Journeying toward the beatific vision: the uses and abuses of Dante in Robert Elsmere.
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In Robert Elsmere, Mrs. Humphry Ward addresses the Christological concerns of Victorian England. Robert’s crisis of faith and resulting inability to maintain a belief in the divinity of Christ is juxtaposed against his wife’s focus on the divinity, occasionally at the expense of his humanity. It is in the traditional orthodox teaching of the Incarnation that these two must meet in order to commune with each other and with God. Mrs. Humphry Ward intends to debunk the superstitious elements of traditional Christianity and replace orthodoxy with a humanist version of the Gospel; however, in tying Robert to Dante and Catherine to Beatrice, she aligns her novel with Dante’s poetic rendering of everyman’s spiritual journey from ignorance to full knowledge of the Incarnate Christ. In doing so, Mrs. Humphry Ward undermines her own goal, instead allowing the paradoxical union of divinity and humanity embodied in the doctrine of the Incarnation to drive the movement of her narrative, much as it drives Dante’s Divine Comedy. By tracing Dantesque allusions throughout Ward’s tale of spiritual struggle, we will see that it is the Incarnation, in all of its paradoxical and poetic beauty, which enables the salvation of both the heretic and the saint.