the above quotation occurred for the purified soul of Statius) represents the communion of all of the souls on the mountain. Thomas Aquinas, one of the central figures in Dante’s Paradiso and probably one of the most important Christian disciples of Aristotle for Dante, believed that a man is meant to depend on his fellow citizens, that the common good is more important than the individual, and that man needs the help of other men to attain his own end. Dante incorporates this thinking into his conception of purgatory. Unlike the chaos and anarchy of Hell, the souls in Purgatory offer each other guidance and support and show concern for one another.
This emphasis on community can be seen in the way Dante pairs his purgatorial souls, often drawing two souls from opposing political factions together13. Never is the importance of the common good more evident, however, than on the terrace of the envious, whose souls Dante describes as such: “For each had his eyelids pierced and sewn by an iron wire, as we do to a wild sparrowhawk because it will not be still” (Purg. 13. 70-73)14. The souls on this terrace, who have been blinded, must lean against each other—that is, trust each other and count on each other—so that they don’t fall over a cliff’s ledge, which is the greatest expression of the value of community. The importance of community is also emphasized through the act of song, which represents spiritual communion, as the souls of Purgatorio can frequently be found singing religious songs in perfect harmony15. In Lost, music has a similar effect: it unites all of the characters in purgatory. A concert is what brings all the characters together, for various reasons, at the end of season six.
Lost places a similar emphasis on the importance of community as a means of salvation; it is one of the series’ central themes. At its very beginning, in the episode “White Rabbit,” (2004. 1: 5) all of the island’s survivors are fighting because they don’t trust each other. When the bottles of water run out, the camp explodes into chaos. Jack sees this fighting and breaks it up to deliver a speech. He tells his fellow survivors that the strategy of “every man for himself” is not going to be effective on the island. The group must figure out a way to survive together. He finishes his speech with a few simple but powerful words that resound throughout the entire series: “If we can’t live together, we’re gonna die alone.” In Purgatorio, Dante writes about the relationship between God and the individual soul, but that relationship is mediated by the Church, by communion. Purgatorio’s lesson is that spiritual development is nourished by the relationship between the individual and his or her bigger social community. The characters of Lost also need a community to redeem themselves, though they do not necessarily need a relationship with God. When they arrive on the island, they become united, and through their shared experiences, they begin to heal. In fact, when the Oceanic 6 are rescued, they feel so unmoored in a world where they no longer have to collaborate to survive that they devise a plan to go back to the island, to reclaim the sense of purpose and fulfillment that comes with feeling like one is a part of a community. Clarke Stuart writes, “If viewers have learned nothing else about human relationships from the series it is this: the individual’s words and actions profoundly affect the group and the group, in turn, has the potential to transform the individual” (65).
Let us now turn to particular examples in Lost that make reference to Dante’s Purgatorio. Lost can be very difficult to understand, because there are so many intricately woven, complex storylines, but for the purposes of this essay we only need to know that in the sixth and final season, two worlds unfold simultaneously for the viewer: on the one hand, a world in which the plane never crashed on the island and instead landed safely in Los Angeles (we learn at the end of the season that this “world” is in fact a type of purgatory) and on the other, the real world in which the plane did crash and the survivors are still on the island.
We’ll begin on the level of character development. Christian and Jack Shephard represent the figures of Virgil and Dante: they share a father-son relationship (Virgil was the “father” of Latin poetry and Dante frequently refers to him as his “dolcissimo patre” or most sweet father), they practice the same profession (Christian and Jack are doctors; Dante and Virgil poets) and it is Christian Shephard (note the literal connotation of his name) who guides Jack to the earthly paradise (the church full of all of Jack’s friends) at the end of season six just as Virgil guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory to finally arrive at the earthly paradise in Purgatorio 28. Virgil ultimately must leave Dante once he has completed the process of the purgation of his sins and become fit to govern himself. Virgil says to him, “Therefore you over yourself I crown and mitre” (Purg. 27. 142)16. Dante is reunited with Beatrice and follows her to Heaven. Christian, too, guides Jack as far as he can but must ultimately leave him in the church, as he must complete the rest of the journey himself (see Figure 2). Christian opens a door that fills the church with light, and Jack moves on with all of his loved ones. The comparison is strengthened when we consider that much like Dante struggled to surpass his predecessor in the art of poetry, most of Jack’s storyline told through flashbacks is defined by his efforts to prove he could be as good a physician as his father was.
