The Divine Comedy
The Analysis of Meeting Lucifer Scene
One might say that Dante’s meeting with Lucifer is an anti-climax because of the contrast between it and the trials he has faced throughout the rest of Hell. Having been shut out of the city of Dis and only allowed in through the intervention of a heavenly messenger, carried into the Maleborge by Geryon himself, manipulated and later pursued by the Rotklors gang of demons, and finally lowered into the Ninth Circle by the giant Antaeus, Dante’s adventure has been action-packed and dangerous throughout, becoming increasingly more so as he descends further. Therefore, although he does very little to describe Lucifer or to predict what their encounter will be like throughout the Inferno, it is easy to get the impression that there will be a showdown or a tense encounter of some sort, as it would be a fitting end to the Cantica. In fact, by both avoiding a premature description of Lucifer (to the extent that is almost a shock when Virgil finally announces ‘Ecco Dite…ed ecci il loco/ove convien che di fortezza t’armi’ (Now see! Great Dis! Now see the place where you will need to put on all your strength (34.20-21))) and placing him in the deepest, least accessible region of Hell, Dante cloaks him in mystery and thereby creates a good deal of anticipation and suspense, which Lucifer’s passive nature fails to satisfy; the fact that Dante is simply able to climb up his fur and leave without resistance is a disappointment to any who would have expected some form of showdown or finale with Lucifer. Therefore, Dante’s encounter with Lucifer initially seems to be an anti-climax because of its brevity, lack of intensity and the ease through which Dante leaves Hell at what one would imagine to be the final trial, having made such a precarious descent.
However, Dante’s meeting with Lucifer is extremely poignant because it acts as the culmination of the image of evil that Dante has painted throughout the Inferno. Dante’s evil is not a powerful force that is alluring through its potential to seemingly augment human lives at the cost of morality (an impression which we easily may receive from both the context of most modern depictions and older texts, including the Bible itself (‘8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”’ – Matthew 4.8-9)), but rather a void of goodness, productivity and creativity that is tempting through how easy a path it is to turn to. Whilst he does examine wicked deeds themselves in no small detail, Dante’s underlying focus is the detrimental effect that these deeds have on human potential. As Dante says through the mouthpiece of Brunetto Latini, ‘ed è ragion, ché tra li lazzi sorbi/si disconvien fruttare al dolce fico’ (That much is logical: no luscious fig can rightly thrive where small, sour sorbus grows. (15.65-66)); evil is not just another word for ‘malicious occurrences’, it is a force that restricts human capacity for goodness. Lucifer is devoid of all goodness and potential, so his encounter with Dante is by no means underwhelming because Lucifer is the definition of evil as Dante sees it – scorned by God and empty of all good things.
This approach adds further poignancy to the words on the door in Canto 3 through which Dante and Virgil enter Hell – ‘Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate’ (surrender every hope you have as you enter (3.9)) – since it becomes clear that this instruction refers not only to the despair and inescapability of Hell, which makes hope futile (and therefore a torment), but also to the fact that evil is so devoid of constructive feelings that there is literally no place for hope, only resignation; Satan does not behave as though he has any aspirations of salvation or escape, but does nothing but mindlessly flap his wings to keep the Ninth Circle of Hell frozen and chew on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.
In order to understand Canto 34 as a climax, one must first understand Dante and his mission – Dante is not a hero, but only a narrator; it is easy to get the impression that he is on some form of valiant quest but he is actually imagining himself as a pilgrim making his way through Hell and recording what he sees (the two are quite firmly differentiated when Virgil instructs Dante to hide behind a rock while negotiates with the Rotklors gang – and instruction that Dante willingly obeys due to his fear (‘Accio che non si paia/che tu si sia…giu t’acquatta/dopo uno scheggio, ch’alcun schermo t’aia (Seem not to be here, just hunker down behind a spur of roc. It may still offer you some place to hide (21.58-60))). The difference between Inferno as a quest and Inferno as a journey is that the quest demands a finale or showdown, whereas the journey is simply a purposeful, unpretentious occurrence. Therefore, Dante’s meeting with Lucifer can easily be viewed as an anti-climax if one perceives it as the conclusion of Dante’s quest through Hell since it is not an epic finale and Lucifer is not portrayed as an arch-villain. However, since this perception is invalid due to the falsity of the quest Inferno, so that there is no real reason why Canto 34 could be seen as an anti-climax. In fact, from the perspective of Dante the pilgrim, it is poignant to the extent that it could easily be considered a climax; the Catholic Church defines Hell not primarily as a place of evil, but as a place for those abandoned by God’s grace. Out of all the characters Dante encounters in Hell, Lucifer is the starkest example of a being that has been completely forsaken by God, for the simple reason that he completely lacks purpose. Every single other denizen of Hell that Dante encounters, regardless of how severely damned they are, retains a degree of purpose, from the insolent defiance of Vanni Fucci (‘Togli Dio, ch’a te le squadro!’ (Take that! I’m aiming, God, at you! (24.3)) right up to Ugolino in Circle 9, who still has the determination and resolve to gnaw on the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri ‘denti/che furo a l’osso, come d’un can, forti’ (his teeth, like any dog’s teeth, strong against the bone (33.77-78)) despite the fact that he is frozen in ice.
However, Lucifer has no true purpose (his endless flapping and chewing are mindless functions) and, despite the fact that he is neither remarked on as being unintelligent or illogical (he is, in fact, sentient enough to weep (‘Con sei occhi piangea’ (he wept from all six eyes (34.53))), this reduces him to a meaningless husk. He is not a beast – the hideous aesthetic is arbitrary and most likely used to be in keeping with the Church’s usual demonic imagery, and therefore to ensure that Dante’s Lucifer is easy to identify – or an antagonist in an actively malicious sense, but rather a terrible and terrifying example of what evil truly means and what it can do to a person – one of the most important lines in the whole poem is ‘S’ell fu si bel com’ elli è ora brutto…ben dee da lui procedure ogne lutto.’ (If, once, he was as lovely as now vile…then truly grief must all proceed from him (34.34-36)), since it conveys not only Lucifer’s current, deplorable state, but also the amount of potential and greatness that evil and God’s total withdrawal of grace and salvation reduced him to. In this way, Dante’s encounter with Lucifer is not only starkly poignant, but also a reflection of his disgust at Florence (and, indeed, Italy) for also squandering potential – the lines ‘La gente nuova e i subiti guadagni/orgoglio e dismisura han generata,/Fiorenza, in te, sic he tu gia ten piagni’ (That race of newly rich, and rapid gains, these seeds, Fiorenza, bring to flower in you excess and pride. And you already weep for that (16. 73-75)) are just as meaningful here as they are in Canto 16.
The Concept of Contrapasso and its representation
Inferno narrates Dante’s journey through Hell which is guided by the Roman poet Virgil. During their travels through each of the nine circles of Hell, Dante and Virgil witness contrapasso, or the law which ensures that each sinner is punished with a sentence that suits their offense’s severity according to Medieval expectations. Some punishments that Virgil and Dante observe logically fit the corresponding crimes. Other punishments, however, are more symbolic and obscure. Although the nature of the sins may be related, each punishment is tailored to torture each sinner in a manner that reflects how the sins affected others, therefore allowing the punishments to vary greatly. Throughout their journey, Dante and Virgil observe and converse with the sinners to explore the relationship between sin itself and its corresponding contrapasso.
