Seven, Aquinas, Chaucer, Dante, and American Culture

This is a trailer to the film SEVEN.  If you wish to earn a 1% extra credit for this film, write a 500 word thematic analysis on Word and paste as a comment after you have proofread your short analysis.Seven, Aquinas,Chaucer, Dante, and American Culture

Dante’s Inferno

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In our fragmented postmodern American culture, people are numb to violence. Seemingly normal citizens consider even the most atrocious acts as everyday events. During April, 1996, Richmond, California, police arrested a six year old boy for the attempted murder of a four week old baby. Criminally tried for brutally slashing the throats of his ex-wife and her male acquaintance, O.J. Simpson, acquitted for the crime, now faces a civil trial for the same offense. Despondent over a quarrel with her lover, Susan Smith killed her two small sons by strapping them into safety seats, pushing the car into the middle of a lake, and watching them drown. In May, here in Riverside, California on a beautiful sunny morning in front of the county courthouse, a distraught 31 year old husband shot his wife to death and the police in turn shot him to death while his horrified nine year old son watched the carnage. In the tradition of Aquinas (1225-1274), Dante (1265-1321), and Chaucer (1340-1400), thoughtful writers continue to examine the medieval conceptions of hell, purgatory, and heaven, putting them into a late twentieth century context. Like his medieval mentors, Andrew Kevin Walker exposes the banality inherent in humankind and American society’s total disregard for natural law in his film script SE7EN.

Film critic Bryant Frazer says that Andrew Kevin Walker’s script and David Fincher’s film SE7EN is a “mean little movie about sin, the city, free will, and the most grotesque notions of justice” (1). What is most interesting about this postmodern film is its total reliance on a medieval sense of morality, hell, purgatory, and justice. The story takes place during an eight day period. Located in an unnamed urban American slum, the two main characters, Morgan Freeman as retiring detective William Somerset and Brad Pitt as rookie detective David Mills, discover a set of grisly murders. With each murder, the detectives find a reference to one of the seven deadly sins. Packed with allusions to Aquinas’ Summa 7beologica, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, the film’s story provides punishments to match the crime. John Doe is the film’s self appointed executioner/preacher who carries out “the word of the Lord.”

Charles Sykes discusses the decay of the American character in A Nation of Victims; he contends that Americans are scrapping “principles of morality” while searching for personal identity; this personal identity crisis is a “ubiquitous feature of postmodern society” (152).

The film SE7ENs storyline demonstrates how Sykes’ definition of “victimization” mentality permeates our culture and contributes to the urban violence we accept as “everyday events.” He also contends that “while postmodern politics declares everyone guilty, postmodern psychology lets almost everyone off the hook for just about anything” (145).

In SE7EN, Andrew Kevin Walker’s character John Doe, the self appointed executioner, epitomizes the practice of “ideological Puritanism” that exculpates one from blame and projects guilt onto others. Though he claims to be administrating God’s justice, he fails to understand the admonition of the Christian principles: “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling” (I Pet. 3:9) and “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine said the Lord”‘ (Rom. 12:19) and John Doe enjoys his role as executioner, failing to comprehend the hypocrisy of his judgments.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition forming our American culture, we rely on certain common ideas to relieve our collective pain. Generally, we understand the idea of sin as being a separation from God or a separation from those principles of justice that make a society “work.” After one sins, the person must confess, repent, and atone before receiving redemption. In Dante’s Inferno, those who have not repented are suffering punishments befitting their crimes. The Purgatorio is a place where the pilgrim can learn by seeking change. Chaucer’s “Parson’s Tale” contends that all have the ability to receive redemption by repenting and atoning.

While trying to sort out the complexities of post industrial age fragmentation, decanonization, and solipsism in society, Richard W. McCormick discusses the difficulty of defining postmodern literature and films in his book Politics of the Self. He says, “postmodernism can be political in an active, positive sense: its politics have lost that faith in the ‘ultimate truth’ that binary thinking depends on, but this implies no uncritical acceptance of the status quo (or anything else)” (12). Experiencing SE7EN reminds the viewer of the implications of the unthinkable ultimate truth of life in America’s urban communities and helps viewers examine their own deadly sins.