It must be mentioned that Christian served as a spiritual guide earlier in the series, as well, especially in season one. It was his spirit that Jack followed to find water. The reason Jack was on the plane that crashed onto the island in the first place is because he went to Australia to retrieve his father’s body and bring it back to the U.S. for burial. Thus, Christian Shephard’s body was on the plane as well. When Jack found his father’s coffin on the island, however, it was empty. This led viewers to hypothesize if arriving on the island already dead was some sort of passkey for becoming a ghost who could interact with the living, much in the way Virgil was able to do when he found Dante in the dark wood.17
Lost also seems to incorporate parts of its precursor text on a stylistic level. Dante’s Purgatorio is visualized as a mountain full of the light of God. In Canto 15, Dante describes the light in great detail: “so much the sun seemed still to have before it of its course toward evening” (4-5), “and the sun’s rays were striking us from straight ahead” (7-8), “when I felt my brow weighed down by the brightness much more than at first” (10-11), “so I raised my hands above the ridge of my brows and made myself a sunshade, that pares away at the excessive light” (13-15)18. Similarly, the directors of Lost seem to have chosen to film their scenes with the most light possible. Lost’s purgatory takes places, after all, in Los Angeles. Though L.A. is a very sunny city, sometimes the lighting of these purgatorial scenes seems almost radioactively bright. When we’re on the island (the real world), which is also naturally a very sunny place, the scenes are noticeably darker. Furthermore, time in Dante’s Purgatorio passes as it does on earth, and it is the only cantica in which this happens, because Purgatory is situated on the earth. In Lost’s purgatory, the characters talk about time as if it’s a normal thing (“two days ago,” “last week,” etc.) and we see a few scenes that take place at night, so presumably time passes there as it does on the earth as well. Another visual aspect the two incarnations of purgatory share is that the weather doesn’t change. Statius explains why weather doesn’t touch Mount Purgatory:
This place is free from any alteration: only what Heaven received into itself by itself can be caused here, nothing else. For this reason no rain, no hail, no snow, no dew, no frost falls any higher than the little stairway with but three steps (Purg. 21.43-48)19.
We can deduce that this may be the same reason that it never rains in Lost’s purgatory—only the influence of heaven (or wherever it is the castaways’ souls go when they pass on in the final episode) has an effect on purgatory.
There are a few specific images from Lost in which it almost seems as if the directors are painting scenes directly from Dante’s Purgatorio. In the very last episode of Lost, “The End” (2010. 6: 18), Jack arrives at a church and climbs a staircase. The director has a very particular way of filming his ascent. The camera does a panoramic shot of the room, stopping on a white statue of an angel with his hand raised. Behind the angel is a wrought-iron gate. Behind the gate we see the stairs that Jack must climb. This is the moment in the final season of Lost in which the viewer begins to realize that the world in which the plane did not crash is in fact a type of purgatory and not just an alternate version of reality. In my opinion, this scene acts symbolically as the “gate” to Purgatory. That is, it echoes Dante’s very memorable description of this very gate and its gatekeeper, an angel. One can see resonances of this shot in the following verses:
I now saw a door, with three steps below
approaching it, of different colors, and a gate-
keeper who spoke no word as yet.
And as I opened my eyes more and more at the
sight, I saw that he was sitting over the topmost
step, so bright of face that I could not endure it;
and he had a naked sword in his hand, which so
reflected the sunbeams toward us that I often
directed my eyes in vain. (Purg. 9. 76-84)20
In Purgatorio, everything before the gate to Purgatory is considered “Ante-Purgatory,” where the souls of the late-repentant and the excommunicated must stay 30 times the years they spent on earth before being able to enter Purgatory proper. Lost does not take any such position on the time the castaways spent in the “sideways world” before passing through the gate and into the nave of the church. It is my opinion that the creators were inspired on a much more symbolic level, using the visual cues of the gate, the staircase and the angel to recall this passage of Dante’s and signal to the viewer that this is, in fact, purgatory.
