The Inferno Dante Alighieri
The Inferno • Author: Dante Alighieri • Culture: Italian • Genre: commedia (a poetic form with both high and low registers) • ‘supreme representation of the medieval mind in European imaginative or visionary lit.’
Historical Context • The city-state of Florence, Italy, had 2 political groups, the Blacks and the Whites (Dante’s group). • 1302: The Blacks seized power, exiling the Whites. Dante was banished from Florence on pain of death. • Convicted in absentia on the trumped up charge that he had misused funds when he held office (the sin of graft, see Circle 8, Bolga 5).
Reaction to Changed Circumstances • Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in exile, finishing it shortly before his death in 1321. • His first love (courtly), Beatrice Portinari (1266-1290), appears in the DC as a heavenly guide whose name signifies blessedness or salvation. She stands for Divine Love.
Structure • Highly wrought. Three main divisions, corresponding to the Trinity (3 is a sacred number): • Hell (shows us those who put something before God) • Purgatory (shows us those seeking to be good) • Paradise (shows us those enjoying the good) • All these are identical in length. • Opening canto (prologue to entire work), then 33 cantos for each division, totaling 100, the square of 10, a perfect number.
Another Structural Pattern Each division (Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise) ends with the same word, stelle (stars) - which are the visible signs of God’s oversight. Inferno: 9 circles contain 3 types of sinners. Purgatory: Ante-Purgatory, 7 terraces, then Earthly Paradise (9 total). Paradise: 9 embedded spheres beyond which lies the Trinity.
The Inferno (Hell) Lost souls are in 3 main groups and occupy 9 circles (see p.1076). The idea of eternal punishment follows Christian doctrine of the time. Dante’s journey takes him down the 9 concentric circles, from the least sins to the greatest types of evil.
Ante-Hell • The abode of those who refused to choose between right and wrong; moral neutrals. • For this relatively small sin, they are punished by small annoyances (insects and such).
Inferno Organization • Boundary river between the Ante-Hell and Limbo (circle of virtuous pagans who did not know Christ) is Acheron (a classical reference; a river in Hades, the Greek underworld).
The Three Great Sins Circles of those guilty of Self-Indulgence (illicit lovers, gluttons, hoarders and spendthrifts, those of violent or sullen dispositions) Circles of those guilty of Violence Circles of those guilty of Fraud (treachery, treason) Bottom: Lucifer/Satan.
Punishment • The punishment fits the crime - in fact, it IS the crime. • Sinners are doomed to the endless act of sinning.
Roman History and Literature • To Dante, a Medieval Italian, the Roman empire had been divinely ordained: Christ first came in the reign of Augustus. • He wants to recreate the empire (a united Italy) for the second coming. • Caesar’s assassins disobeyed divine will, and so earned their place in Satan’s mouths. • Dante works with both the classical and Christian traditions.
Canto 1 Unlike epic poetry, the Commedia begins with action, not a proem. Explanations occur as we go along. Main character and narrator: Dante, a wandering hero and a pilgrim. A hero going to the underworld is a staple of Greco-Roman epic (Odysseus, Aeneas) as well as of Christian theology (Christ harrowing Hell).
The Inferno is an account of the effect of a journey on the man who takes it - a record of moral and spiritual experience of illumination, regeneration, beatitude (in this, it is a bit like Augustine’s works). The narrative is both literal and allegorical (full of symbols).
The Dark Wood of Error Canto 1: the narrator tells us that he was 35 years old, he became ‘lost in a wood,’ ‘threatened by three beasts’ - the She-Wolf (self-indulgence), the Lion (violence), and the Leopard (Fraud).