When Dante and Virgil arrive in the third circle of Hell, it is raining, as this is the always the weather that accompanies the punishment of the gluttons. Dante describes the rain as “eternal, cursed, cold, and heavy rain; its rule and quality never change” (6.7-9). The rainwater is filthy and large hailstones and snow also fall from the sky. The “earth stinks that receives them” (6.11-12). In these few short lines, Dante is able to convey the disgusting atmosphere of this circle to emphasize the idea of the misery of Hell. A monstrous dog-like beast with three heads named Cerberus guards the gluttons, who howl like dogs along with the creature. When Cerberus spots Virgil and Dante, he opened his mouth and showed his fangs. Virgil “opened his hands, took up earth, and with both fists full threw it into those ravenous pipes” (6.25-27). The beast devours the mud and then grows quiet, symbolizing that he himself is a glutton. Contrapasso and retribution are clearly evident as the sinners are tormented by this beast who reflects their earthly behaviors. The vile slush symbolizes the personal degradation of someone who overindulges in food, drink, or other worldly pleasures. The inability to see others lying nearby represents the gluttons’ selfishness and coldness. These souls that overindulged in food, drink, and other kinds of addiction are eternally tortured for doing so, and their punishment directly reflects and satirizes these specific earthly faults.
Virgil and Dante enter the sixth bolgia of the eighth circle of Hell which punishes those who committed Fraud. They witness the hypocrites who are “painted people who were walking with very slow steps, weeping and, by their expressions, weary and defeated” (23.58-60). The hypocrites are wearing hooded robes that resemble those of the monks. However, these robes are “dazzlingly gilded, but within they are all of lead, so heavy that the ones Frederick put on people might have been of straw” (23.64-66). It is noted that Dante’s interpretation of hypocrisy comes from Uguccione of Pisa’s Magnae derivationes which attributes the etymology of “hypocrisy” to “hypo,” meaning below, and “crisis,” meaning gold (64-65nn). Analogous to the gilded cloaks, in their lives, the sinners appeared to be good externally. Yet in reality, they contained evil within. The hypocrites listlessly walk along wearing the heavy, gilded lead cloaks, representing the factiousness behind the appearance of their actions. This falsity weighs them down and makes spiritual progress impossible for them. The hypocrites’ contrapasso is appropriate for the sin itself as the sinners are now tortured and weighed down by a physical representation of their manipulation of others during life.
In this bolgia, Virgil and Dante meet Catalano and Loderingo who are Jolly Friars from Bologna. The Jolly Friars were a religious order that quickly achieved a reputation for corruption and self-interest (103n). Before Dante can begin a conversation with Friars, he spots a man who is crucified to the ground with three stakes. Catalano tells Dante “‘That one staked there at whom you are looking counseled the Pharisees that is was expedient to put one man to death for the people. He is stretched naked out across the road, as you see, so that whoever passes, he must feel his weight first” (23.115-119). This man is Caiaphas who was the high priest of the Sanhedrin. He urged the crucifixion of Jesus in order to silence Jesus’ criticisms of the Sanhedrin’s hypocrisy, who covered their self-interest with a pretense of public concern (115-123nn). Caiaphas is forced to feel the weight of the hypocrisy of others as the other hypocrites literally walk over him. This is also an allegory that parallels Christ on the cross who bore the weight of all men’s sins (118-120nn). Though they are in the same bolgia, the sinners’ punishments clearly vary greatly. The location which the sinners are sent to represents the type of crime committed, as both the cloaked hypocrites and Caiaphas and his followers all committed fraud, yet the actual punishment depends on the specific circumstances and severity of that crime. Caiaphas suffers the eternal punishment that is equivalent to the suffering he caused when he was alive, demonstrating a contrapasso that Caiaphas is entirely worthy of.
Virgil and Dante continue to the seventh bolgia of the eighth circle, which punishes thieves. The atmosphere of each bolgia is becoming increasingly more disturbing, as serpents and terrifying beasts roam among the sinners. Virgil and Dante watch Vanni Fucci and Cacus the centaur be tortured by these creatures. But the true horror of this circle appears when a sinner calls out Cianfa’s name. Cianfa, a serpent with six feet attacks the man who called him and “wrapped around his waist, with its forefeet it seized his arms; then it pierced both his cheeks with his fangs” and continued to wrap around Agnel like a tree (25.52-54). The part of this punishment that reflects the sin of thievery is when their two heads melt together and their limbs grow and twist together. The thieves’ punishment is revealed gradually. As the thieves once stole other’s people’s possessions, the sinners are now subject to theft. And since they are in Hell, their identities are their most valued possessions. Agnel’s identity is diminished by his transformation with Cianfa. Dante and Virgil watch another gruesome transformation that ultimately leaves the man a snake while the creature becomes a man. The newly created man can now speak, saying “‘I want Buoso to run, as I have, on all sixes along his path’” (25.140-141). He takes delight in Agnel’s suffering. The contrapassos that the sinners in this bolgia suffer is essentially identical to their earthly wrongdoing. These gruesome punishments allow the sinners to be victims of thievery, losing their identities and mortal forms, which are all they have left.
Throughout their journey through Hell, it becomes clear that each sinner’s contrapasso has the same effect on them as their sins had on others when they were alive. These punishments vary greatly, yet they are all appropriate to the sin itself. And, there is multi-dimensional symbolism present in each sin’s contrapasso. The significance of the different punishments signifies that each circle of Hell and bolgia houses sinners of a specific crime, yet each sinner’s contrapasso exquisitely fits the circumstances and severity of the wrongdoing. The sinners in each of these three examples is tortured to a state that is physically unbearable, exhibiting that each punishment is excruciating and tailored to deliver the retribution that the sinners are worthy of.
Understanding the Difference Between Death and Dying
The difference between death and dying can often seem minute. The dying are merely those on the way to death. Yet the intrinsic difference between the process of dying and the moment of death is one of great literary obsession, in particular in Dante’s The Inferno. Robert Pinsky’s otherwise transcendent translation makes a provocative error in translating the following line:
Overwhelmed me, and I felt myself go slack:
Swooning as in death, I fell like a dying body.
When in reality, the original Italian reads “as a dead body.” This moment of frailty, realized after the interaction with the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, is entirely dependent on the word choice. If Dante falls like a “dead” body, then the lovers have made him realize his own mortality. By changing the word to “dying,” Pinsky implies that Dante is less aware of his own death.
