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Inferno


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Inferno Essay, Research Paper

On Good Friday 1300 AD, in Dante’s thirty-fifth year, he goes astray from the

straight road into the Dark Wood of Error. Seeing the Sun (Divine Illumination)

lighting the Mount of Joy in the Distance, he attempts to climb up the

mountainside but is blocked by three beasts of worldliness: the Leopard of

Malice and Fraud, the Lion of Violence and Ambition, and the She-Wolf of

Incontinence. When his hope is nearly lost, the shade of the Roman poet Virgil

(a symbol of Human Reason) appears to him. Virgil has been sent by Beatrice in

Heaven to lead Dante from error; he explains that to defeat the beasts it is

necessary to take the harder route through Hell (where sin is recognized),

Purgatory (where sin is renounced), then to Heaven to revel in the light of God.

Dante accepts and sets off with him. The Poets pass through the Gate of Hell

(inscribed with the famous line, Abandon all hope ye who enter here) and step

into the Vestibule, where they see the torments inflicted on the opportunists

and those who took neither side in the Rebellion of the Angels. They are not

officially in Hell nor Heaven because their actions in life were not good enough

or bad enough to warrant a place in either. They must forever pursue a banner

just out of their reach while being stung by wasps; the blood and pus flowing

from their wounds is feasted upon by worms and maggots. (The punishments in

Inferno always fit the crime. The wasps signify the sinners guilty consciences

and the worms and maggots, their moral filth.) The Poets wish to be ferried

across the river Acheron by the boatman Charon, but Charon realizes that Dante

is still living and refuses them passage until Virgil makes a good argument for

Dante’s case. Charon reluctantly agrees, but Dante faints out of pure terror and

only awakes when he is on the opposite bank. Upper Hell, for those who committed

the least serious sins, is made of five circles, each containing fewer sinners

and smaller than the one before it. The first of these is Limbo, where

unbaptized children and virtuous pagans are placed. Virgil is one of these

souls, who lived decent lives but died before Christ came (in Dante’s mind,

belief in Christ was necessary to enter Heaven). They are not tormented but must

spend eternity without hope. Dante and Virgil tarry in Limbo to talk with other

great poets of the ancient world. (Dante must have had tremendous pride in

himself to have imagined walking with Homer and Ovid.) Entering the second

circle, where the torments begin, the Poets are blocked by Minos, the beast who

judges the damned and condemns each soul to its proper level of Hell, but Virgil

convinces him to let them pass. (Dante fused pagan mythology and Christian

beliefs together in his Hell quite often.) They then see the souls of the

carnal, swept around by tempests much as they allowed their reason to be swept

away by passion in life. Here they meet Paolo and Francesca, who were murdered

by Francesca’s husband before they could repent from their sin of adultery.