In the first season of Lost, we catch our first glimpse of what the producers refer to as “The Smoke Monster.” It is a thick column of dark smoke that kills people on the island. It is revealed in the final season that the smoke is really the soul of the Man in Black who killed his mother and was then killed by his brother, a man who seeks revenge. He is the personification of anger. The visual element recalls Canto 16 of Purgatorio, the terrace of wrath:
The darkness of Hell, or of a night deprived of
every planet, under an empty sky, shadowed as
much as possible by clouds,
never made so thick a veil to my sight as did the
smoke that covered us there, nor a pelt so hard to
that my eye could not bear to stay open; so my
wise and faithful escort drew near and offered me
his shoulder. (1-9)21
The smoke on this terrace is so thick that it blinds the souls paying penance there, emphasizing the idea that anger itself is a kind of blindness. As Dante makes his way with great difficulty through the thick black smoke, the souls cry out to God for peace and mercy, singing “Agnus Dei” in unison. He can only hear them; the smoke is too thick to make out any human visages, as we are similarly unable to see the Man in Black within the black column of the “Smoke Monster.”
Lost and the Divine Comedy most strongly resemble each other on the level of content. At times, it seems the producers of Lost are taking elements straight from the Dantean playbook. Lost concerns itself heavily with the idea of free will versus destiny and with the nature of evil. Marco Lombardo best discusses these themes in Canto 16 when Dante asks him if man’s evil character is decided by the “cielo” (the heavens) or by the earth, or rather whether destiny is predetermined by God or determined by the choices of men. Marco responds:
You who are alive still refer every cause up to
the heavens, just as if they moved everything with
them by necessity.
If that were so, free choice would be destroyed
in you, and it would not be justice to have joy for
good and mourning for evil.
The heavens begin your motions; I do not say
all of them, but, supposing I say it, a light is given
you to know good and evil,
and free will, which, if it lasts out the labor of its
first battles with the heavens, afterwards overcomes
all things, if nourished well.
To a greater Power and a better Nature you lie
subject and therefore free, and that creates the
mind in you, which the heavens do not govern.
Thus, if the present world has gone astray, in
you is the cause, in you let it be sought, and now I
will be a true spy of it for you. (Purg. 16. 67-84)22
In essence, human beings are responsible for their actions and human will is free. If individuals did not have freedom of choice, it would not be fair for God (or Dante author) to condemn them to punishments in the afterlife. Lost takes a similar philosophical position. During a flashback, the guardian of the island, Jacob, explains to a shipwrecked man, Richard Alpert, how the island is a type of experiment. The Smoke Monster (Jacob’s brother) believes that sinning is the nature of man and everyone is corruptible, while Jacob brings people to the island to prove his brother wrong. Jacob believes man is capable of doing good. The shipwrecked man asks why Jacob doesn’t intervene and help the people that The Smoke Monster kills. Jacob responds, “Because I wanted them to help themselves. To know the difference between right and wrong without me having to tell them. It’s all meaningless if I have to force them to do anything” (“Ab Aeterno,” 2010. 6: 9). His speech echoes Dante’s idea of free will in Purgatory. The souls of Purgatory proper decide themselves how long they will need to spend on each terrace in order to purify themselves. This penance is their decision and they are happy to learn virtue and purge themselves of vice. This is the biggest difference between the souls of Purgatorio and the souls of Inferno.