Dante realizes that he is falling like a dead body, meaning that he is not exactly one. One cannot fall like oneself, like one’s state of being. The simile is in fact a state of removal; it suggests that Dante is so unlike a dead body that to compare the two makes for a memorable analogy. Rather, to point out that he falls almost as though he is dead only points out that he is in a similar but different state, living. And what are the living but those in the process of dying? All life is but a forestalling of death, and if death is the inevitable event then dying is the inevitable process leading up to it. To be living (and thus to be dying) is to have a fixed trajectory, to assume that death is waiting in a span of an indeterminate amount of years. Virgil promises the trajectory to Dante early, and his assent is assured, just as his death is assured by his existence as a human being. To realize that he is dying is to assert the trajectory. That he will eventually become one of the dead he meets (even if he will attain eternal providence) is overwhelming to Dante (a poet convinced that his work will outlast so many others), and partly the reason for his fit of swooning.
When Dante falls “like” a dead body, he is forced to realize that he is not dead yet, which means that his death is still oncoming. His human mortality becomes more evident, and the text hammers in this realization. In the original Italian, the repeated words “morisse” and “morto” are so linguistically similar as to merely reinforce the realization that death is approaching, and thus that Dante is dying. By contrast, to say like “dying” implies that Dante is not dying, that his trajectory is still mutable, and that Dante is less aware of his path: be it ascent or near-Biblical fall.
The key difference between death and dying is one of motion, too, and reinforces Dante’s awareness of mortality. To be dead is to be in stasis; even the shades that appear to be moving lack the ability to change their position. Paolo and Francesca are merely blown about in an eternal circle, able only to drift towards the human and Dante, who by contrast follows a fixed path of ascent. Dante chooses to emphasize how their lack of movement, their being dead, only serves to emphasize that he is not dead but dying. Dante “fell,” collapsed in “swooning.” He has the capability to move, but only in one direction: descent, much like the diminishment of dying. Dante must descend into Hell to become whole, much as he must go through the process of dying to achieve death and thus (as he is promised) salvation. The lovers remind Dante that he must fall, but fall like the “dead.” He will later ascend in contrast to these dead, but the importance of his “fall” cannot be ignored. By suggesting that Dante falls like a “dying” body, Pinsky loses this awareness of the descent, because, as previously mentioned, to fall “like” dying to make clear that one is not dying, and thus unable to make the descent that Dante goes through.
We cannot forget that it is the presence of the lovers who bring out this realization, this moment of sublime cognizance of mortality. And the circle where Dante sits is not one of a sin of money or false words, but of the lustful, which ultimately conceptualizes the fact that Dante’s realization of his mortality occurs because of lust, and lovers, and eroticism. In fact, the distinction between death and dying is fundamentally one of eroticism. Death is inherently tinged with erotic overtures, ever since Dante’s beloved Greeks surmised that excessive sexual excretion of bodily fluids was the path to death, and the French invested with the phrase “la petite mort,” meaning “the little death” with symbolism of the orgasm. Dante “felt [himself] go slack,” a phrase that cannot help but conjure up the post-coital fatigue. Death is a societal fetish, in particular in Dante’s time, when the promise of plague and mortality was everywhere. The only response to this was to fetishize, to make death an object of sexual awareness. Medieval and renaissance depictions of death, in particular those connected with a Biblical representation, are often erotic in an almost inadvertent way: from Van Dyck’s 1459 depiction of St. Sebastian to the medieval danse macabre, with its emphasis on the body of death. Dante’s erotic death only further brings out his awareness of mortality, for lust is a sin of the body, which must inevitably be silenced and its urges ceased.
Thus for Dante to fall “like a dead body” he is falling with an erotic connotation. He is falling “like” one after the consummation of passion, which despite (due to the simile) distancing him from the actual process of orgasm, connotes to the reader an eroticism that is not awoken by Pinsky’s translation merely through the use of the word “dead.” This connection binds him to the openly erotic and lust-driven lovers; in fact it is the lovers who give Dante a greater self-realization. But “dying” is a state of being supremely un-eroticized. As Sontag’s observed in On Illness and Metaphor, dying is a state of removal, of descent. Thus it is the antithesis of Dante’s ascent towards heaven and the inevitably eroticized Beatrice. Dying is unerotic because it shows the inevitable and tragic fate of man: his mortality. Dying cannot be eroticized because it is such a process, a lingering and depressing malady. Death, by contrast, is a whole, a completed act. Dante’s shades look complete; they resemble human beings with human bodies, and thus have more erotic qualities. To fetishize death is somehow easier in Western society than to do the same for dying, for death is a momentary act, closer to the consummation of lust than dying. Dying is, in its own way, to death what the pursuit is to the orgasm. The pursuit and dying can easily be idealized but never sexualized, and for Dante it is the latent eroticism of death that emerges in this passage.
Be it a question of Biblical descent or nascent eroticism, one cannot deny the power of the body for Dante. Seeing the lovers awakens in him a realization, a moment of overwhelming mortality in the face of eternity. Ultimately, The Inferno cannot be undermined by this peculiar choice in translation, but rather more questions can only arise.
The Construction and Development of the Character through Inferno
Literature has many essential elements like theme, plot, structure, and character development. But in The Inferno by Dante there is said to be little to no character development. So the question must be asked: is character development actually necessary for the development of a storyline in major literary works? Or is the lack of character development just a result of the episodic structure throughout Dante’s epic Renaissance poem? The entire composition focuses on Dante’s exploration of the afterlife; the departed are condemned to retain all of the features that they possessed on Earth, and many of these features remain remarkably static.
The Inferno centers on two main characters, Dante himself, and Virgil, his guide through the underworld. The narration of the book follows Dante and Virgil’s physical journey in life and through the underworld rather than their psychological dynamics from the journey. By having the main focus on their journey throughout the underworld puts more emphasize on the end of their voyage rather than their development throughout the journey, therefore minimizing the effect that character development would have on the audience.
Another aspect in the novel that is responsible for the lack of character development is the fact that many of the supporting and temporary characters that are introduced are quickly exited and never brought back again. Characters such as Attila, Alexander the Great, and Arachne appear in specific cantos depending on their sins and circle, tell their story to Dante, and then disappear for the rest of the poem. For example, Alexander the Great is quickly introduced and then not talked of again, “Here’s Alexander, and he who held Sicily under for many a sad year, fierce Dionysius” (XII. 100-101). The episodic structure and abruptness of character’s function make character development difficult and even impossible for the poem’s many layers.
It is not only the supporting characters who lack character development; indeed, Virgil and Dante seemed to barely experience development as well. Virgil rarely showed new behaviors throughout the novel, such as when he reprimands Dante for continually delaying their journey through the underworld; “My master: ‘Stare a little longer,’ he said, ‘And I will quarrel with you!’ When I heard him speaking to me in anger as he had” (XXX.133-135). Virgil’s lack of change through the novel may be a result of his past experiences or the new situations he is involved in with Dante.