After hearing their story, Dante faints again. Upon recovering, Dante and Virgil

enter the third circle, where storms of stinking snow and freezing rain fall and

form slush under their feet. Cerberus, a three-headed dog, guards the gluttonous

souls and chews at them. One of the gluttons, Ciacco, a Florentine like Dante,

prophesizes Dante’s later exile. (It becomes apparent later that the damned can

see far into the future but cannot see the events of the present. Thus on

Judgement Day, the last day, their powers will become useless.) The fourth

circle is guarded by the monster Plutus but Virgil again manages to talk his and

Dante’s way past him. (I assume that this means Human Reason can always outwit

anything hellish.) The circle is filled with souls of hoarders and wasters, who

are eternally at war with one another. They are in Hell because in thinking of

nothing but money they destroyed the light of God within them. It is now past

midnight on Good Friday, and the Poets proceed to the fifth circle, the Marsh of

Styx. This is the last circle of Upper Hell. The souls of the wrathful attack

one another in the marsh and the souls of the sullen lie entombed beneath the

slime. The Poets stand at the edge at the edge of the marsh and Phlegyas, the

ferryman of Styx, rushes across thinking they are new souls to torment and does

not want to give them passage when he finds out they are not; Virgil (once

again) convinces him otherwise. They are ferried to Dis, the capital of Hell,

which marks the boundary between Upper and Lower Hell. The gates of Dis are

guarded by Rebellious Angels, whom Virgil is powerless against (Human Reason

alone cannot cope with Evil) and sends up a prayer for divine aid. Virgil’s fear

is made worse by the presence of Three Infernal Furies (symbolizing remorse). He

calls on Medusa to turn them into stone, tells Dante to turn away and shut his

eyes in order not to glimpse this evil, and even places his own hands over

Dante’s eyes. Sudddenly a Heavenly Messenger approaches, proceeded by a great

storm (symbolizing God’s power). He throws open the gates of Dis and then

returns to Heaven. The Poets are now free to enter the sixth circle, wherein the

souls of the heretics (specifically, those who denied the belief in the

immortality of the soul) are entombed in iron tombs heated by fires. These tombs

will be closed forever on Judgement Day and the heretics will be sealed forever

in a death within a death. The Poets continue through the sixth circle, where

they meet one Farinata degli Uberti (who would have been a political foe of

Dante’s had he not died a year before Dante’s birth), with whom Dante discusses

politics, and his friend Guido Cavalcanti?s father Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti.

They reach the inner edge of the sixth circle and find rubble that was formerly

a cliff but which was destroyed in the great earthquake that shook Hell when

Christ died. The stench that arises from the seventh circle is so powerful that

they seek shelter behind a tomb to accustom themselves to the smell. Virgil uses

this time to describe the divisions of Lower Hell. It is now two hours before

sunrise on Holy Saturday. (Virgil is somehow able to track the motion of the

stars, which cannot be seen in Hell as they are a symbol of God’s shining hope

and virtue.) While descending the rocks, Virgil manages to trick the Minotaur,

who tries to block their way. The souls of the violent against neighbors are

wallowing in a river of blood inside the seventh circle. Many tyrants and

war-makers are punished here. Centaurs patrol the river and menace the Poets as

they try to pass, but Virgil convinces Nessus the Centaur to bear them across.

Nessus deposits them in the second round of the seventh circle, the Wood of

Suicides. Their souls have been trapped in trees whose leaves are chewed off by

Harpies, causing them to bleed. Other souls of the violent against themselves

are chased through the Wood by packs of dogs who tear them to pieces. In round

three of the seventh circle, blasphemers (the violent against God), sodomists

(the violent against Nature, the child of God), and usurers (the violent against

Art, the child of Nature and thus the grandchild of God) are scalded by rains of

fire on a plain of burning sand. (The unnatural rain is a fitting punishment for

their unnatural actions.) Dante walks along the banks of a rill flowing across

the plain and converses with Ser Brunetto Latini, whose writings Dante greatly

admired and from whom he learned numerous literary devices. When the Poets come

within hearing distance of the waterfall that lunges from the seventh into the

eighth circle, three Florentines rush over to Dante and begin speaking of

Florence’s present tate of degradation. At the top of the waterfall Dante

removes a cord from his waste and drops it over the edge, signalling the

approach of a great monster. The monster is Geryon, the Monster of Fraud, who

will fly them down the cliff. As Virgil negotiates for their passage, Dante

examines the souls of the usurers. He sees them crouching on the edge of the

burning plain with purses (bearing the coats of arms of prominent Florentine

families) hanging from their necks. Returning to Virgil, he mounts Geryon’s back

with him and they fly around the waterfall and down the cliff. Geryon deposits

them in the eighth circle, Malebolge (Evil Ditches) which consists of ten

bolgias (ditches/pockets); those guilty of simple fraud are punished therein.

Stone dikes running from ditch to ditch will serve as bridges on which the Poets

can cross them. The first bolgia contains the souls of panderers and seducers,

eternally driven by lashes from horned demons. The souls of the flatterers are

sunk in excrement. The souls of simoniacs (those who corrupted the Church by

making a profit from it) are in the third bolgia, jammed upside-down inside

tube-like holes in the ground with fire scalding the soles of their feet, and

are jammed farther into the holes as new sinners arrive to take their places.

