Why Don Draper Read Dante

Alan Jacobs recently made this observation about how we misread Dante:

Dante is not at all interested in placing persons (or as he would see them, ex-persons) in their proper places in the afterlife, nor is he interested in speculating on the precise nature of the sufferings of the damned: he is, rather, interested in exploring the nature of sin. The topic of the Inferno is not Hell but sin, for the Pilgrim must understand what sin is so he can renounce it, and thereby begin to find a way out of that dark, dark wood.

J.L. Wall uses that insight to unpack the meaning of Mad Men, the latest season of which begins with Don Draper reading Dante on the beach – a clue, he thinks, to understanding what the show’s writers are trying to do with their elusive main character:

Don Draper and Mad Men are, like Dante, less concerned with Hell than with sin.

Though the imagery was ratcheted up in this most recent season, questions of sin’s reality or applicability have been present since the show’s beginning. And not only with Don: The second-season character arc for Peggy Olsen, Don’s protege, is dominated by her conservative Catholic mother and a liberal priest both trying to confront her with the reality of sin and steer her off its path.Whether or not Peggy still believes in sin’s reality, Don does—and knows himself to be a sinner. Lying in bed with his neighbor, he shies away from the sight of the crucifix on her neck and ultimately pushes it from sight as they make love. (Her name, Sylvia, is etymologically related to the “dark wood”—selva—into which Don’s voiceover announces he has stumbled.) As much as Don’s flashbacks are dominated by scenes as a child in a whorehouse, they are equally dominated by discussions of sin, purity, penance, and redemption. His memories aren’t dominated by sex, that is, but by the connection between sex and his self-identification as a sinner.