Dante, the protagonist, is the only character in the poem that seems to experience character development in the slightest. His development seems to follow a cycle: he goes from pitying the sinners to judging and feeling above them. Throughout the novel Dante would say things like “Up above Malebolge’s last cloister now where we could see its lay-brothers under us, their strange laments beset me, each an arrow whose shaft was barbed with pity—and at this, I lifted up my hands and blocked my ears” (XXIX.43-57). At this point Dante could not deal with the sinners and watching them that he is forced to cover his ears and look away. This sense of character development is perhaps just Dante’s moral and psychological recognition that sin should be despised and God’s ultimate powers should be worshiped. There is still question if this is character development or not. Dante seems to lose his compassion at various times but also shows hatred and fear when meeting the sinners in the final cantos describing it as “If I had harsh and grating rhymes, to befit that melancholy hole which is the place all the other rocks converge and thrust their weight, then I could more completely press the juice from my conception. But since I lack such lines, I feel afraid as I come to speak of this:” (XXXII.1-6). Dante’s disgust could’ve been cause by the increasing vileness of their sins and punishments rather than to his moral development from the beginning of his journey.
Based on these specific examples throughout the novel it is difficult to decide if there is a strong presence of character development or not. The Inferno lacks character development but makes up for it in imagery and theme. Yet on the basis of Dante’s work, character development does not seem to be a literary essential in early modern literature and certainly not in this specific narrative. Although it lacks intricate psychological development in most characters, it is still a powerful novel that addresses potent moral and existential themes during Dante and Virgil’s journey through the underworld.
Regaining Independence and Heroism in Canto 17
While Dante is supported, both physically and mentally, by his guide Virgil throughout Canto 17, he demonstrates his increasing independence and understanding via his analysis of the events he faces. Dante is required to call on the spiritual and mental understanding he gains in this canto to overcome the challenges that hamper him in later cantos. In fact, even translations of the Inferno that differ in significant ways are in concordance on these aspects of Dante’s evolution as a protagonist.
In preparation for the journey to the eighth circle, Dante and his reliable guide, Virgil, survey “the beast with the pointed tail, that passes through mountains and pierces walls and armor” that will bring them into the lower realms of Hell (Inf. 17.1-2). Dante takes a moment to examine the mythological monster whose “face was that of a just man… and the rest was that of a serpent” (Inf. 17.10-11). Later, Virgil reveals his name to be Geryon. Before Virgil commands the beast to act as their vessel, he instructs Dante to “carry away full experiences of this subcircle” by seeing the last of the sinners in the seventh circle. (Inf. 17.37-38). The shades whom Virgil refers to are usurers who are condemned to stare at the “bag of special color, with a special emblem” that hangs from their necks. After briefly speaking with them, Dante returns to Virgil, and together they mount Geryon starting their decent into the eighth circle. On the flight down, Dante observes “the great evils that come closer on every side” (Inf. 17.125-126). Once they dismount, Geryon briskly disappears.
While Dante’s interactions with Geryon are not independent from Virgil, his analysis is thus showing his progression towards independent thought. Dante uses Geryon to personify the traits of fraud since “fraud makes all physical barriers and defenses (mountains, walls, and armor) useless” (Martinez and Durling 268). He makes note of the physical appearance that contributes to Geryon’s “filthy image of fraud” by comparing the beast to German skiffs “positioned to wage war” and with additional details describing his tail as a “poisoned fork that armed its tip like a scorpion’s” (Inf. 17.7, 20-22, 26-27). Both of these similes highlight the juxtaposition between Dante’s use of “kind” describing Geryon’s upper half and the brutality of what follows beneath the rest of the “wicked beast’s” torso (Inf. 17.23). From this interaction, Dante bolsters his ability to discern interior deceit from the superficial exterior that often glosses over fraudulent acts and sinners. Later, Dante relies on his ability to see through fraud’s facade while exposing Ulysses in Canto 26.
When Dante approaches the usurers, he walks “all alone” (Inf. 17.44). Virgil encourages Dante’s exploration through self-learning which illustrates Dante’s acquired autonomy. Although Dante’s time spent with the sinners is concise, his descriptions are not. As he describes, the usurers continue to uselessly hope that their money and family stature will grant them immortality through the legacy they left on Earth (Inf. 17. 55-56). However, as Dante’s analysis implies, ignorance besieges these shades for true immortality is granted through the divine power not through the power of one’s wallet.
Although his independence is growing, Dante still depends on Virgil in daunting situations. Turning back towards his guide, Dante is told to “be strong and bold” as they descend into the eighth circle (Inf. 17.80-81). Dante later adapts this phrase. Fighting off the exhaustion he faces in Canto 24, Dante claims, “I am strong and bold” emphasizing his growth as an individual and the necessity to continue pushing forward despite adversity (Inf. 24.59-60). While Dante is unable to verbally communicate his fears within Canto 17, Virgil understands Dante’s unspoken emotions and “clasps and braces [Dante] with his arms” (Inf. 17.95-96). During departure, Virgil directs the beast to be cautious and “consider the new weight [he] carries” referencing that, unlike the shades who reside in hell, Dante is living and has a physical mass (Inf. 17.98-99). While this quality adds another physical layer of separation between him and those who surround him, it metaphorically highlights Dante’s ability, with Virgil’s guidance, to move and shape the environment around him molding the path that leads towards salvation.
Before safely landing, Dante depicts his fear using two allusions to Phaethon and Icarus.
“I believe there was no greater fear when Phaethon abandoned the reins, so that the sky was scorched, as still appears, nor when the wretched Icarus felt his loins unfeathering because of the heated wax, as his father shouted to him, ‘You’re on a bad course!’” (Durling Inf. 17.106-111).
The theme of overreaching is found within both of these allusions. In the first one, Phaethon solicits his father, Helios, to permit him to steer the chariot of the sun “as proof of his divine origin” (Martinez and Durling 273). Consequently, Phaethon loses the reins after the horses are frightened by the constellation Scorpion, similar in nature to the beast Geryon on which Dante rides, and streaks the sky with fire. In the latter allusion, Icarus flies too close to the sun melting the wax that bonds his wings together thus plummeting to his death. Both of these stories portray men who thought their capabilities were greater than what could be supported by their skill. Unlike the wretched individuals in these allusion, Dante knows his limits are bound by the will of God, and thus he will successfully finish his journey.
Looking at another translation of this passage by the poet Ciardi shows that there are slight nuances in translated word choice that steer the passage.
“I think there was no greater fear the day Phaethon let loose the reins and burned the sky along the great scar of the Milky Way, nor when Icarus, too close to the sun’s track felt the wax melt, unfeathering his loins, and heard his father cry, ‘Turn back! Turn back!’” (Ciardi, Inf. 17.106-111).
The Durling translation uses the word “believes” compared to the Ciardi translation which uses “think”. The act of believing implies a more spiritual understanding rather than simply thinking which can be interpreted in a secular fashion. Dante believing there “was no greater fear” ties into his belief that God will carry him through. Likewise, Durling’s use of “abandoned” creates the image of Phaethon actively leaving his position because he did not have the willpower and capability to overcome fear. Dante, on the other hand, has the mindset and resources, albeit he is scared, to complete the divine task set before him. Ciardi’s use of “loose” is more passive and does not as strongly critique Phaethon’s loss of control.
