The Devil through a Literary Evolution
The Devil has been present through all stages of literary evolution. Stories about the antagonism between good and evil have existed since the beginnings of the human race. It is rather interesting to follow the change in human thought through history, all the changes – political, social, and religious ones, through many different representations of the Devil.
The paradigm of the Devil’s character and his place in ancient stories has changed as it has responded to the spirit of different periods in human history. We have reviewed five different representations of the Devil in literature, chronologically lined up, so you can explore how his face has evolved through the written word.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
We’ll begin our list with a 14th– century literary masterpiece – the epic poem Inferno (read online for free) written by Dante Alighieri. This poem is the first part of The Divine Comedy, followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. The representation of the Devil in Inferno is still under the influence of medieval times, but with extraordinary descriptions that are very detailed and seem to go beyond medieval perspectives.
The fantastic story of Inferno includes an explanation of the nine circles of hell. It is an allegory of Dante’s journey towards God and his lovely Beatrice, with the guidance of the Roman poet Virgil. Inferno is a book that has inspired many visual representations of the nine levels of suffering in Hell (i.e. woodcuts by Antonio Manetti), especially by way of discussing which sins are worse and how they are gradually placed in order.
Satan is represented as an awful creature, the ultimate sinner as he is God’s banished angel of light, Lucifer. Dante’s representation of the Devil, therefore, follows the story of Christian theology. It is interesting that Satan stays trapped in the frozen central part of the last circle of Hell, contrary to many modern representations of Hell where there is fire everywhere:
[…] The Emperor of the kingdom dolorous
From his mid-breast forth issued from the ice,
And better with a giant I compare
Than do the giants with those arms of his;
Consider now how great must be that whole,
Which unto such a part conforms itself.
Were he as fair once, as he now is foul,
And lifted up his brow against his Maker,
Well may proceed from him all tribulation.
O, what a marvel it appeared to me,
When I beheld three faces on his head!
The one in front and that vermilion was;
Two were the others, that were joined with this
Above the middle part of either shoulder,
And they were joined together at the crest […]
Dante’s representation of the Devil respects the original biblical story but is truly fascinating in depicting Hell and its ruler.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
One of the first representations of the Devil in the literature that was entirely different from anything written before was Paradise Lost (read for free online) by John Milton.
In this great long poem, Milton offered a new and fresh perspective on how the conflict between God and Satan happened. For the first time, the focus of the story relied on the perspective of Satan himself, and the position of God was questioned and partially criticized by him. This might sound like a scandalous angle to write from, but keep in mind the historical context in which Paradise Lost was written and published.
It was in 1667, in the Age of Enlightenment – when the overall spirit of the time was ready for a new stage in history, advocating ideas such as liberty and progress and setting people free from church dogmas. This was fertile ground for a writer like Milton, since he chose to revise the myth to show just how complex the characters of God and Satan were.
The Biblical version of the story had nurtured a monochromatic approach towards this relationship: God is good, the Devil is evil. Milton demolished this banal dichotomy, showing the darker side of God (never discussed before) and a somewhat heroic personality trait in Satan.
If this type of writing had occurred in the Middle Ages, it would most certainly have been considered scandalous. But the social climate of the Age of Enlightenment welcomed this new literary representation of the Devil. Milton does not reject his core essence: Satan is a personification of evil, but this evil is now contextualized and explained. God is here represented as the absolute ruler of everything that exists, a true despot who is even drunk with power.
Satan is represented as a rebel, as someone who is proud-spirited and refuses to serve God. Although he is arrogant and truly evil, we feel sympathy for him, just as we do in many other books and movies where we are on the side of the bad guy. Satan’s arguments are well stated as he describes all God’s angels as pathetic servants.
Lucifer, the fallen angel, gets to share his side of the story thanks to Milton. His character can be discerned from just one verse in Paradise Lost, when he is banished from Heaven to Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven
Some literary critics argued whether or not Milton created an artificial (and weak) ending to the story by letting God be victorious, with good ultimately prevailing, and then by writing the following book, Paradise Regained. Milton probably did not dare to let the story end in any other way since that would have meant crushing the core of the religious story and the myth of the Devil: for he truly is evil, even though he shows incredible and praiseworthy qualities.
Milton’s Satan is rebellious, and he is a fighter for freedom. But if Milton had decided to make the Devil the winner, he would probably have been considered an anarchist. There is an interesting principle to all this: when dealing with myths, it must be understood that myths will let someone rewrite them and revise them.
However, the core of the story must stay intact – and here it is the fight between God and Lucifer and the result of that fight. Otherwise, the new story stretches the limits of the myth’s structure, degrading it in every way. Again, we shouldn’t be puzzled by this fresh representation of the Devil, since the Age of Enlightenment posited doubt as something desirable, and questioning everything was an everyday occurrence for its intellectuals.
Faust by Johan Wolfganf Goethe
Another great representation is brought to us thanks to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his work of art, Faust (read online for free). This story was based on the urban legend of a 15th– century magician who lived in Northern Germany.
