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Mr.

Spielberger Shalashaska
Period 8

Part I. Summary

Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, while entirely fictional in nature, is told from a first-

person perspective with the author providing the narration and viewpoint throughout the

story. Inferno opens with Dante who, having lost his path in a forest, now wanders

aimlessly in the fearful wood. Spying a mountain, Dante believes he has found the way

out of his plight; however, his path up and out of the enclosed wood is blocked by three

beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Dante is frightened off of his newfound path,

and finds himself again without a clear exit. It is then that the ghost (or shade) of the poet

Virgil, of Aeneid fame, appears to Dante and offers to guide him out of the forest. Virgil

reveals that he has been sent from heaven and can safely see Dante towards his

destination, though they will be forced to pass through Hell to do so. Though gripped by

fear, Dante agrees to accompany Virgil through Hell’s foreboding gates, and the story

begins in earnest.

Virgil proves to be quite knowledgeable about Hell’s structure, inner workings,

and inhabitants. He informs Dante that there are nine circles of Hell, each subjecting a

certain type of sinner to a certain form of punishment. Upon entering Hell, Dante and

Virgil find themselves in the Ante-Inferno, which holds those who died siding with

neither God nor Satan. Within, men chase a blank banner as they are eternally bitten by

hornets. Upon being taken into Hell by the ferryman Charon, Dante and Virgil are now at

the first circle of Hell. This layer contains men who died without knowledge of God or
Christianity, and therefore were unable to enter Heaven. The pair move on, deeper into

the Inferno. In front of the second circle, Dante and Virgil come upon the monster Minos.

Minos stand at the head of an immense line of sinners, and curls his tail around his body

to indicate which circle the sinner should be taken to. Passing into the second circle, the

pair find the Lustful; souls who were ruled by passion in their mortal lives, who are now

carried in a perpetual storm. Dante faints here, and regains consciousness in the third

circle of Hell, home to the Gluttonous. These souls are punished by a never-ceasing rain

of excrement and filth pouring down upon their heads, to compensate for their hungering

lifestyles. Dante and Virgil continue on to Hell’s fourth circle.

Within the fourth circle, they come across the Avaricious and Prodigal; these are

souls who are guilty of either hoarding or wasting their money. Their punishment is to

endlessly roll boulders at one another, repeatedly colliding. Deeper into the fifth circle,

the pair find themselves at the river Styx. Here, the wrathful bite and claw at each other

upon the bank. They are taken across the river by the boatman Phlegyas, at which point

Virgil informs Dante that under the waters of the Styx lie the Sullen, guilty of sulking and

cursing in their mortal lives.

The pair is temporarily stymied attempting to enter the sixth circle of Hell; two

demons guard the gate, blocking their passage. However, a messenger from Heaven

arrives, assuring their passage through. They are met with a burning graveyard, home to

the heretics. Finding a man he knew in life, named Farinata, Dante discusses politics with

the man and learns that as part of their punishment, the Heretics can see the future rather

than the present. Dante and Virgil continue to descend into Hell’s seventh circle, home to

the Violent. However, given the broad nature of the sin of Violence, the seventh circle is
subdivided further into three rings. The first ring holds those who were violent against

their neighbors in a boiling river of blood, to be shot with arrows by nearby centaurs. In

the second ring, the pair finds themselves in a gnarled forest; the realm of the Suicides

(souls who were violent against themselves) is filled with the shades of men warped into

trees that bleed when cracked or broken. Dante returns the scattered leaves to a bush that

was once a Florentine man, and the duo continues on to the third ring.

The third ring of the seventh circle of Hell carries another subdivision; intended

for those who were violent against God, the ring is layered into three zones. In the first

zone, Blasphemers must lie upon red-hot sand, as burning flecks of fire rain down from

the sky. Here, Dante and Virgil find the source of Hell’s rivers, which is a statue of an Old

Man who weeps to form the waters. Moving into the second zone, the pair is now in the

realm of the Sodomites: those who were violent against nature. Here, Dante meets a few

men that he knows. First is Brunetto Latini, who tells Dante that he will meet political

gain in the future. Later, a group of men burned beyond recognition are saddened to hear

Dante tell them that Florence is now a city filled with the decadent and foolish. The third

zone’s inhabitants are less prone to conversation. They are the souls who were violent

against art, known as the Usurers. Their punishment is perplexing, as each man is forced

to eat his own family emblems as fire rains down from the third ring’s sky. Dante and

Virgil then mount the back of a snake-like creature known as Geryon to reach the eighth

circle of Hell.