One other word choice to note is Ciardi’s use of “the great scar of the Milky Way” compared to Durling’s use of “the sky was scorched”. The former illustrates the vastness of the aftermath which the latter does not achieve. The result of Phaethon’s mistakes stretches deep, injuring the cosmos; however, Dante’s journey will achieve the opposite affect by illuminating the world with the divine power. In terms of writing styles, the Durling translation focuses on intention and personal action while the Ciardi translation highlights the overall consequences. Both translations, however, create juxtaposition between the failed heroes mentioned, and the successful protagonist Dante is and will become.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Translated by Robert Durling, Notes by Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Ciardi, John. “Full text of ‘The inferno’”. Archive.org, https://archive.org/stream/inferno00dant_2/inferno00dant_2_djvu.txt, Accessed 22 September 2017.
Compassion, Fear and Pity in the Inferno
In the Inferno, Dante responds to the sinners’ torments with fear and compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin root meaning “to suffer with” and Dante often engages in the sinners’ suffering. He cries for the magicians in Canto XX, lamenting that, “tears, down from the [sinner’s] eyes, / bathed the buttocks, running down the cleft. / Of course I wept” (XX, 23-25). His pity for the suicidal renders him speechless as he says, “I cannot [speak], so much pity takes my heart” (XIII, 84). Dante deeply empathizes with Francesca and Paolo’s love story writing, “while one spirit [Francesca] said these words to me, / the other [Paolo] wept, so that – because of pity – / I fainted, as if I had met my death” (V, 139-41). In Dante’s reactions to the sinners’ plights, we observe him literally feel and participate in their pain. By pitying the suffering, Dante forgets that the sinner’s punishment is self-procured. His compassion seems to question the morality of God’s judgment.
Canto II opens with Dante remembering, “I myself / alone prepared to undergo the battle / both of the journey and of the pity” (II, 3-5). This introduction isolates pity as a complex emotion that Dante will unpack on his pilgrimage through hell. In fact, pity is the reason Dante is able to experience hell while still alive. When Virgil loses the true path and finds himself lost in the dark woods, Beatrice (Dante’s former love) pities him and asks Virgil to guide him through the underworld. Virgil recalls that after requesting his service, “she [Beatrice] turned aside her gleaming, tearful eyes” (II, 116). Just as Beatrice’s pity elicits an emotional response, Dante begins the Inferno allowing compassion to confuse his emotions.
Dante’s compassion becomes especially problematic in Canto XV when he recognizes Brunetto Latino, a fellow Florentine. Eager to converse with the sinner, Dante writes “I walked with head bent low / as does a man who goes in reverence” (XV, 43-44). This gesture of respect signals a shift in Dante’s moral compass. Contrary to religious doctrine, he seems to admire or revere a sodomite. Dante proceeds to challenge God’s punishment for Brunetto declaring, “If my desire were answered totally, / you’d still be / among, not banished from, humanity” (XV, 79-81). Dante is quick to express pity without acknowledging the nature of Brunetto’s sin.
Conversely, Virgil displays restrained pity when Dante worries that his face is flushed with fear. Virgil explains his pale complexion by justifying that, “The anguish of the people / whose place is here below, has touched my face / with the compassion you mistake for fear” (IV, 19-21). Virgil pities the classical poets and scholars condemned to an eternity of Limbo. However, Virgil’s speech goes on to reveal that, unlike Dante, his compassion is measured. He acknowledges that pity is inferior to faith saying, “They [the poets] did not worship God in fitting ways” (IV, 38). Virgil represents human reason and endorses God’s justice. Later in the poem, Dante’s tears for the Eighth Circle sinners are met with admonishment. Virgil reprimands him saying, “Are you as foolish as the rest? / Here pity only lives when it is dead: / for who can be more impious than he / who links God’s judgment to passivity?”(XX, 27-30) Virgil is encouraging Dante to abhor sin and not pity the justice meted out to sinners.
The deeper Dante proceeds into hell, the less the agonies of the damned affect him. In Canto XXXII a sinner refuses to identify himself and Dante threatens him warning, “You’ll have to name yourself to me or else / you won’t have even one hair left up there” (XXXII, 98-99). The sinner remains obstinate and Dante carries through with the threat remembering that “I had plucked from him more than one tuft / while he was barking and his eyes stared down” (XXXII, 104-105). This is a dramatic contrast to the Dante of earlier Cantos. We see him inflicting pain rather than responding to a sinner’s suffering. In this scenario Dante exerts a God-like authority, recognizing the sinner as a Florentine traitor and punishing his malicious deeds. This encounter marks a moral transformation within Dante’s character. He is seen not only condoning, but exercising the harsh retribution practices consistent with God’s justice.
Dante’s responses seem to conjoin fear and compassion with personal sin. His experiences in hell use God’s judgment as a basis for his own salvation. There is an association between those suffering and Dante’s moral conduct. In Canto V he reacts to Francesca and Paolo’s tragedy saying, “because of pity – / I fainted as if I had met my death” (V, 140-141). Equating his faint with death implies that Dante pities the lovers because he fears a common fate. He is tormented by the possibility of committing sin and burning in hell for eternity. As a result of this trepidation, Dante initially expresses forgiveness toward sinners. He remarks, “Pity / seized me, and I was like a man astray” (V, 71-72). In this phrase, Dante recognizes pity has obscured his judgment, yet it is not until the end of the poem that he learns to reconcile his sympathies with the harsh violence of God’s justice.
Dante’s spiritual journey is underscored by an innate desire for redemption and religious understanding. Overall, he journeys through hell to understand God’s moral judgment and develop a stronger moral compass of his own. His transformation from pitiful observer to punitive authoritarian, is important because he must achieve a stringent moral standard before journeying to heaven. The Inferno is only the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Purgatoria and Paradiso, he continues the journey, developing a stronger sense of sin and redemption; pity and compassion.
The Multidimensional Allegories of Inferno
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here” reads the Gates of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno. After awakening at the bottom of a hill, Dante learns that he must descend through Hell, the Inferno, to reach Paradise. Virgil appears to Dante as his guide after Dante’s vain attempt to climb the hill. The duo begins their plunge through the underworld and it quickly becomes apparent that Dante is the only living soul in Hell. Despite this fact, the two continue their journey through the Inferno, providing the reader with an in depth tour to the Dantean design of Hell. As the two travel through the different levels of Hell, Virgil introduces Dante to the sinners and punishments in each circle. The reader witnesses the emotional ups and downs as Dante empathizes with the sinners and eventually becomes callous to their suffering. The Inferno is the most popular installment in The Divine Comedy, and its fame has survived for over six centuries. The poem is a multi-layered allegory, which exists in a literary reality and contains religious, political, and spiritual references.
The Inferno is full of references to historical and literary characters. The protagonist, Dante, is not only the poet and narrator, but also the personification of mankind. At times, it is difficult to distinguish Dante the writer from Dante the character. For example, Dante the writer chose how to punish the sinners, but the character feels empathy towards the damned. This creates a twofold perception of the story and facilitates deep thought. His guide, Virgil, also has a multi-layered identity. He is both Dante’s guide and the Roman author of the Aeneid, as well as a figure of human reason. Virgil also has firsthand experience in Hell because he spends eternity in Limbo, where all pagans reside. This, in addition to his ability to reason and persuade, makes him an excellent guide through Hell. Many characters from Virgil’s works also make an appearance in The Inferno. In the first level of Hell, Dante is introduced to Dido, who committed suicide out of love. Consequently, she spends her death being carried around by winds that symbolize how, in life, she was swept by her passions. Countless other characters from literature and mythology make an appearance in Dante’s poem.