St. Thomas Aquinas, best known for his commentaries on the Bible, summarizes human knowledge of God and man, making a distinction between reason and faith. He contends that “reason seeks knowledge” from both experimental and logical evidence and that “faith seeks understanding through revelation but uses the knowledge provided by reason. Thus they can never be in conflict, and both come from and reveal God as the source of all truth” (Benet 44).

Dante builds on the Aquinas model of morality. In Dante’s hell, and in his purgatory, people are punished for the seven deadly sins described by Aquinas. While in Italy on diplomatic missions (1372-73) for the English King Edward III, Chaucer discovered Dante’s Divine Comedy, incorporating Dante’s vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven into The Canterbury Tales. According to Chaucer, the seven deadly sins are pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust; the remedy for pride is humility of mouth and heart and works, for envy is love, for wrath is gentleness and patience, for sloth is fortitude, for greed is mercy, for gluttony is abstinence, and for lust is chastity (511-40).

In the film SE7EN, on Sunday (the first day of eight), Mills introduces himself to Somerset and a mentor/pilgrim relationship between the two develops. Though carrying a gun in the line of duty, retiring detective Somerset reveals he has never shot anyone or been shot. He uses reason and patience to solve crimes. He understands that society is hell and he has learned to confront it on a daily basis without losing his sanity or humanity. He is the antithesis of Mills. Somerset is humble, loving, patient, industrious, merciful, fugal, and chaste while Mills is turgid, envious of Somerset’s success, and angry. Mills likes to take the easy road; he reads Cliffs Notes to learn Dante and Chaucer while Somerset spends all night pouring over these great masterpieces of literature, looking for connections to the crimes committed by a single serial killer during the week.

“Murder One” on Monday: the victim’s sin is gluttony. Mentor Detective Somerset, anguished over rookie pilgrim Detective Mills flippant responses to the crime scene, dismisses Mills, sending him out of the room to investigate elsewhere. The coroner determines the victim has been force fed for at least twelve hours and then kicked until his stomach burst. Back at the station while discussing the crime with his superior, Somerset predicts that this crime will take longer to solve than he has time left on the force before his retirement; he requests reassignment. He suggests that Mills is too inexperienced to supervise this investigation, a job Somerset deems a case of multiple murders; he contends this should not be Mills first solo assignment. His request is denied; he stays on the case and so does Mills. In SE7EN, the sight of the decaying corpulent gluttonous corpse is so revolting that viewers immediately cringe in horror, establishing a negative postmodernist tone for the film.

In Dante’s Inferno, the sin of gluttony is punished in the Third Circle. These “shades are mired in filthy muck and are eternally battered by cold and dirty hail, rain, and snow” and tormented by the three headed dog, Cerberus (Mack 872). In the Purgatorio, those gluttons who have repented their sinful ways suffer hunger and thirst in the Sixth Terrace. Chaucer’s parson contends that the antithesis of gluttony is abstinence. When Somerset goes back to review the crime scene, he finds the word “gluttony” scrawled in grease on the wall behind the refrigerator. Later in the film, mentor Somerset explains to pilgrim Mlls how the sinner victims suffer from “forced attrition.” Bound to his chair with his hands and feet tied under the table and forced to lap the food directly from the plate, this obese man could not get away from his tormentor to give up food and drink and atone for his sin.

“Murder Two” on Tuesday: the victim’s sin is greed. The police captain sends Mills to investigate the homicide of a rich and famous attorney who takes advantage of the poor, the helpless, and the ignorant. In Dante’s Inferno, the attorney would be punished for this sin in Circle IV where the shades roll weights in semi circles. In the Purgatorio, greedy sinners must atone in the Fifth Terrace; they are bound hand and foot and forced to “lie stretched on the ground, face first” (XIX). Chaucer’s parson contends that the antithesis of greed is “mercy and pity in large doses” (534). He discusses how the greedy man shows no pity or mercy for those in need; indeed, the greedy man exploits the needy.