The actual historical person, Dr. Johann Georg Faust, was an alchemist who was accused of making a pact with the Devil. Conflicting versions of the legend inspired Goethe to elaborate on the topic, creating a different character for the Devil – in Goethe’s tragic play named Mephistopheles.
Connected more with German folklore than with Christian theology, Mephistopheles is a demon, a personification of evil. However, Goethe offers a different insight into his character. Faust is a frustrated scholar who suddenly realizes just how limited and fragile his knowledge is.
His one true desire is to obtain total knowledge, to understand Nature in every detail. The impossibility of this is simply crushing for him since nature won’t let her veil be raised, so he contemplates suicide as he continues to question everything:
How then can I grasp you, endless Nature?
Where are your breasts that pour out Life entire,
To which the Earth and Heavens cling so,
Where withered hearts would drink? You flow
You nourish, yet I languish so, in vain desire.
Goethe’s Faust is one of the best-known stories of mankind’s pact with the Devil. But what is the Devil like in this story? Mephistopheles is unusually like a man, he is not a personification of evil per se. He pushes Faust into real life and away from books, he introduces him to new forms of life, with the lesson that life needs to be experienced, not learned, and understood from books.
Still, Mephistopheles is prone to excess, which often leaves Faust suffering or lost. His character is best described in his own words when Faust asks him who he is:
Part of the Power that would
Always wish Evil, and always works the Good.
Just like Milton’s representation, here the character of the Devil is complex, as it has its good sides and dark sides, but ultimately works for the forces of good. The paradox of this is explained through the further events in the play: the world needs good just as it needs evil, their constant fight is what makes the world go around; their balance is what makes each life worth living.
Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevski
Late 19th– century literature created a new face for the Devil. The Devil became more abstract and disconnected from the biblical story and other myths from the past. The Devil came to be seen as something that is within us, is shaped by us, and which represents our struggles, our consciences, and our dark sides.
One of the first great writers to internalize the role of the Devil this way was Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A master at drawing psychological portraits as they had never been done before (through inner dialogues, spaces, reactions, non-verbal gestures, through conversations, intimate episodes and through the eyes of other characters) – Dostoyevsky shows how a psychological struggle is the most severe one, as it means wrestling with our dark thoughts, doubts, or the sins we have buried deep inside of ourselves.
One of the greatest scenes of this kind can be found in Dostoyevsky’s voluminous novel The Brothers Karamazov (read free online here). The idea of the Devil is present through the whole novel (in more or less subtle ways), but it is most explicitly shown in the chapter on Ivan Karamazov’s nightmare.
Ivan is a 24-year-old young man, extremely lucid and intelligent, which is the main cause of his constant contemplation of the great questions of the mechanisms of the world, of God and whether or not he exists, of morals, and of the overwhelming injustice and cruelty that exist all around him.
Gradually, Ivan falls into delirium, which escalates after Smerdyakov (his half-brother and the illegitimate son of Fyodor Pavlovich) murders Fyodor, inspired by the philosophy Ivan has extracted from his contemplations of the aforementioned issues. He then has a nightmare in which he encounters the Devil himself (several times referred to as the gentleman) and tries to chase him away:
‘Never for one minute have I taken you for reality,’ Ivan cried with a sort of fury. ‘You are a lie, you are my illness, you are a phantom. It’s only that I don’t know how to destroy you and I see I must suffer for a time.
You are my hallucination. You are the incarnation of myself, but only of one side of me… of my thoughts and feelings, but only the nastiest and stupidest of them. From that point of view you might be of interest to me, if only I had time to waste on you.’
The Brothers Karamazov is a true masterpiece when it comes to psychological portrayal, and the Devil has a huge role here.
Mikhail Bulgakov The Master and Margarita
Last, but not least – one of the greatest novels of the 20th century comes to us from another Russian writer, Mikhail Bulgakov. Yes, we are talking about The Master and Margarita (read online for free here). The character of the Devil is here completely humanized as a charming and seductive man, a professor, and a magician named Woland.
The story focuses on Woland’s visit to Moscow, to Soviet Russia. Because of the overall tone and the message of the novel, it is considered satiric. Here, the Devil is most certainly an allegorical figure who serves a higher purpose: to put a different light on notions of good and evil and show just how complex they are.
The clear division between them does not exist: they overlap and flow into one another. We can perceive Woland as a surreal time traveler since he is omnipresent and eternal. In the novel, he is marked as a stranger, and his role is to make people confront the evil inside of them and the consequences of that evil.
People feel uncomfortable around him, as his appearance stands out and he has a strange aura around him. The chaos that Woland brings to Moscow (along with his magical, incredibly charismatic, dark entourage that includes a devious cat) is layered and perplexed. Bulgakov borrowed a description from Goethe’s Faust for the novel’s epigraph, just to give a hint about who Woland is:
‘Say at last–who art thou?’
‘That Power I serve
Which wills forever evil
Yet does forever good.’
The necessity of the forces of evil lies in the focus, but also the complexity of what it actually means to be evil and whether it can even be precisely defined.
There you have it – five different representations of the Devil in literature! It is interesting to see how this myth has changed and developed in books, as it reflects various historical ages and their values. What are your favorites?
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