The Inferno is the first in a trio of epic poems where Dante is led through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Virgil, the classical Roman poet, leads him through Hell, where Dante sees all the different ways that sinners are punished according to their crimes.
The Inferno can be read in two ways. First, and less important to me, is the fact that Dante wrote this book as a scathing attack on many of his enemies in Florence. Dante’s family was in a political feud with another segment of the family, and the feud went all the way up to the Pope and other high-ranked clergymen. Many of the people Dante meets in Hell are his political enemies, and he accuses them of a whole myriad of crimes and sins. Of course, I don’t know very much about history, especially not Italian and Catholic history around the year 1300, so most of the information I learned about all this came from the notes on the text, which I read after each of the 34 Cantos.
The second way to read this is as Dante’s feelings and assertions on the culpability of the soul and the weight of various moral/immoral acts. The Hell in this book is a Catholic Hell, with the punished acts those that the Catholic church considers sins (or at least considered sins at the time). Dante doesn’t just throw everyone into a lake of fire, though, like the title of the book might suggest. Instead, he introduces the idea of contrapasso, or punishment that repeats or furthers the crime. Each circle or pit of Hell has the sinners punished in a way that fits their crimes: the gluttons are chewed on, the diviners have their heads turned backwards, the schismatics are cut to pieces, etc. Many of the punishments are gruesome, and I can see why a book such as this one might frighten someone who believed in Hell and Catholic dogma in 1300 into behaving according to the church’s morality code!
What I find really interesting about the book, though, is that in many ways it’s a statement on free will and what we do with it. The church (or at least Dante’s interpretation of the church) believes that God gave each of us free will to make of our lives what we want, but that if we don’t use our free will to choose the right path, we will be punished accordingly. The punishments in The Inferno aren’t meant to just be cruel, but more to, as I said before, extend or personify the sin. The sinners feel the punishment because they have sinned. They feel their sin in this external fashion, rather than just receiving punishment. The punishments, personifying the sins themselves, grow more torturous through the journey.
On the surface, it might seem strange to see the order that Dante places the sins in. For instance, political corruption is considered far worse than murder in Dante’s Hell. But if you understand his ideas about free will and the balance of mind, body, and spirit, it starts to make more sense. In Canto XI, Virgil describes the partitioning of Hell:
Three dispositions counter to Heaven’s will
Incontinence, malice, and insane brutality
Hell is divided on these lines. In the beginning, the pre-Hell, is limbo, where the souls of those who refused to take sides reside. They are so low they aren’t even technically in Hell! While I’m not sure everyone would agree, my reading of this is that those who refused to choose and thus negated their free will didn’t deserve a place in the afterlife, even in Hell, and were instead forced into a non-existence for the rest of eternity. Once through the gates of Hell (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”), the first circle is the only one unpunished. It’s a circle belonging to unbaptized babies and virtuous pagans, their only “punishment” a longing to be with God because they never had a chance to know in life. Beyond this first circle, Hell divides into the three categories outlined above.
Circles two through five are sins of incontinence. They are lesser sins, where the sinner is only guilty of letting his body take over his mind: lust, gluttony, spenders, hoarders, the wrathful and the sullen. Circles six and seven – seven split into three sections – are sins of violence, against others, self, nature, art, and God. Circles eight and nine deal with the most willful of sins: fraud and betrayal, each broken into multiple types. Sinners are brought to their appropriate level of punishment based on the worst of their sins, and that is why murder may seem a lesser evil than political corruption. Murder is punished in the first ring of Circle Seven, but we also meet murderers punished in later circles because of the willful way they murdered – through fraud or betrayal. The fraud or betrayal is a worse sin, according to Dante’s pen, than the murder itself.
I first read The Inferno way back my freshman year in college, and while I don’t know that I properly understood everything in it – not that I fully do now either! – I really loved the book. I was really happy that the volume I read this time was so well laid out. It’s a new (and wonderful) translation by Robert Pinsky, and each Canto has its own section in the back with notes. I took time to read those notes after every Canto and that really helped me to understand better. There was also a chart and map of Hell in the beginning section which helped. I’m hoping to read Purgatorio and Paradiso at some point in the future as I’ve never read those! If possible, I will read from this same translator.
Note: Originally read in Jan/Feb 1998.