Detective Mills goes to investigate the second murder; he finds the victim’s mutilated body in a pool of blood. The word “greed” is painted on the floor in more of the victim’s blood. The police find a bathroom scale and a pound of flesh with a note indicating this pound of flesh was fair retribution for the many pounds of fleshthe attorney took from his clients. The only fingerprints and handprints the police find, located behind a painting at the crime scene, spell out the words “help me.” These prints do not match the victim’s prints. A fingerprint search determines the prints belonged to a convicted felon. Back at the police station, Somerset concludes these murders represent two deadly sins–gluttony and greed; he predicts five more murders–murders representing sloth, lust, pride, wrath, and envy. Somerset and Mills start an intensive library research of the seven deadly sins; they also pay a snitch to get illegally gained library records from the FBI of those people who have checked out flagged books relating to murder, mayhem, punishment, and sin.

Pilgrim Mills’ wife Tracy invites mentor Somerset to dinner. Not unlike the beautiful Beatrice who resides in the white rose of Paradiso and inspires the pilgrim Dante, Tracy is a loving supporter of her husband. Tracy is Mills’ first love and Somerset admires her commitment. He laughs with Mills and Tracy over their dingy hellish apartment–not a nice place to live. Like Beatrice, Tracy is present physically in this urban hell but not psychologically.

“Murder Three”: the victim’s sin is sloth. Somerset and Mills take a swat team to find the convicted felon whose fingerprints they found at crime scene two. The victim is a drug dealer who feeds on addicted souls, a person who makes money the easy way. This victim is the same felon whose hand prints were found in the crime scene of “Murder Two.” Somerset and Mills find the starved wretch tied to his bed with his hand cut of; but still alive. The detectives determine the sadistic executioner used the severed hand as a tool to provide a map to the next crime scene. Permanently incapacitated and at death’s door, the felon could give detectives no information about the killer because the doctor who examines him tells the detectives the felon had eaten his own tongue and his brain turned to mush. The doctor continues, “He’s experienced as much pain as anyone could stand and he still has hell to look forward to” (SE7EN).

Somerset and Mills decide the murderer must have kept the felon tied-up for an entire year because of the dated photos found by his bed. The torturer, John Doe, minimally fed the felon nutrients, antibiotics, and vitamins through tubes. He inserted a tube in his victim’s genitals to remove urine. Police find the word “sloth” written in dirt over the bed. Mentor Somerset mentions the amount of planning and patience required to perform such a devious act; he tells Pilgrim Mills the executioner is preaching a sermon about sin.

In the Purgatorio, shades atoning for sloth are made to run without rest (XVIII).Chaucer’s parson contends that the antithesis of sloth is a virtue called fortitude. In postmodern America, a person who is slothful refuses to take responsibility for the self and becomes a victim. The despicable self-absorbed slothful felon drug dealer has become feeble and unable to help himself. He can’t atone for his sin by running without rest while tied to his bed. Outside the felon’s apartment, a reporter takes Mills’ photograph. Mills becomes enraged and screams at the man. Pilgrim Mills tells mentor Somerset, “He pissed me off..” To this Somerset sardonically responds, “It’s impressive to see a man feeding off his emotions.”

At her request, Somerset meets Tracy for breakfast and she confides in him; she’spregnant and not anxious to have a baby in this hellish inner-city. She needs advice;she hasn’t told Mills about the baby. Somerset advises her to not tell Mills yet, at least not until she decides not to end the pregnancy. She heeds Somerset’s advice.