Free will works similarly in Lost’s purgatory: many characters mention that being in purgatory is their choice, and they decide when it’s time to move on. For example, Sayid, an Iraqi who tortured many people when he was a soldier, isn’t sure he’s ready to pass on. Hurley, a loveable and optimistic character, tells Sayid that he isn’t a bad man, but perhaps enough people told Sayid he was bad during his life that he began to believe them. “But you can’t let other people tell you what you are, Dude,” Hurley says in the series finale titled “The End (2010. 6: 18).” “You have to decide that for yourself.” This is penance inflicted by oneself, not by God. In the same episode, Ben Linus meets the man he killed, John Locke, in front of the church. John Locke, like Statius, is ready to leave Purgatory, and when he sees Ben Linus, he forgives him. Ben Linus thanks John Locke for his mercy, and John Locke asks him what he’ll do now. Ben Linus replies, “I have some things I still need to work out. I think I’ll stay here a while.23” At the beginning of the series, some critics suspected that the island itself was a type of purgatory, but it turned out all of the characters’ paths had been manipulated to bring them to the island. Their fates were predetermined, and therefore redemption on the island would not be of their own choosing. Michael Rennett writes that the “real” world in which the characters are living on the island is unlike the “sideways world” where the plane never crashed (the world inspired by Dante’s Purgatorio), because while the characters on the island may believe in free will, “they are instead pawns to the tenets of fate and determinism,” because their redemption “is not of their own choosing but a predestined outcome designed for them” by some supernatural force (41, 40). The characters in the real world may be able to make decisions that lead them astray from the original path that was predetermined for them, but they will ultimately end up at the same predestined location.
At the end of Purgatorio, Dante reunites with his beloved Beatrice, who is the personification of divine grace and wisdom. Dante describes their reunion below:
Her white veil girt with olive, a lady appeared to
me, clothed, beneath a green mantle, in the color
of living flame.
And my spirit, which already for so long a time
had not known in her presence the awe that
overcame it with trembling,
without having more knowledge through the
eyes, because of hidden power that moved from
her, felt the great force of ancient love. (Purg. 30. 31-39)24
Beatrice’s eyes are the manifestation of truth, her smile the enticement to see the truth. This scene of Purgatorio recalls Dante’s Vita Nova. The “ancient love” or “antico amor” that Dante mentions could either refer to the love Dante has felt for Beatrice since he was 9 years old or the ancient love of God. There is a scene in Lost that treats the same ideas: a noble love that elevates the soul and allows it to grow closer to divine wisdom. Charlie, a man with a heroin addiction who was about to “die” (that is, pass on and leave purgatory) when he was suffocating on a packet of heroin, witnessed something magnificent. He recalls this vision in the episode “Happily Ever After” (2010. 6: 11):
I’m slipping into the abyss and then I see her. A woman. Blonde. Rapturously beautiful. And I know her. We’re together. It’s like we’ve always been and always will be, this feeling, this love.
The man to whom Charlie is recounting his story, Desmond, tells him that his vision is “poetry.” Charlie responds that he saw something authentic when he saw this woman: the truth. Charlie saw his Beatrice, his “ancient love” or “antico amor,” his personification of wisdom. In fact, as we will soon see, the “truth” Charlie saw was in fact memories of the people he loved on the island. Regular viewers of Lost probably identified the woman Charlie was speaking about as his love interest on the show, Claire, who underwent a dark transformation in the final season. But just as the character of Beatrice in the Comedy serves as more of an abstraction of divine love and wisdom rather than the historical person of Beatrice Portinari, this woman who appears to Charlie may look like Claire (“blonde, rapturously beautiful”), but that does not necessarily mean she is the literal, unraveled, erratic Claire that we see throughout season six. This woman is rather the abstraction of Claire and his love for her, a love that inspires him to see truth.
There are two rivers that flow through the earthly paradise of Dante’s Purgatorio: Lethe and Eunoe. The river Lethe, which means “oblivion” in Greek, washes away the memory of sin. Eunoe derives from “eu” (good) and “noêsis” (wisdom) and restores the soul’s memory of all of its good actions. Matelda tells Dante that the power of the two rivers works only if the soul drinks from Lethe first and then Eunoe25. Dante learns in Paradiso that the memory of sin isn’t completely eliminated, but the soul forgets the desperation of remorse for his sin: the mercy of God in forgiving those sins is still remembered. When Dante tells Beatrice that he doesn’t remember estranging himself from her, she replies: “remember now how you have drunk from Lethe this very day; and if fire is betokened by smoke, this forgetting clearly shows the guilt of having turned your desire elsewhere” (Purg. 33.95-99)26.
