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.
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