(Baptismal fonts in Northern Italy were constructed similarly in Dante’s time,

and by making a mockery of baptism the simoniacs are punished likewise.) Dante

(good Catholic that he is) makes a heated denouncement of these sinners, and

afterwards is carried up a ledge to the fourth bolgia by Virgil. They stand on

the bridge over the fourth bolgia and gaze upon the souls of fortunetellers and

diviners. In life these people wished to see into the future through forbidden

methods, so their heads are placed backward on their shoulders – they can never

see in front of themselves and can only walk backwards through eternity. In the

fifth bolgia are the souls of the grafters, sunk in boiling pitch and guarded by

demons who tear them with grappling hooks if they dare to rise above the

surface. These demons present the only physical danger to Dante during his

journey (some have surmised that this is due to the fact that Dante was exiled

from Florence on false charges of grafting). Virgil hides Dante behind some

rocks while he negotiates with the demons leader, Malacoda, and is guaranteed

passage to the next bridge, as the one intended to be crossed lies shattered.

When two of the demons are tricked into the pitch by a couple of wily sinners, a

rescue is organized by the remaining demons while Dante and Virgil take

advantage of the confusion to sneak away. Fearing pursuit by the demons, the

Poets slide down the bank of the sixth bolgia to hide. There they see the souls

of the hypocrites moving slowly round a narrow track, weighted down by outwardly

beautiful robes that are actually made of lead. (Excellent symbolism here – in

life their outward appearance was that of bright holiness, but now their

consciences bear the weight of their ugly, terrible guilt.) The Poets find that

Malacoda lied to them about the existence of the bridge and are obligated to

climb up the opposite bank to exit the seventh bolgia. They walk the length of

the bridge across the seventh bolgia and observe the souls of the thieves. These

souls are trapped in the coils of reptiles who bind their hands behind their

backs and pierce their veins. Some sinners appear to Dante as humans, others as

reptiles; he watches as one of the reptiles latches itself onto one of the

humans and exchanges forms with him. The eighth bolgia contains the souls of the

evil counselors – those who abused their God-given gifts for evil purposes – who

are completely engulfed in flames. Dante speaks to a flame and finds that the

souls of Ulysses and Diomede, soldiers in the Trojan war, are contain within and

listens to the story of Ulysses’s last voyage. He then speaks to a lord of

Romagna, discussing its tragic state of affairs. The Poets continue to the ninth

bolgia, where they see the sowers of discord. Because in life they separated

what God had intended to be united, they are hacked at and torn apart by a demon

bearing a bloody sword. They are divided into three classes: sowers of religious

discord (Mohammed is chief among these), sowers of political discord, and sowers

of discord among kinsmen. Virgil hurries Dante onto the bridge over bolgia ten,

where they observe the falsifiers. These souls are subjected to various kinds of

corruption (disease, filth, darkness, stench) as they corrupted society in life

by their falsifications. They are divided into four classes: alchemists

(falsifiers of things), evil impersonators (falsifiers of persons),

counterfeiters (falsifiers of money), and false witnesses (falsifiers of words).

Dante observes two of the falsifiers quarrel with one another until he is

reprimanded by Virgil. The Poets approach the Central Pit, which contains

Cocytus, the final circle of Hell. The Pit is guarded by half-buried Titans,

placed here because they symbolize earthly passions that men must strive to

overcome. One of the Titans helps the Poets by lowering them to Cocytus in the

palm of his hand. Cocytus is a frozen lake and the souls guilty of treachery

against those to whom they were bound by special ties are frozen to varying

degrees within. This ice is divided into four concentric rings: Ca?na (named

for the biblical Cain, it contains the souls of the treacherous against

relatives), Antenora (for the treacherous to their country, named for the Trojan

who betrayed his city during the Trojan war), Ptolomea (named for Ptolemaeus

Maccabeus who murdered his father-in-law, for the treacherous to guests and

hosts), and Judecca (named for Judas Iscariot, reserved for the treacherous to

their masters). Satan himself is in the very center, beating his huge wings in a

vain attempt to free himself from the grip of the ice. He has three hideous

faces (a mockery of the Holy Trinity) and chews a sinner in each of his mouths -

Judas, Cassius, and Brutus. To exit Hell, the Poets climb down Satan’s hairy

flanks until they pass over the center of gravity and emerge at the Mount of

Purgatory on the other side of the world to finally gaze at the stars.

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