The eighth circle contains the fraudulent, and is further subdivided for the many

varieties this sin entails. The eighth circle is known as “Malebolge”, meaning “Evil

Pouches”, due to the manner of subdivision. The first pouch contains Panders, Seducers,
and others who took advantage of women for their own gain. The second holds Flatterers,

who are held in a pit filled with sewage. The two quickly move on to the third pouch,

where the Simoniacs are left to burn. They meet Pope Nicholas III, who Dante treats

without pity. In the fourth pouch are found Astrologers, Magicians and other practitioners

of sorcery; they are doomed to walk with their heads twisted to face backwards. The fifth

pouch is a pit of bubbling pitch, which holds the Barterers. Barterers are souls guilty of

giving or receiving bribes in life. Here, Dante and Virgil unwittingly anger a group of

demons by allowing a man to escape their individual tortures; the pair flees to the sixth

pouch, which contains the Hypocrites. Head among these men is Caiphus, Pontius

Pilate’s high priest, who lays crucified on the ground. Within the seventh pouch, which

holds the Thieves, Dante is met with a horrifying sight: the souls lie in a pit of snakes,

with a snake returning to its human form when it bites a man, and the man reverting into

a serpent. The ninth pouch contains Sowers of Scandal and Schism, among whom walks

the prophet Mohammed. They walk in a circle, endlessly being split apart with a sword.

Lastly, the tenth pouch holds Falsifiers of all varieties: Counterfeiters, liars and the like.

Finally, the pair are taken to the ninth circle, where the traitors lay. It is a frozen

lake known as Cocytus. Passing traitors of ever-increasing magnitude, the pair finally

comes upon the center of Hell: Satan sits frozen in the ice, his three heads gnawing on

Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Dumbfounded by horror, Dante is amazed when Virgil begins

to climb upon the tufts of hair on Satan’s back. The pair continue to scale the beast until

the end of Dante’s Inferno is finally reached, and Dante can see the stars once again.
Part II. Polemic

Dante’s Inferno is a tale tat is rife with allegory, symbolism, and criticisms of the

author’s life and times. Given that Dante wrote the book a few years before his current

time, and inserted himself as the protagonist, it grants him the opportunity to comment on

the state of the world while staying within the reasonable boundaries of the story’s plot.

However, it cannot be forgotten that Inferno is about a journey through Hell, and is

rooted heavily in the discussion and interpretation of Christian doctrine. Hence, Dante’s

polemic while writing the Inferno was obvious; he sought to use the book as a

commentary on both the life and times he lived in as well as figures from ancient (and

relatively modern) history, while providing a simultaneous commentary on morality and

sin..

Concentrating on the first segment of Dante’s polemic, it is impossible to miss the

allegorical (and more often than not, bluntly literal) references to times and people that

Dante both encountered or learned of. There is hardly a section of his journey in which

Dante (the character) does not reference, witness or converse with a figure of some level

of fame, and the references only serve to increase as the journey through the Inferno

progresses.

At the book’s onset, Virgil’s appearance is where the literary allegories begin. By

including the famous poet, Dante seeks to acknowledge not only the greatness of the

classical authors, but to affirm his own literary prowess by referencing the man who is

often regarded as the finest author of ancient Greek times. Upon conversing with Virgil,

Dante learns that he has been sent from Heaven thanks mainly to the efforts of a woman

named Beatrice. Beatrice was a great love of Dante’s, who died suddenly of illness.
Dante inserts her into the poem as a guardian of his in order to pay tribute to her memory

and to affirm that she was, indeed, a virtuous individual, gazing down on him from

Heaven. Even before entering the abyss, Dante’s mind swings towards the two other men

who have entered Hell and managed to exit intact: the Apostle Paul, and the ancient hero

Aeneas. In the face of such steep competition, Dante (the character) fears that he is

unworthy, which is the source of much of his duress and anxiety through the opening

sections of Inferno.

Upon entering Hell, Dante describes meeting many famous poets in the first

circle, Limbo. Virgil meets a group of men containing Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan,

poets who are revered for their ancient works. Dante (in the form of the author) seeks fit

not to punish these characters in Inferno, more likely due to a respect and admiration for

fellow writers than a lack of sin with which to condemn them to. Thus, the ancient

literary heroes simply wander through Limbo, in a relatively un-Hellish Hell. In a similar

vein, the two protagonists Aristotle, Socrates, Ptolemy, Euclid, and other famous Greek

thinkers; this is Dante seeking to affirm and acknowledge the genius and merit of the

ancient masters.

Within Hell’s second circle, Dante finds no shortage of famous Lustful in the

swirling tempest. Recognizing Helen (the woman who prompted the Trojan War) and

Cleopatra, Dante wishes to call out and converse with these souls. He is answered by a

woman named Francesca: she lives among the damned due to a love affair inspired by the

ancient story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Once again, Dante seeks to insert ancient works

of literary mastery into his own epic, in order to compare himself (and possibly liken, or

even raise himself above) to literary masters.


