Inferno Study Questions
There are two large concerns that I would ask you to be particularly aware of throughout the poem, but which Dante seems to be particularly aware of them in the poem's first 5 Cantos.
A. Metaliterary questions. Sorry for the lapse into jargon, but in contemporary litspeak, putting the prefix "meta-" in front of a word means that a work is self-conscious of the implications of its own artistry. People speak of metanarrative, works of fiction where in some sense the "real" subject matter is the nature of narrative itself; or of metadrama, plays which are aware of their own theatricality. (Think of Hamlet's play-within-a-play, Hamlet's advice to the members of the visiting acting troupe, Fortinbras' final command that Hamlet's body be borne to a stage. One aspect of this play is its self-awareness of itself as drama, a people in addressing this question sometimes speak of it as "metadramatic." Dante is aware of the literariness of his own enterprise, and you will find him addressing and inviting such questions throughout the text. A few suggestions for these cantos:
At the end of Inferno 5, Francesca blames a book (and its author) for her adultery. Dante (Pilgrim) faints after her speech. Does he faint in sympathy for her suffering? Out of some sense of responsibility as an author of the type of amatory poetry whose vocabulary she has assimilated (see esp. 5.100-108)? Out of horror that one's text can be so disastrously misread? (Surely Dante's "point" in writing such poetry was not to encourage this type of behavior.) Is the canto as a whole suggesting something about reading? You'd need to know the 13th-century prose "Vulgate Cycle" of the Arthurian story to unravel Francesca's assertions, but in the book she and Paolo were reading, a) it was Guinevere, not Lancelot, who took the initiative and kissed the other first, and b) if they had read farther in it that day, they'd have seen that the love affair led to civil war, the destruction of Camelot, and that both lovers in remorse entered religious houses where they lived out their days.
B. In Inferno 4, the souls of the virtuous pagans can be found in an area where a fire carves out a hemisphere of light in the darkness of hell. When Dante asks about the reason for their privileged position, Virgil responds, "Their honored fame, which resounds in your life above, wins grace in Heaven, which thus advances them" (4.76-78). What is Dante's relationship to fame in this poem? To honor (another favorite word of Canto 4)? As a person of accomplishment, he seems to want it, but as a Christian writing a conversion narrative, it may be a hindrance to his eternal pleasure. This is a poem, after all, where the greatest poet of the Latin world gets supplanted by a woman who died without worldly accomplishment at the age of 25.
6. Describe Cerberus. Pay attention to the specific terms in which he is described? In Canto 6, Dante meets Ciacco: the first Florentine in the Otherworld, the first to speak about contemporary politics, the first to "predict" Dante's "future" exile. What particular figures of speech does he use when speaking to Dante?
7. How many categories of sin are described in Canto 7? How is the canto itself structured, i.e., how does Dante distribute the narrative material over the canto's 130 lines? What role does fortune play in the universe as Dante describes it here? Why would Dante introduce this particular issue (which might have been dealt with anywhere in the poem) at this particular point?
8-9. The treatment of Filippo Argenti has been a problem for many of the poem's readers. Is Dante's behavior here to be praised? Blamed? In Cantos 8-9, what do we learn about the nature of (and limits of) Virgil's power? Why the sudden shift in Canto 9 away from more mimetic forms of narrative to something closer to allegory (complete with the direct address to the reader to look "under the veil of the strange verses," 9.63)?
10. Imagine that you have been asked to illustrate the Commedia. How would you draw the scene in which Farinata appears. Does this scene remind you of any medieval/renaissance paintings you may know? Does Dante present Farinata favorably? Heroically? Hint for future reading: take note of the reference to the battle of Montaperti, the battle which "dyed the Arbia red" 10.86). In this battle which took place in 1260, the Florentine Ghibbelines with their Sienese allies defeated the Florentine Guelfs and ruled the city from then until the Guelf victory at the battle of Benevento in 1266, the year after Dante's birth. It seems to have achieved a significant stature within Florentine civic mythology, and Dante refers to it directly and indirectly several more times in the course of the Commedia.
How would you characterize Farinata's relationship to his eternal "tomb-mate," Cavalcante? His relationship to Dante and Dante's ancestors? How does Dante react to him? How does Farinata's discussion of the souls' knowledge of the future alter what we and the Pilgrim learned from Ciacco? What is it that he foretells?
11. Why does this exposition about the structure of hell occur at this point in the poem? Why is the sin of Usury, here characterized as "violence against art," given such strange prominence in the categorizing of sins?
Cantos 12-17 cover the different subdivisions of the circle of Violence. Review the terrain you've covered after you finish, so the nature of the differences and similarities are clear to you. How are flora and fauna represented in these cantos? What is the topography? Why does Dante make so many subdivisions and spend so much time in this circle? Exactly what is the contrapasso in each of these subdivisions? How are they symbolically appropriate?
12. How would you characterize Dante's Centaurs, especially in comparison with the other guardian figures of Inferno? Of all the Centaurs, why would Nessus be the one who receives particular attention?