I believe these two rivers (or the idea of them) serve as the means by which the producers of Lost separate the beginning and the end of Lost’s final season. In the beginning, all of Lost’s characters in purgatory have no memory of their lives. They live in a world of oblivion, after symbolically passing through the Lethe, which washes away the memory of sin. Their oblivious reality isn’t necessarily ideal, but for some characters this imaginary world is an escape from their broken, sad, painful lives. The con man becomes a police officer. Jack (who had a tumultuous relationship with his father) has an ideal relationship with his fictitious son. John Locke is married to the woman whom he loved in life but never had the chance to marry. Clarke Stuart finds parallels with this “sideways world” where things are familiar but a little bit off with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where it all “goes the wrong way.” Except in this case, it all goes the right way (122).
Clarke Stuart also attributes the castaways’ loss of memory to inspiration from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, which appears in the season 2 episode of Lost “Man of Science, Man of Faith” (2005. 2: 1). In this novel, the protagonist is murdered by his partner in crime but spends the entire novel unaware of his death. The reader is unaware as well, much like the audience of Lost, who does not find out that the parallel reality or “sideways world” of season six is a type of purgatory until the very last episode. However, at the end of The Third Policeman, the narrator only briefly remembers his life then loses his memory again, doomed to repeat his suffering for eternity. He does not break the cycle or move on the way the castaways do, which makes the novel insufficient by itself to explain the producers’ inspiration for making each of their characters undergo a loss of memory only to bring them all back together again to remember in communion and reflect upon the significance of their lives.
We must remember that while these souls have been wiped clean of their sins, they also don’t even remember the good things they did in life, because they have not passed through Dante’s second river, the Eunoe, which restores the memory of every good deed done on earth. Therefore, each character who passes on must first remember their good memories, which, for Lost, means memories of all the people they loved and sacrificed themselves for: the other people on the island. The characters remember their lives when they touch a person they loved, and all the memories of their time spent on the island come rushing back. Like Dante, who can’t explain what he feels when he emerges from the Eunoe, only that he returned “from the most holy wave refreshed, as new plants are renewed with new leaves, pure and made ready to rise to the stars” (Purg. 33.142-145) , all of the characters in Lost don’t know how to explain what they’re seeing. They say only that it is a “feeling.” What the characters of Lost remember is what prepares them to move on: The love of other human beings is what offers them salvation (see Figure 3). When Jack reunites with his father, Christian, in a church at the end of season six, Christian explains this to him:
The most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people. That’s why all of you are here. Nobody does it alone, Jack. You needed all of them and they needed you. (“The End,” 2010. 6: 18)
Dante’s poem is the precursor text to Lost’s adaptation: It had all the right ideas but didn’t put them into practice for a universal audience. Dante is limited by his medieval mentality of Western Christendom, and even though he invented a very original and revolutionary purgatory for his era, the producers of Lost had to go beyond his vision. They took Dante’s precursor text and improved upon it, removing parts of the text from their original, medieval context and inserting them in a new context that completely reshaped their meaning. Lindelof and Cuse put the Dantean ideas of free will, the nature of good and evil and enlightenment in a television series whose ultimate message was: The only way an individual can save and purify herself is through community. At the end of Purgatorio, in the earthly paradise, Dante sees seven distortions of the Church, which he saw as a corrupt and imperfect institution, but at the end of Lost, the church in which all of the characters reunite is joyous and beautiful. The church at the end of Lost represents a community of loyal souls who save each other, souls who lived together and didn’t die alone.
1 Citations to Dante will be made internally by cantica, canto, and line number(s). All translations come from Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez (1996, 2003). Episodes of Lost will be cited by season and episode. All original Italian citations will be placed in endnotes: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita.”
2 “Io non so ben ridir com’ i’ v’intrai, tant’ era pien di sonno a quel punto che la verace via abbandonai.”