Dante meets a more contemporary figure in the third circle. One of the Gluttonous, a

Florentine named Ciacco, predicts the political future of Florence when Dante requests it

of him. Ciacco tells Dante that Florence will continue to be mired in political infighting

and discordance. When Dante inquires about past political leaders, Ciacco surprises him

by telling him that they reside in a far deeper circle of Hell. While Dante the character is

surprised by this revelation, Dante the author obviously sought to condemn the politicians

of his city’s history for what he perceives as grave and immoral wrongs. Dante seeks to

echo the “everyman” through his own character; Dante (the character) is naïve and

innocent in his belief that most of the political leaders of the past were ruled by good

intentions. Further reinforcing Dante’s desire to comment on contemporary ideals, Ciacco

asks Dante to recall his name after leaving Hell.

While traveling across the river Styx, Dante recognizes another man that he knew

in life. It is Filippo Argenti, one of Dante’s political enemies and a key figure in his exile

from Florence. It is obvious that Dante still resents this man greatly, for his character

looks on with satisfaction as he is torn apart by his fellow Avaricious. Given that Dante

the character seemed, up to this point, to be a meek individual, such a change in conduct

seems unexpected. However, it only further mirrors Dante’s desire to comment on those

he saw as immoral, cruel and sinful in life, by placing them in the realm of otherworldly

torment. Upon reaching Hell’s sixth circle, Dante has an extended discussion with a

group of the Heretics, where a man known as Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti inquires why his

son Guido, who is a close friend of Dante’s, is not present on the journey. While Dante

attempts to explain, the ghost makes the assumption that his son has died, and leaves in

despair. While another man, Farinata, is obviously one of Dante’s political enemies,
Dante treats the man with polite respect, and Farinata likewise. They discuss the matter of

Dante’s exile, and Dante leaves still unsure about how long he will be banished from his

beloved hometown.

Here, we see the rational nature concerning what is seemingly Dante’s (the writer)

vindictive nature and the motivation behind the punishment he consigns various souls to.

While Farinata was obviously important to Dante’s exile, and the two are opposed, Dante

sees fit not to heap any further indignity upon the man. Though he is, obviously, in Hell,

Dante, in both writer and character, gives Farinata a measure of respect not granted to

those such as Filippo Argenti. Obviously, while he regards Farinata as a sinner, he does

not see him as an overly immoral or hateful one.

In the realm of the violent, Dante meets two important figures. One is from

ancient times; Virgil points out Capaneus, a king who besieged the city of Thebes.

Capaneus is represented as a giant, ranting and raving in defiance against the

punishments of hell. This inclusion of a historical figure is another obvious display of

Dante’s admiration for both classical art and history. Next, in the realm of the Sodomites,

Dante meets a man named Brunetto Latini. Given that Latini was a kind, mentoring

figure to Dante in life, it is perplexing as to why writer-Dante has so coldly placed him in

the realm of such an undignified sin. Even more confusing is the fact that Latini was a

political ally of Dante’s in life. The only reasonable conclusion is that Dante seeks to

remove a semblance of bias from his work; in order to affirm that his placement of some

of his political allies is not simply resentment and rancor seeping into his writing, Dante

puts one of his kindest friends in a particularly undesirable circle of Hell. By this move,

he seeks to grant his work additional credibility.


Moving through the Fraudulent of Hell’s eighth Dante encounters two figures, one

new and one old. Jason, of mythological fame, lies there because of his betrayal of

Medea. Likewise, a man from Bologna is present because he sold his sister into bondage

at the hands of a noble man. In a later, and unmistakable allegory, Dante notices that one

of the brightest-burning Simoniacs is Pope Nicholas III, an obvious commentary by

Dante the writer on how he regards the practice of simony. So strong are his feelings that

the character Dante makes an impassioned speech regarding simony’s evils, representing

a sameness of character that is hardly so present within the rest of the novel. Within a

later pouch of the eighth circle, Dante and Virgil find Caiphus, high priest under Pontius

Pilate. Caiphus is crucified and trodden on, a clear description of Dante’s feelings for the

historical betrayer.

One of the more interesting inclusions in Inferno is the presence of the prophet

Mohammed in the eighth circle of Hell. More specifically, within the pouch set aside for

Sowers of Scandal and Schism. Mohammed is among the many who walk in a circle,

being split by swords as their words split men. As the sinners walk, their wounds are

healed, leaving them free to suffer again in a distinctly Promethean form of punishment.

While the views of the present day preach tolerance, Dante’s feelings are clear

representations of the thought of the time. Diverging from Christianity was not a simple

matter of preference or interpretation; it was a sin, and an extremely dire one at that. As a

leader of what Dante obviously regarded as a false (or at least misguided) faith,

Mohammed is punished harshly for working contrary to God’s will.

