Dante used each prosimetrum as a means for combining poems written over periods of roughly ten years - La Vita Nuova contains his works from before 1283 to roughly 1293, whereas the Convivio contains his works from 1294 until the time of Divine Comedy.
Dante's commentaries explain each poem, placing them within the context of his life. The poems present a frame story, not apparent from the sonnets themselves, recounting Dante's love of Beatrice from his first sight of her (when he was nine and she eight) all the way to his mourning after her death, and his determination to write of her "that which has never been written of any woman".
Each separate section of commentary further refines Dante's concept of romantic love as the initial step in a spiritual development that results in the capacity for divine love (see courtly love). Dante's unusual approach to his piece — drawing upon personal events and experience, addressing the readers, and writing in Italian rather than Latin — marked a turning point in European poetry, when many writers abandoned highly stylized forms of writing for a simpler style.
Though the result is a landmark in the development of emotional autobiography (the most important advance since Saint Augustine's Confessions in the 5th century), like all medieval literature it is far removed from the modern autobiographical impulse. Moderns think that their own personalities are interesting, their actions are interesting and their acquaintances are interesting. However, Dante and his audience were interested in the emotions of courtly love and how they develop, how they are expressed in verse, how they reveal the permanent intellectual truths of the divinely created world and how love can confer blessing on the soul and bring it closer to God.
The names of the people in the poem, including Beatrice herself, are employed without use of surnames or any details that would assist readers to identify them among the many people of Florence. Only the name "Beatrice" is used, because that was both her actual name and her symbolic name as the conferrer of blessing. Ultimately the names and people work as metaphors.
In chapter XXIV, "I Felt My Heart Awaken" ("Io mi senti' svegliar dentro a lo core", also translated as "I Felt a Loving Spirit Suddenly"), Dante accounts a meeting with Love, who asks the poet do his best to honor him.
In this verse, Love identifies Vanna, who was the beloved of fellow poet and friend Guido Cavalcanti, as Primavera (Springtime), while Beatrice's name "is Love". The narrative part of the chapter reveals that Primavera is analogous to "prima verrà" (she will come first), or "prima vera" (first truth). (Of note: the 13th century mention in La Vita Nuova of the name Vanna is the first in recorded history.)
Dante does not name himself in La Vita Nuova. He refers to Guido Cavalcanti as "the first of my friends", to his own sister as "a young and noble lady... who was related to me by the closest consanguinity", to Beatrice's brother similarly as one who "was so linked in consanguinity to the glorious lady that no-one was closer to her". The reader is invited into the very emotional turmoil and lyrical struggle of the unnamed author's own mind and all the surrounding people in his story are seen in their relations to that mind's quest of encountering Love.
La Vita Nuova is essential for understanding the context of his other works — principally La Commedia.
In the movie Hannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Inspector Pazzi see an outdoor opera in Florence based on Dante's La Vita Nuova, called Vide Cor Meum. This was especially composed for the movie. Specifically it is based on the sonnet "A ciascun'alma presa", in chapter 3 of La Vita Nuova.