3 For a previous study on connections between Dante and Lost, especially their opening scenes, see Lombardi, Giancarlo. “Lost in Theory: Everything You Have Always Wanted to Know About Lost but Were Too Afraid to Ask Lacan, Derrida and Foucault.” Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series, edited by Laist, Randy. McFarland, 2011, pp. 90-104. Also see Piatt, Christian. Lost: A Search for Meaning. Chalice Press, 2006. Piatt takes a more theological approach. While he mentions Dante’s Purgatorio briefly, he is limited by writing before the final season of Lost had aired. Stigen Drangsholt also briefly references Dante when writing about how Eloise Hawking serves as the Virgil to Desmond Hume’s Dante in the episode “Flashes Before Your Eyes” (3.8) (pp. 216-217). Clarke Stuart talks about connections between the two works briefly on pages 67-68 of Literary Lost, including the choice of the name “Cerberus vents” for the vents that the Smoke Monster escapes from as a recall to Dante’s three-headed dog in the Inferno.
4 Translation my own. Original: “corpo alla musica, odore e colore ai paesaggi, concretezza alle sensazioni, visibilità ai sentimenti.”
5 Linda Hutcheon describes adaptation as “an act of appropriating or salvaging” that “is always a double process of interpreting and then creating something new,” which is exactly what Lost does with Dante’s text. Hutcheon, Linda and Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge, 2013, p. 20.
6 For an excellent example of how Lost’s ingredients also owe themselves to Shakespeare, see “Lost, or ‘Exit, Pursued by a Bear’: Causing Queer Children on Shakespeare’s TV.” Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by Madhavi Menon. Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 421-428. This article also explores the parent-child relationships in the Winter’s Tale and Lost.
7 This creative act in the process of adaptation is described in further detail by Dennis Cutchins and Christa Albrecht-Crane: “Adapters… must interpret, re-working the precursor text and choosing the various meanings and sensations they find most compelling… then imagine scenes, characters, and plot elements, etc, that match their interpretation.” Albrecht-Crane, Christa and Dennis Cutchins, editors. “Introduction: New Beginnings for Adaptation Studies.” Adaptation Studies: New Approaches. Teaneck Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2010, p. 16.
8 Clarke Stuart covers other similarities between Homer’s Odyssey and Lost on p. 52 of Literary Lost. These similarities include the link between the name of the airline the characters of Lost fly on and the name of the river that surrounds the island of the underworld Odysseus travels to: Oceanic and Oceanus, respectively.
9 “Source study is wholly irrelevant here; we are dealing with primal worlds, but antithetical meanings, and an ephebe’s best misinterpretations may well be of poems he has never read” (Bloom, Anxiety of Influence, p. 70).
10 For an exhaustive study of Dante’s influence on the conception of purgatory in the Middle Ages, see Jacques Le Goff’s The Birth of Purgatory. University of Chicago Press, 1986. Also see De Salvio, Alfonso. “Heterodoxy in Dante's Purgatory.” PMLA, vol. 38, no. 1, 1923, pp. 71-98.
11 “E canterò di quel secondo regno dove l’umano spirito si purga e di salire al ciel diventa degno.”
12 “Quand’ io sentì, come cosa che cada, tremar lo monte, onde mi prese un gelo qual prender suol colui ch’a morte vada.”
13 Note, for example, the princes in Canto 7, Corrado Malaspina and Nino Visconti in Canto 8, Oderisi da Gubbio and Provenzano Salvani in Canto 11, and Guido da Duca and Rinieri da Calboli in Canto 14.
14 “Ché a tutti un fil di ferro i cigli fóra e cusce, sì come a sparvier selvaggio si fa però che queto non dimora.”
15 For example, on the boat to Mount Purgatory they sing “In exitu Israel de Aegypto” (Purg. 2. 46), when Dante enters the gate of Purgatory he hears “Te Deum laudamus” (Purg. 9. 140) and when he walks through the smoke on the third terrace he hears all the souls sing “Agnus Dei” (Purg. 16.19).
16 “Per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio.”