While numerous other figures from history and from Dante’s own life are present

within the various succeeding circles of Hell, there is no example so clear in its nature as
that at the very center of Hell. Within Satan’s three mouths lie the most famous of

history’s traitors: Judas Iscariot, who sold Christ to die, and Brutus and Cassius,

conspirators and orchestrators of Julius Caesar’s death. Two of the most constant themes

in Inferno is Dante’s staunch Christianity and his love for the ancient classics. Thus, it is

fitting that the one who caused the death of Christ, and the men responsible for Caesar’s

end, have the most horrid punishment in all of Hell. It is their fate to be chewed on by the

mouths of Lucifer for all eternity. The nature of this punishment displays an interesting

facet of Dante’s views on religion; while perhaps the worst trio of traitors deserve their

fates, many of the sinners described beg the reader to question their place in Hell. It

seems confusing as to why the fraudulent are placed in a deeper circle than the murderers.

However, examination of Christian doctrine provides a rationale for Dante’s organization

of the sinners. “Sin” is defined as an act contrary to God’s love and will. Hence, while

murder (and violence as a whole) is a violation of Christian and moral law, fraud

constitutes the rape of trust, and thus is seen as a far more pervasive and twisted crime.

Echoing this sentiment, Dante meets a woman named Myrrha in the eighth circle of Hell,

guilty of disguising herself in order to satisfy her perverted lust for her father. While it

seems obvious that her lust would place her into the second circle, her disguise is seen as

fraud, a much more dire crime, and thus she is confined to the eighth circle.

Given that it is so rife with allegories, and ones that were politically relevant at

that, it seems amazing that Dante’s Inferno has managed to remain a classic to the present

day. However, further analysis proves that the source of the book’s enduring popularity is

not simply its amusing (and often thought provoking) interpretation of an individual’s sin.

Rather, it is the fact that these individuals serve as guides, as foils in order to demonstrate
the nature of sin and how it is contrary to Dante’s view of God’s will. Hence, while

Inferno is inexorably concerned with the politics of Dante’s time, it can just as easily be

viewed as a broad examination of morality, with the allegory added simply as an aid to

explain humanity’s nature and crimes against faith.


Polemic Pt. II

Examining the polemic of Dante’s Inferno, his purpose in writing the novel

becomes clear to most readers. Even without any excessive deliberation, Dante’s ideals,

opinions and values are made to “leap out” at the reader; this was not a book that Dante

wished to be misinterpreted, and therefore while the book does not echo the themes of

sin, morality and punishment to the point of redundancy, they present themselves again

and again in the form of allegorical references to historical and (at the time)

contemporary figures. This is not to say, however, that all the allegories in Inferno are

simply tools with which Dante furthers his own broad set of values; most of the

references are twofold. Dante was a man who harbored both resentment, pain and love;

Beatrice’s presence within the novel can be regarded as not only literal (his love is

guiding him from on high) but symbolic (the presence of a benevolent force aiding man

in times of need). Most of the characters in the novel follow suit with this example, and

the end result is a story where a political enemy is a political enemy, but he is also a

reflection of much greater sins. This twofold illustration, one part commentary and one

part moral exploration, is the embodiment of Dante’s objective with Inferno.


Impact

Like most other people you encounter, I have always been meaning to sit down

and read some of the classics. Hence, it is a good thing that I was forced to read Inferno

for school, or it would never happen. While I was a bit wary of Inferno, mainly due to my

uncultured disdain for the poetic form, my interest eventually overcame my

apprehension. After finishing the book, it is obvious that fortune does, indeed, favor the

bold; the book is excellent, to such an extent that I am now considering reading

Purgatorio and Paradiso to see the continuation of Dante’s journey. One of the most

enjoyable parts of the book was, in my opinion, the way that Dante handles the

symbolism that is used throughout his novel. It seems he is able to strike the perfect

middle between shoving each symbol down your throat, and making it all

incomprehensible without some sort of reference. The finished product is a book that

really can be enjoyable on any level. The prose and the storyline make for a good, simple

read, while the layers upon layers of meaning that are embedded within the novel could

occupy a more dedicated reader for no small stretch of time. The book does not plod, and

Dante does an excellent job of realizing that not all parts of Hell are created equal: he

spends as much time as is necessary to paint the necessary description of each circle and

zone, without boring the reader in the interest of a uniform length. All in all, I would

surely recommend Inferno for the permanent roster, as it has everything that a

schoolbook needs: entertainment value, heavy opportunity for interpretation, and a

relatively kind page count.


Abstract

Dante Alighieri’s Inferno tells of the author’s fictional journey through Hell,

accompanied by the ancient poet Virgil, where his encounters with historical figures and

people from his own present day are used to illustrate the world around him as well as his

greater views on morals. Making heavy use of symbolism, nearly every character Dante

encounters on his journey is representative of some greater evil or folly of mankind, with

enemies (and some friends) of Dante added, mainly as a condemnation of political

enemies and those he viewed as corrupt or immoral.


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