Hell and the Mirror: A Reading of Desert of the Heart

Publication year

Desert of the Heart is set in Reno, Nevada, the town in the heart of the sterile desert whose economy is founded on casinos and quickie divorces. Evelyn is a literary scholar [...]. It is through her eyes that we first see the desert: the 'miles of burning sand' visible from the plane that later, from the ground, fill her with an irrational terror. What she sees is a vision of something she doesn't believe in, 'a Catholic desolation' - specifically, to her trained scholar's imagination, the 'burning sands' (arena arsiccia) described by the medieval Italian poet Dante, in one section of his Inferno. This detailed tourists' guide to the regions of the damned is the first book of The Divine Comedy, a massive three-part poem which is one of the major monuments of traditional Christian culture. In the passage directly alluded to in Desert of the Heart, it describes how those who are 'violent against God' are confined in Hell to a vast sandy desert, heated continually by huge flakes of flame which descend from above.
According to Dante, the category of those who are 'violent against God' includes [...] homosexuals. (118)