17 For more on Jack and Christian’s relationship, see Hassel, Holly and Nancy Chick. “It Always Ends the Same: Paternal Failures.” Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series, edited by Randy Laist. MacFarland and Company, 2011, pp. 154-171.
18 “Tanto pareva già inver’ la sera essere al sol del suo corso rimaso,” (4-5), “e i raggi ne ferien per mezzo ‘l naso,” (7-8), “quand’ io senti’ e me gravar la fronte a lo splendore assai più che di prima,” (10-11), “ond’ io levai le mani inver’ la cima de le mie ciglia e fecimi ‘l solecchio, che del soverchio visibile lima” (13-15).
19 “Quei cominciò: “Cosa non è che sanza ordine senta la religïone de la montagna, o che sia fuor d’usanza. Libero è qui da ogne alterazione: di quel che ‘l ciel da sé in sé riceve esser ci puote, e non d’altro, cagione. Per che non pioggia, non grando, non neve, non rugiada, non brina più sù cade che la scaletta di tre gradi breve.”
20 “Vidi una porta, e tre gradi di sotto per gire ad essa, di color diversi, e un portier ch’ancor non facea motto. E come l’occhio più e più v’apersi, vidil seder sovra ‘l grado sovrano, tal ne la faccia ch’io non lo soffersi; e una spada nuda avëa in mano, che reflettëa i raggi sì ver noi, ch’io dirizzava spesso il viso in vano.”
21 “Buio d’inferno e di notte privata d’ogne pianeto, sotto pover cielo, quant’ esser può di nuvol tenebrata, non fece al viso mio sì grosso velo come quel fummo c’ivi ci coperse, né a sentir di così aspro pelo che l’occhio stare aperto non sofferse; onde la scorta mia saputa e fida mi s’accostò e l’omero m’offerse.”
22 “Voi che vivete ogne cagion recate pur suso al cielo, pur come se tutto movesse seco di necessitate. Se così fosse, in voi fora distrutto libero arbitrio, e non fora giustizia per ben letizia, e per male aver lutto. Lo cielo i vostri movimenti inizia; non dico tutti, ma, posto ch’i’ ‘l dica, lume v’è dato a bene e a malizia, e libero voler, che, se fatica ne le prime battaglie col ciel dura, poi vince tutto, se ben si notrica. A maggior forza e a miglior natura liberi soggiacete, e quella cria la mente in voi, che ‘l ciel non ha in sua cura. Però se ‘l mondo presente disvia in voi è la cagione, in voi si cheggia, e io te ne sarò or vera spia.”
23 For more on the idea of free will versus determinism in Lost, see Girard, Charles and David Meulemans, “The Island as a Test of Free Will: Freedom of Reinvention and Internal Determinism.” Lost and Philosophy: The Island Has its Reasons, edited by Sharon Kaye. Blackwell Publishing, 2008, pp. 89-101.
24 “Sovra candido vel cinta d’uliva donna m’apparve, sotto verde manto vestita di color di fiamma viva. E lo spirito mio, che già cotanto tempo era stato ch’a la sua presenza non era di stupor tremando affranto, sanza de li occhi aver più conoscenza, per occulta virtù che da lei mosse d’antico amor sentì la gran potenza.”
25 “On this side it descends with the power to take away all memory of sin; on the other it gives back the memory of every good deed. Here it is called Lethe, as on the other side Eunoè, and it is not effective before it is tasted both on this side and on that.” Italian: “Da questa parte con virtù discende che toglie altrui memoria del peccato; da l’altra d’ogne ben fatto la rende. Quinci Letè, così da l’altro lato Eünoè si chiama, e non adopra se quinci e quindi pria non è guastato” (Purg. 28. 127-132).
26 . “…or ti rammenta come bevesti di Letè ancoi; e se dal fummo foco s’argomenta, cotesta oblivïon chiaro conchiude colpa ne la tua voglia altrove attenta.”
27 “Io ritornai da la santissima onda rifatto sì come piante novelle rinovellate di novella fronda, puro e disposto a salire a le stelle.”
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