13. What function do the Harpies fulfill? In what specific way are they introduced? Of all the suicides in history, why Pier della Vigna?
14. The Old Man of Crete?!? What gives here? Why the shift to such an emblematic, non-narrative device?
15. Is the sin here homosexuality? (Apparently so, although recently some people have argued that the offense of Brunetto and the others is against language, rather than against sexuality. If it is a sexual offense, wouldn't you expect to find these people in the same circle as Francesca (by analogy with Purgatorio 26, where the homosexual lustful are found along with the "hermaphrodite"?) According to Brunetto, what is the relationship between accomplishment and eternal life? What is Dante's attitude toward this relationship? How are we to read lines 79-81? They seem to involve a great compliment to Brunetto, but also may obscure the reality that he wouldn't "be there" at all except that Dante chose to put him there.
16. Big "unanswerable" questions here: What is that cord and how does it function? Why is it here (at the end of the canto) that Dante first calls his work by name, "this Comedy"? Why do we make another of those stylistic shifts at this moment, from the world of history with those Florentine military heroes at the start of the Canto to this composite, symbol-dripping critter at the end?
17. What is this Geryon, anyway? How (specifically) is he described at the start of the canto? What (specifically) does he do at the end? In between, Dante goes off to spend some time with the Usurers. What is the effect of having them share this canto with Geryon? This is literally--geographically--a transitional moment in the poem. Without Geryon's help, you can't get there from here. Is there a sense that it is transitional in some other, more profound way, as well?
18. The way in which Dante chooses to group categories of human behavior seems significant. Why are these three sins from two different bolge all found together in one canto? Are there any concepts that seem to connect them? Any details of language (similarity of diction, for example)? Why are these specific souls selected: are they generic representatives of their classes or something about them in particular contributing to meaning in this canto? Are they related to each other in some perceivable way?
What about the truism I keep trotting out that Dante meets characters who teach him what it means to be Dante? Does that hold true in this circle?
19. This is a canto with three different examples of "apostrophe," the figure of speech in which a person rhetorically addresses a person who is absent ("Milton, thou should'st be living at this hour") or an abstraction (""). Exactly what is said in each of the three? Pay special attention to the specific language. On what terms does the Pilgrim condemn the contemporary Papacy in his denunciation near the end of the Canto?
20. A strange Canto! Why does Dante make so much of trying to read the future? Does he think he has an exclusive franchise on pretending to do so? What an unusual beginning to a Canto? How come? Why here? Why the "correction" of the Aeneid version of the origin of Mantua? Why the reference to Dante's mastery of the whole of the Aeneid here, and why refer to the poem here as Virgil's "tragedy" (20.113-114)?
21-23. Two and a half cantos on Barratry? Why so much space? Why are the devils treated in such an apparently contradictory manner--terrifying and yet farcically comic at the same time? How many different examples of lying, of deception can you find in these cantos? Why does the episode conclude with the transition to hypocrisy? How is the exchange with the "Jovial Friars" connected to the previous two and a half cantos?
The next section of the poem begins with four cantos presented as two pairs: 24-25 on the thieves and 26-27 on the "fraudulent counselors." In various ways, these cantos seem all to be self-consciously (though indirectly) concerned with exploring aspects of the nature of poetry.
24. Work out the specific details of the comparison at the beginning of the canto. What is being compared to what? In what language? In lines 46-60, we have a return to the question of the importance of fame to human accomplishment. Does this advance our sense of how Dante feels about the problem? With what tone should we read these lines about fame? Detail is everything in this poem: how--exactly--does the metamorphosis of Vanni Fucci take place?
25. Addresses to the reader, because they interrupt our "suspended disbelief," inevitably focus our attention on specific issues, often issues concerning the work's "literariness." What issues are raised in the address in lines 46-48? Why the comparisons to the accomplishments of Lucan and Ovid (two of our old friends from the poet's corner in Limbo)? How do these references relate to the discourse on fame in the previous canto? I often find myself advising Dante readers just to read carefully: Dante has a way of rewarding that. In this case, read the end of the canto carefully (esp. 142-147).
26. This is one of those intense dramatic exchanges so beloved by the poem's 19th-century readers, one rendered particularly arresting because it provides a revisionist evaluation of one of the great figures of classical literature: Ulysses is the Latin name for Homer's hero Odysseus. As the only major figure from antiquity who gets a major speech, Ulysses seems to demand some explanation. His lengthy speech really combines two pieces of rhetoric into one: the words spoken to Virgil and Dante in bolgia 8 and the earlier ones to his crew imbedded within this speech. We've come to expect that in the economy of the poem, a character's brief words provide some explanation of "what they're in for." Are we to believe that Ulysses' earlier speech, which seems so noble, demonstrates why he's here? Do his words to Virgil and Dante provide an evaluation of that earlier speech? Is there a way in which the fate of this ancient hero is supposed to have particular significance for Dante? Why in this canto, (lines 19-24) do we have such an intense focus on the division between the experiences of Pilgrim and Poet. What is the effect of the double epic simile: the souls are like fireflies and like Elijah's chariot. Do the specific words of Virgil on the offenses for which Ulysses and Diomedes are here provide some clue about the vision of Dante (the Poet)?