An interesting feature of this work is the mixture of Christian, Greek and Roman references. The work primarily consists inside a Christian framework, but includes many Greek and Roman allusions. Dante opens his journey through a very Catholic version of Hell on the afternoon of Good Friday, both Christian references. However, he encounters many non-Christian characters from both literature and mythology. These characters include Charon, the ferryman, and Minos, the judge sins and assigns a level of Hell. Both of these characters originate from Greek mythology. It also includes many ancient literary figures, such as Virgil, Ulysses, and Homer. Dante introduces these characters to equate himself with their renowned literary skills. Dante not only incorporates pagan characters but also mythological places, for instance, the rivers Styx and Acheron. These non-Christian allusions enrich the story and help it relate to a more broad audience that incorporates all human beings. This is due to Dante’s belief that his journey is one that all mankind should partake in.
Every soul in hell is justly penalized for the sins committed against God , just as with Dido’s punishment for her abandonment of reason for passion. Fortunately, Dido’s sin is considered the least offensive, so she is punished lightly. She probably should have belonged in the seventh circle, where people who committed suicide are converted into trees that can only speak while bleeding. Flatterers spend eternity submerged in excrement, while Traitors, the worst sinners, continually have their heads chewed on by Lucifer himself. Every sin is punished to the extent and severity at which it was committed. This shows that God punishes out of justice, not out of malice. The balance between sin and punishment shows Dante’s high reverence of God. Everything about The Inferno is exceptionally well balanced; whether it be structure, organization, or rhyme scheme.
Dante encompasses extensive political and religious symbols. He utilizes these representations even in the organization and structure of his poem. The Divine Comedy is comprised of three books, each with 100 chapters. The cantos symbolize the Trinity, three sets of thirty three cantos, with an additional chapter to represent the Holy One. The rhyme scheme is also a religious reference since the poem is comprised of tercets, which is another allusion to the number three. Based on the fact that Florence, Italy was in political turmoil during the construction of this poem, it is not surprising that there are also references that extend to politics. Every sixth and sixteenth canto has a primary political implication. These cantos typically portray Dante’s personal opinions and assumptions of his political opponents. The references to religion and politics show Dante’s intention for the literary work and creates an interesting aspect of the already multi-layered poem. It takes the poem from a entertaining story to a means of expressing religious values and political discontent. Through these symbols, Dante depicts the religious and political atmosphere of his life.
The Inferno is the zeitgeist of medieval Florence. According to Marriam-Webster, a zeitgeist is “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era”. Dante’s work accurately exposes the values of each of these categories. Not only does The Inferno precisely address these ideals in ancient Italy, but they also remain true to today’s society. This primarily explains why the poem remains exceptionally popular centuries after its conception. This popularity has inspired countless references to The Inferno. Pop culture is full of movies, music, and even video games that convey Dante’s personification of Hell. Many writers, both classic and modern, are influenced by Dante’s work as well. Classic authors, such as John Milton and T.S. Elliot, are known to cite quotations from The Inferno in their popular works. Evidence of Dante’s influence in today’s society is apparent in the #1 New York Times Best Seller, Inferno by Dan Brown. In this novel, Brown draws countless allusions, images, and citations from Dante’s work and applies them to his thrilling plot set in Florence, Italy. Dante captures human nature so accurately that people from all over the world and over time still admire this piece of complex literature. The impermanence of society makes it difficult for an author to transcend cultural and generational gaps; however, that is exactly what Dante Alighieri accomplishes in his poem The Inferno.
Becoming a Believer in the Supremacy Justice
The poet Dante, for all intents and purposes, is the God of The Inferno. He is the author, creator, and judge of all the sinners he has placed in his hell. Readers understand that the hell that pilgrim Dante is travelling through is the product of poet Dante’s thoughts and beliefs. The quintessential example of this phenomena is the presence of contrapasso in all of the circles, which indicate a very stern, fair justice that is harsh and unforgiving in who it chooses to punish. It may be said that Poet Dante’s character, if he were a character in The Inferno, would be the embodiment of divine justice- exhibiting a kind of cold perfection whose attitude mimics that of the angel in Canto IX. It becomes interesting, then, to examine the kind of effect that Poet Dante’s beliefs about humans has on his pilgrim counterpart. One way to think about this is through Pilgrim Dante’s struggle with the motion of pity, which is a focal point for much of his journey through hell. It soon becomes evident that Poet Dante uses Virgil as a way to guide him not only through hell, but morally as well, which leads him to the belief that the justice of heaven should be respected at all costs.
Pilgrim Dante is depicted in the beginning of The Inferno as a weak, lost, and confused individual who is in the middle of some sort of a transition period, as indicated in the first Canto: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost” (I.1-2). Dante is being depicted as a lost and shapeless individual who has no purpose or guiding muse for his life. He becomes intimidated and chased by beasts, which are allegories for different sins, revealing how malleable and susceptible to sin he is. These observations about his susceptibility and fragility indicate the presence of allegories about the portrait of the human condition, as created by Poet Dante. The first Canto of the poem is one of the few places where Poet Dante makes his beliefs very evident and even clear. Though he chooses to mask them using the allegory of a man going through a midlife crisis and being lost in some woods, interpretation of the text allows readers to understand his bigger conclusions about the fragility of humans. Many examples of this frailty and susceptibility which Dante exhibits in the first Canto stem on his relationship with the emotion of pity. Pity is an emotion Dante consistently struggles with throughout the duration of The Inferno. It seems to begin in the third circle after listening to the stories of Francesca and Paolo: Dante states that “…my pity / Overwhelmed me and I felt myself go slack: / Swooning as in death, I fell like a dying body” (V.125-27). He feels so much pity for the sinners who committed lust that he literally faints. But what is it about their story that overwhelmed him? Francesca states that as she and Paolo were reading a story about Lancelot, the two were overcome by lust. Considering some other causes of sin in The Inferno, this is a fairly minor event. Merely reading a book was enough to cause Francesca and Paolo to commit a sin and now spend their eternities in the third circle. This is another more subtle allegory in which Dante yet again hints at the susceptibility of humans to commit sins, which is part of his portrait of the human condition. This makes pilgrim Dante’s reaction even more surprising: he faints out of pity.