Pilgrim Mills insists that the murderer must be a madman. Mentor Somerset insists, “It’s dismissive to call him insane.” The FBI connection provides the detectives with Jonathan Doe’s name and address from his library card. When Somerset and Mills finally locate Doe’s filthy apartment, they find 2000 notebooks with 250 pages of rambling vulgarities and violence in each book. They find photography processing equipment and photos of victims, including one of a beautiful woman and one of Mills taken by the reporter Mills abused with profanities outside the drug dealer’s pad. Now they know; Doe is the obnoxious reporter. John Doe calls the apartment to talk to Mills; he tells Mills how much he admires the detectives. He says his plan must be sped up now; he doesn’t want to ruin the surprise.

“Murder Four” discovered on Saturday in a sleazy basement “sink of iniquity”: the victim’s sin is lust. In this murder, a perverted john rapes a prostitute to her death by wearing a sawblade device on his penis while he commits the act. John Doe, the perverted serial killer, holds a gun in the john’s mouth so he will complete the act.

In the Second Circle of the Inferno, shades guilty of lust lament and moan as an unending storm blows them around. In the Purgatorio, shades lament their sins in life by purifying themselves by fire, praising “aloud those wives and husbands who were chaste,/ as virtue and as matrimony mandate” (XXV 133-35). Chaucer’s parson contends that the antithesis of lust is chastity. He reminds his audience that Jesus sanctified marriage and performed a miracle by turning water into wine at a wedding. The “sawbiade john”will never recover from “the hellish hurricane which never rests” because he understands (after the act) that his spirit was driven by violence. The murdered prostitute will not ever have the opportunity to give up her profession voluntarily.

“Murder Five” discovered on Sunday morning: the victim’s sin is pride; the word “pride” is written over the bed where police find the corpse–a beautiful woman who counts on her appearance to get ahead in the world, a beautiful woman whose photo was found in Doe’s apartment. John Doe cuts off the woman’s “nose to spite her face” and then leaves poison so she can kill herself. In Dame’s Inferno, those shades suffering from pride retain the same characteristic of arrogance they practiced in life (XIII). In the Purgatorio the shades perform penitence on the fifth ledge by bending down with knees next to their chests while bearing heavy stones on their backs and reciting the Lord’s Prayer (X-XI) Chaucer’s parson contends that the antithesis of pride is humility or meekness; the sinner must come to true knowledge of himself and have humility of heart, of mouth, and of works (515). The no longer beautiful woman chooses to ingest poison over a living the rest of her life without good looks. She is unable to “have humility of heart, of mouth, and of works.”

After completing murders representing five of the seven deadly sins and presenting himself to Somerset and Mills at the police station on Sunday, John Doe turns himself over to police custody.    Furious, Mills says Doe is “pissing in their faces” because he is not finished. Spattered with blood, Doe requests an attorney and then, through the attorney, offers to make a full confession if Mills and Somerset will accompany him to the site of his, yet undiscovered, last two murders. If the detectives refuse, Doe will plead insanity and get off .    Somerset and Mills agree to Doe’s terms, realizing the “public” wouldn’t understand if the police find more bodies after Doe’s arrest. The crime lab reports blood from three separate individuals on Doe’s clothing–his own, the “once beautiful” woman’s and one unidentified person’s. They also understand the court might let Doe go free on an insanity plea.

The self appointed executioner explains how he helped society by eliminating the disgusting fat man, force feeding him until his stomach burst, and then kicking him to insure irreversible injury and death. He continues his diatribe on his reasoning behind the other murders by explaining that he did not execute innocents:

My work is special; you can’t see whole complete act yet–it’s really going to be something–you won’t miss a thing … I was chosen. . . I turn each sin against the sinner.     [Those people were] abominations to society: a lawyer who dedicated his life making     money to lying and keeping murderers and rapists out of prison, a who was so ugly on the     inside she couldn’t bear to go on living if she couldn’t beautiful on the     outside, a     disease spreading whore, a drug dealing pederast. (SEVEN)

Shackled behind a chain link barrier in a police car with Somerset and Mills, on the way to the site of his last revelation, self appointed executioner John Doe lures Mills into an argument, enraging Mills. Executioner Doe tells Mills, “We see a deadly sin on every corner and we tolerate it. Realize detective, I’m here because I want to be. Don’t ask me to pity those people. I don’t pity them anymore than I pity those at Sodom and Gomorrah” (SEVEN).