27. A canto with an unsolved mystery. Guido da Montefeltro was a great Ghibbeline military leader in Northern Italy during Dante's young adulthood. A great tactician, he was nicknamed "the fox." In 1296, when he was in his 70's and two years before his death, he abandoned his military preoccupations and joined the Franciscan order. In the Convivio(4.28), Dante praises him as model of conversion in old age. A few years later, Dante presents this radically different evaluation of his life, but there is no other contemporary documentary evidence beyond this poem to implicate Guido in Boniface's military adventure. According to this canto, exactly what was the advice he gave to Boniface? Does this advice have larger implications in this canto? In this bolgia? In his self-representation, his life is a tragedy: he would have made it, but 'Boniface's treachery deceived him and stole heaven from him. Does the text work against this characterization? (Cocktail party chatter: did you notice that lines 61-66 are T.S. Eliot's epigraph for "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock?)
28. Lots of corporeal imagery in this canto which ends with the poem's unique use of the word, contrapasso. Are there ways in which the mutilations in this canto are symbolic or metaphoric. How many forms of separation or division can you find here? Bertran de Bornh is one of the few medieval vernacular poets in Inferno. What kind of a poet is he? What is the nature of the highly literary beginning of this canto (which ends with a dramatic encounter with a poet). Explicate the canto's opening lines. Mosca is said to have said, "Capo ha cosa fatto, literally, "a thing done has a head," i.e., there are unavoidable consequences to one's actions, thereby initiating the Guelf-Ghibbeline violence. How do these words play themselves out in the canto?
29. More on this last bolgia when we consider canto 30. What is the effect of the bizarre, incongruous-seeming similes used to introduce Griffolino and Capocchio? Why does the Pilgrim join Griffolino in promoting ethnic jokes against the Sienese--gratuitously adding other groups in the process: they're even dumber than the French. A larger question: how credible are the words of a condemned (by "Minos, to whom it is not allowed to err," 120) falsifier?
30. Dante seems to spend a disproportionately large amount of time (lines 1-21) in a "double-pseudo-epic simile" comparing Gianni Schicchi and Myrrha to figures from classical texts. What are the exact terms of the implied comparison? Exactly what is the offense attributed to this pair? (In Dante's text, not in someone's notes?) Differentiate between this pair and Master Adam, representative of the next sub-group. How does Master Adam represent himself in his monologue of self-presentation (58-90)? What characterizes Sinon and Potiphar's wife? What qualities do they share?
30. Dante seems to spend a disproportionately large amount of time (lines 1-21) in a "double-pseudo-epic simile" comparing Gianni Schicchi and Myrrha to figures from classical texts. What are the exact terms of the implied comparison? Exactly what is the offense attributed to this pair? (In Dante's text, not in someone's notes?) Differentiate between this pair and Master Adam, representative of the next sub-group. How does Master Adam represent himself in his monologue of self-presentation (58-90)? What characterizes Sinon and Potiphar's wife? What qualities do they share? Why does the Pilgrim feel such intense shame at the end of this canto? (I don't think there's a similarly detailed reaction anywhere else in the Commedia. Doesn't the Pilgrim in a sense do here what we do as readers?) Why Virgil's reassurance that he will be with Dante at analogous future moments? Does he mean during the fictionalized time of the poem's journey? Outside of the poem in the life of the poet? The usual question at the end: what do these characters (especially a counterfeiter) have to do with Dante?!?)
31. Why the return so deep in hell to guardian figures from classical antiquity? I thought we had left that sort of device back in the first half of Inferno. From what two major sources do these giants come, and how are they differentiated? Why is Antaeus the one who serves as transport? Why the focus on tongues at the start of the canto?
32. Another of those divided cantos: 139 lines, 96 in Caina, 70 in Antenora. The first 15 lines are self-consciously literary--an address to the reader followed by an invocation. Again as always with Dante, large meaning comes from small detail: read this section carefully and be sure you understand at the most fundamental, most literal level what the lines say. In what ways does this canto play with the idea of "signifying" with the mouth? How do you feel about the Pilgrim's violence against the trapped Bocca?
33. To continue a thought: how do you feel about the Pilgrim's deception of Fra Alberigo? Is Ugolino's literal imprisonment an emblem of his spiritual state? Was he guilty of cannibalism? (Does this matter? What's at stake in asking this question?) What is the relationship between Ugolino's speech and revenge? What do we learn from Ugolino about why he is in hell? Do you notice any echoes here in the presentation of the last major figures in Inferno of Francesca and Paolo, the first? In the description of the "body snatchers" in the Ptolemaea section (the canto's second half), are the souls once again, as with those in Antenora, imprisoned?
34. Which aspects of Satan are emphasized in this canto? Lucifer had aspired to be like
God. Now that you've seen what God is like, can you see ways in which he ironically gets his
wish? The second half of the canto involves a question and answer format. What three
questions does Dante pose and how does Virgil answer them?