Though Dante does display pity, towards the end of the poem he begins to move away from this mindset and to absorb an attitude that aligns more closely with the beliefs of Virgil. Take, for instance, the 8th Canto. Dante’s actions please Virgil and the two share a moment of physical affection. His affection is derived from Dante’s indignation towards a shade, Filippo Argenti, who Dante feels is very deserving of his position in Hell. Virgil outwardly expresses his pride in in Dante’s decision to do this: “And then my guide / Embraced my neck and kissed me on the face / And said, “Indignant soul blessed indeed / Is she who bore you. Arrogant in his vice / Was that one when he lived. No goodness whatever / Adorning his memory, his shade is furious” (VIII.40-45). The physical embrace that Dante experiences is evidence of bonding between the two of them, and it is also significant that this is the first moment we see of it. The way that Virgil describes Filippo reveals that he thinks that his sin of arrogance is worthy of punishment in hell. Dante’s behavior legitimizes that, which is why Virgil is proud of him. Virgil is promoting the idea of divine justice, and he is serving to foster and undulate that attitude unto the very malleable Dante.
Poet Dante’s depiction of hell makes evident his belief in the supremacy of divine justice. One of the best places to analyze this is in Canto XI, when Dante and Virgil set aside a moment from their journey to get used to the horrendous smell of hell while talking about its structure. Virgil explains that that “…since fraud is found / In humankind as its peculiar vice, / It angers God more: so the fraudulent / Are lower, and suffer more unhappiness” (XI.24-27). This reiterates the previously mentioned idea that the more a sin offends God, the further it is away from Heaven. Though this is stated by Virgil, it is really Poet Dante who is speaking and indicating to readers his beliefs about the significance of the structure of hell. The complete supremacy God has over hell is apparent not only because of its structure, but also during an interesting moment in Canto IX when the angel, who is the only figure directly from Heaven seen in The Inferno, comes down to open the gate for Dante and Virgil. His attitude and manner are very brusque and impersonal, signifying disdain for the sinners around him and echoing the same mindset that similar beings in Heaven, including God, are likely to share.
Pilgrim Dante is depicted by Poet Dante as a weak individual who, like others, is very susceptible to sin and can empathize with those who have committed it. This leads him into a very unbalanced state: he is constantly in a struggle with the emotion of pity. His basic instincts lead him to express sympathy and pity sinners, which is a part of Dante’s portrait of the human condition. Virgil, however, believes in the supremacy of the divine justice, which doesn’t support sinners being pitied for their sins because their punishments are deserved. Virgil utilizes his status as a guide to reward Dante for showing scorn and no pity for sinners. This is how Virgil and Dante’s relationship ultimately evolves: Virgil serves to forge Pilgrim Dante into Poet Dante, who is not only a better man, but a better writer. The significance of this is that it provides a new lens in which to read The Inferno: perhaps Dante is not making claims about the portrait of the human condition so much as he is simply experimenting with a way to express his personal transition into a different, improved man.
Literary Interpretation and Meaning of Dante’s Inferno
The most puzzling circle of hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno is also one of the first. It is here, in the second circle, where the lustful spend eternity. Canto V is filled with contradictions, puzzlements, and curious word choices. At first glance, Dante’s account of the lustful sinners appears to be entirely one-dimensional: these are men and women who succumbed to sexual desire and longing and whose cruel punishments are deserved. However, closer inspection reveals that Dante empathizes with these sinners, awarding them with the least severe of all of hell’s punishments, and even occasionally overlooking the souls’ other sins to ensure them a place in the tamest circle of hell.
One possible first impression of Dante’s second circle is that lust is not a legitimate sin. Perhaps this logic is a product age and culture; many 21st-century readers might consider list, especially in comparison to more violent sins, trivial and commonplace. Everyone has felt sexual desires, or at the very least has been infatuated with someone, suggesting that lust is intrinsic to human nature and should not warrant its own level in hell.
Philosophers of antiquity, however, disagree. The Desert Fathers included lust in their list of the seven deadly sins and the Book of Job writes, “For lust is a shameful sin, a crime that should be punished” (Job 31:11). Thomas Aquinas likely would have classified lust as a venial sin, committed on impulse and without reflection, making it less serious than mortal sins. Dante, whose theological and philosophical perspectives were heavily influenced by Aquinas, maintained a similar judgment. Lust has been placed in one of the highest circles of hell, among the other incontinent sins. Dante describes the lustful sinners as having “sinned in carnal things” (5.35). In other words, lust is a bodily impulse, not one of the soul. Following Aquinas’s logic, this makes lust significantly less serious than other sins, such as betrayal and fraud – both of which are done with the deliberate intention of harming others and caused corruption of the sinners’ souls. We hear the lustful before we see them. Dante uses flowery phrases that connote agony, like “the notes of agony,” “sad crescendo,” and “blasts of sorrow” (5.24-27), as if we have walked in on a symphony performance, not a circle of hell. The souls arrive in the sky above Dante and Virgil, “turbulent in a storm of warring winds” (5.29), like a flock of wind-swept birds.
The English language is saturated with quotes and clichés about wind: “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May;” “candle in the wind;” “how the wind blows;” “throw caution to the wind.” Wind is aggressive. Wind is antagonistic. Wind brings down power lines and flattens houses. Dante’s use of wind as a punishment creates a tone of chaos – these sinners are doomed to spend eternity in a constant state of motion and unrest. Perhaps this is because the actions of the lustful defied nature, God, and the course of history. Cleopatra, for example, sacrificed her authority in both Rome and Egypt for the sake of Marc Antony’s love, and Helen caused an entire war when she eloped with Paris. As penance, they are forced to spend eternity facing the same chaos they caused in life.
However, once the souls’ dramatic entrance has concluded, readers discover that their suffering extends beyond blustery breezes. Francesca declares that “‘No sadness / Is greater than in misery to rehearse / Memories of joy’” (5.107-09). Their true punishment is spending their afterlives without lust. This is puzzling. Is the punishment for lust nothing but a want of lust? The usurers are punished with more than an afterlife without practicing usury. The gluttons’ punishment is not just an eternity without rich food and wine. Consider a more contemporary scenario: when a child is caught stealing cookies, his mother will either take away the cookies or she will take the cookies and send him to time-out. The former is the punishment of a more forgiving mother. Similarly, Dante is the forgiving creator of this universe, granting mercy upon the lustful.
The lustful, consumed with loss and grief, bear a striking resemblance to the souls in The Aeneid’s Fields of Mourning, who “are those whom pitiless love consumed with cruel wasting” (Virgil lines 596-97). Dido, Aeneas’ Phoenician lover, appears in both the Fields of Mourning and Dante’s second circle. She is an example of Dante’s self-contradictions: after breaking her marriage vow to Sychaeus, Dido “died / By her own hand for love” (5.52-3). Every other soul who committed suicide, though, is forced to spend eternity as a tree in the seventh circle, without the promise of resurrection on Judgment Day. Why, then, is Dido spared this gruesome fate? Dante also writes, in Canto XII, that the “river of blood… boils everyone / Whose violence hurt others” (12.41-2). Did the actions of Helen and Cleopatra not inadvertently induce violence, through the Trojan War and Julius Caesar’s conflict with Ptolemaic Egypt? Why are these sinners convicted of lust and not violence against man? The lustful are described to have had their “reason mastered by desire” (5.36), while the violent sinners are said to have suffered from “blind desire / Of covetousness” (12.42-3). What is the difference? The only explanation for the lustful sinners’ relatively tame fates is that Dante empathizes with them. He understood the plight of the lustful; he himself suffered from forbidden love. Despite marrying Gemma Donati in 1285, Dante was in love with Beatrice Portinari, a childhood friend who died in 1290. While he never acted upon his feelings, surely he could identify with these lovesick souls.