Pilgrim Mills loses his cool, yelling at Doe, “You’re no messiah … you’re a movie of the week …. you’re a fucking T shirt at best” (SEVEN). When Pilgrim Dante starts on his tour of hell, purgatory, and heaven, he heeds the advice of his mentor Virgil and learns from the sins of shades suffering for committing the seven deadly sins. Pilgrim Dante keeps the image of the sparkling Beatrice in his mind; Dante wants to purify himself and be worthy of her love. Unlike Dante, Pilgrim Mills fails to get the message. Mills’ pride and arrogance keeps him from following mentor Somerset’s advice. Mills takes his wife Tracy for granted and doesn’t consider what life will be like for Tracy in an urban slum. He doesn’t think about Tracy’s career or the problems of raising a family in “hell.” Like other postmodern thinkers, Mills is lost in his own solipsism.

“Murder Six” on Sunday morning before Doe turns himself over to the police: the victim has no sin. This murder is the surprising conclusion Doe has promised to expose to Mills and Somerset. The murderer’s sin is envy. John Doe goes to Detective Mills home, rapes Mills’ wife Tracy, and then decapitates her. In Dante’s Purgatorio the sin of envy is punished on the second terrace where the sinner’s “eyelids are sewn up with iron wires” (XIII). Chaucer’s parson contends that the antithesis of envy is to love oneself and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. John Doe, the envious, doesn’t love anyone and no one loves him. Doe wants a “perfect Beatrice” too. If he can’t have the “perfect Beatrice” then Mills can’t have one either.

Doe planned his seven deadly sins carefully. He paid a delivery man $500 to bring a box containing Tracy Mills’ head to a designated location outside of the city. Mills holds a gun on shackled Doe while Somerset intercepts the delivery.

“Murder Seven” on Saturday evening: the new executioner’s sin is wrath. Full of rage, Detective David Mills loses his cool when he discovers Doe decapitated his only love–“his Beatrice.” Doe tells Mills he coveted Mills’ normal life so he tried to play husband. “She begged for her life and for the baby inside her   . . [looking at Somerset] … oh, he [Mills] didn’t know.” Somerset says, “David if you kill him, he will win.” Mills’ rage grows as he considers the loss of his “Beatrice” and a child he didn’t know was growing in her womb; he pulls the trigger to satisfy his rage. Dante says in the Inferno that the wrathful receive punishment by the muddy river Styx.

In the Purgatorio the sinner atones on the Third Terrace by wandering around in a dark filthy smoke and learning that man’s free will can cause his downfall if he fails to make proper choices. A person must learn to “cool down,” consider consequences, and not allow anger to get in the way of reason. Chaucer’s parson contends that the antithesis of wrath is gentleness, patience, and tolerance. Pilgrim Mills’ hatred is so overpowering he loses all sense of reason and puts himself into a hell on earth, unlike pilgrim Dante who rejects the folly of the seven deadly sins and returns from his tour of hell, purgatory, and heaven to live the remainder of his life searching for the road back to heaven.

In Letter Bomb, Peter Schwenger says, “that stories imitate other stories is the first in a series of variations on the theme of mimesis…. it is not only stories that imitate other stories; so do we” (75). In our postmodern age, overly concerned with the problems of duality, we rely on literary canon to provide the archetypal characters our zombie-like nonparticipatory TV mentality spectator society can understand without putting forth effort. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script uses this duality effectively in the antithesis of the characters of Mills and Somerset and within the mind of John Doe.