The lustful sinners’ genders may also explain Dante’s pity. With the exception of Paris and Achilles, only female sinners are named, suggesting that primarily women inhabit the second level of hell. This may indicate that Dante considered the lustful to be victims of those who seduced them. After all, the seducers, pimps, and flatterers all live among the fraudulent in the eighth circle. We can find comfort in knowing that justice exists in Dante’s seemingly chaotic hell. Canto V includes the introduction of Minos, “the great connoisseur of sin” (5.8). Minos “snarls at the gate” (5.4) and has a tail, connoting images of conniving serpents and cruel beasts. He appears in both The Odyssey and The Aeneid, depicted as a singular authority in the former and as the overseer of a jury in the latter. Despite the variations among these depictions, the character’s role remains consistent: he serves to administer justice to sinners. It must be Minos, then, who made the decision to spare Dido from eternity as a tree, or who put the seducers six circles deeper than the lustful.
When writing of the second circle of hell, Dante was conscientiously merciful to the lustful sinners. These souls certainly still have a dreary existence, but their circumstances are significantly less vicious than their fellow sinners’. The pity Dante took on them only accentuates the poets’ attention to detail – one among many reasons why Inferno is lauded as one of the medieval period’s most monumental pieces of literature.
The Hell That Dante Created
Dante’s Inferno is one of the most famous poems ever written in the vernacular. Dante is renowned for being a master of words and a great artist. But what few people know is Dante’s personal history, and the climactic events that prompted him to write Inferno. Dante’s anger towards those who exiled him from Florence was so all-consuming that it poured out in the written word as a personal journey to help him overcome this anger. This is the central idea behind Inferno. Without understanding this, the poem simply seems like a story about a man’s journey through hell. But to really understand Inferno and all of its hidden meanings or insinuations, you must understand Dante’s history and rage over his current situation in life.
Life of Dante, as told by Giovanni Boccaccio, gives us an idea of the political strife Dante faced, prompting the rage which he used to write Inferno. It seems that the citizens of Florence were divided into two political parties, the Black and the White Guelphs. The wars and bloodshed they cost Florence, his beloved city, weighed heavily on Dante, and, wanting to alleviate the situation, he devoted his “genius, art, and learning” (Boccacio, 23) to the party he most agreed with: the White Guelphs. After some time, it seemed as if the Black Guelphs had triumphed, and the leaders of their adversary saw no choice but to admit defeat. “With them Dante, thrust down in an instant from the highest place in the city’s government, saw himself not only fallen to earth, but thrust out from the city” (25). Dante, along with his fellow leaders, were sentenced to perpetual exile by the Black Guelphs, and their property was confiscated. As one might imagine, this did not sit well for our poet. He was forced to leave his wife and children, his property and possessions, and everything he loved about the city which his ancestors built. As he had been a man of means in Florence and unaccustomed to physical labour, he was not pleased when he had to work to sustain himself while traveling. “Oh, what honest indignation he had to repress, more bitter to him than death, while hope promised him that his exile would be brief and his return speedy!” (27). It was under these direst of circumstances of impotent fury and loss that Dante took up his writing of Inferno.
It is improbable that Dante would have written Inferno in the same words had not he been so angry with his life. He saw himself as a brilliant poet who, despite giving everything he had to his beloved city, was left alone and penniless, and in his eyes, mistreated. He is his own main character. In Inferno, he is a man, desperate and confused, who is approached by Virgil to make a spiritual journey through the afterlife. He obviously thinks of himself as worthy enough to be singled out by God to go on this journey, with a world famous poet as his guide. He compares himself to Aeneas and St. Paul, and says, “I alone, I was the only one preparing, as in war, to onward march and bear the agony that thought will now unfailingly relate” (Inf. 2.3-6). When Dante the Pilgrim starts questioning whether he is strong enough to go on this journey, Beatrice comes down from Heaven as an angel to convince him. As Dante makes his journey through hell, he is rewarded for casting further judgement upon sinners, and yet he himself is inexplicably sin-free. When considering that Dante wrote all this about himself, it seems slightly narcissistic. This evidence shows how righteous Dante felt about himself, and this perhaps reflects on how wronged he thought he had been in his real life.
Dante’s anger is evident throughout Inferno, and it gets increasingly angry as the poem goes on. As Dante journeys through the nine circles of Hell, he describes the types of sin and the sinners that he encounters. But unlike the writers of his time who would personify sin, Dante uses actual people who were well known in his time to represent each of the sins. This was a risky move on Dante’s part, since family, friends or supporters of these people could take offense with him over the fact that their comrade was placed in Hell, and the graphic torture they received at Dante’s hand. Dante clearly had anger he wanted to express, and was not afraid to proliferate tensions between himself and his enemies. For example, Pope Boniface VIII, who backed the Black Guelphs and had much to do with Dante’s exile is referenced in Canto VI. Since he is still alive at the time Dante wrote Inferno, Dante avoids placing him in the poem. However, he has reserved a spot in Hell for Boniface. In the eighth circle, Dante and Virgil come across the sinners who have committed simony. They are placed head first into holes in a rock, with their feet on fire. As Dante approaches Pope Nicholas III in such a position, he mistakes Dante for Boniface, whom he is waiting on as his replacement (Inf. 19.52-57). Later Dante again shows his indignation towards the betrayers of himself and Florence. In Canto 32 he meets a multitude of men trapped in ice up to their necks, and he asks one of their names, to which the shade replies, “I’m Camiscion de’ Pazzi. I wait for Carlin. He’ll acquit me here” (Inf. 32.68-69). Alberto de’ Pazzi, nicknamed Camiscion de’ Pazzi, murdered a man named Ubertino. However, Camiscion had a relative, Carlino de’ Pazzi, who had promised to protect some White Guelph exiles in a castle. He then betrayed them and surrendered his castle to the Blacks. As you can see in this Canto, Dante has damned Carlino to the ninth and most treacherous circle of Hell. Like Pope Boniface, Dante cannot place Carlino in Hell just yet as he is still alive, but that does not hinder him from expressing his anger.
Dante’s anger over his situation was so great that it prompted him to write an epic poem as a way to punish the people who had wronged him by placing them in fictional Hell, and inventing more and more shocking and sickening ways for them to suffer. This point is entirely missed by the reader, unless he or she understands Dante’s personal history and reasons why he might want to write so off-putting a story. This understanding is absolutely essential to properly understand Inferno. For this reason alone, Dante’s anger against those who victimized him is the central issue of his work as a whole.
Alighieri, Dante TR Robin Kirkpatrick. Inferno: The Divine Comedy I. London: Penguin Classics, 2010. Print.
Boccaccio, Giovanni TR J.G. Nichols. Life of Dante. London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2002. Print.