The film ends with a comment from Somerset: “Ernest Hemingway once said, The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.  I agree with the second part.”
And so, I suspect, Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, and Milton’s art will continue to pick at our consciences beyond the end of the twentieth century. Evolution is a slow process as is civilizing humans; society needs literature and film to recreate our canonical art, reminding us we still must avoid pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. As we leave the postmodern, post industrial era, we may not need the vulgar language and excessive graphic images of violence in SE7EN to remind us of our responsibilities to society.

© Janice Morris Kollitz 1997

15 responses to “Seven, Aquinas, Chaucer, Dante, and American Culture

  1. This was probably one of my favorite movies to write about. The whole time I was interested on what was happening next and at the end I was in total shock at what the killer did to the officer. It’s understandable why the officer shot him after the killer caused him so much pain.

  2. I haven’t watched this movie yet, but using the seven deadly sins as the basis for the plot is really interesting.

  3. With Dante’s Inferno I believe that the author describes the struggle for man. He also explains that in order for a person not to fall into the dark trap of eternal suffering one must stay virtuous in this life.

  4. I watch this movie, and I really liked it. I found the plot of an individual using ones sins against them very interesting. The guy that was killing (innocent) people was insane. It does not make a difference what one does, it is not up to him to punish that person.

  5. The most important scene of this movie is when the two detectives are having a discussion about apathy in a bar. Detective Sommerset, played by Morgan Freeman, states his stance about how people turn their heads and ignore the consequences of their actions in order to live an easier life: beating a child until it shuts up as opposed to raising it. He said he sympathized with those kind of people, not because he supported child abuse, but because ignorance has become a means of survival today. This scene pulled the whole message of the movie together in my opinion. Each of the cardinal sins is an extreme of what we know to be necessities. Gluttony is an extreme of feeding ourselves, greed is an extreme of prosperity, sloth is an extreme of rest, lust is an extreme of reproduction, pride is an extreme of confidence and the value of self, envy is an extreme of desire, and wrath is an extreme of (in the case of the movie) justice. At a glance these might strike us as a weird realization. Though all seven may not apply to any one person, it is virtually impossible to say that one person is free of these sins. They’re natural occurrences for humans, and because of that we ignore the fact that we are indeed committing these sins every day. However, the murderer makes a point by targeting obvious culprits of these sins in order to clearly get his lesson across to the audience. This movie is an amazing movie and is definitely worth a second watch in order to understand the message behind the movie.

  6. The Bible is one of the worlds most well known books. Some people have changed and derived meanings to suit todays way of life, yet some hold fast to the Bibles teachings just as the antagonist in this film does. It is very likely that one of the victims in the film cold have been me its hard to imagine someone tacking action like this.

  7. This movie was breath taking. A person should have strong heart in order to committee this kind of crime.

  8. This movie was a complete brain twister. it had me thinking the whole time and i couldnt believe how it ended.

  9. I have not yet watched this film, but can definitely agree that this Is a breath taking movie! The seven sins are a different meaning to each death. The two men are trying to figure out who is the killer and why is he doing such cruelty to these people that have been targeted.

  10. I got the chance to watch this movie and I just could not believe the ending. I got a little twisted in the end so I had to watch it twice but I truely enjoyed watching it.

  11. I watched this move so long ago when I was about ten years old back in my native country. Yeah, back in those days I knew less English than I know now (still struggling though), and I watched it in English language with no subtitles.

  12. This film seems very interesting. It seems to have an underlying theme of sin.

  13. I have not yet seen this film, but by seeing the clip it seems to be intersting because it deals with murders and how the seven deadly sins are involved.

  14. great great film, if you don’t enjoy this film than i don’t know what to tell you, one word “gripping”.

  15. Se7en was a great film! Keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. I really loved the refference to Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas. Dante is a personal favorite figure of mine and The Divine Comedy marked a very large turning point in history. Not only did it solidify the Italian language it gave a view into a previously unimaginable place of pain and suffering that no one dare mention. I enjoyed the quote from St. Thomas Aquinas about reason, knowledge, and faith. I have never heard that before and it really struck a chord.

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