The Comedy was written during the period of Dante's exile from his native city of Florence; it was begun perhaps as early as 1307 and completed shortly before his death in 1321. The fictional setting of the narrative, however, is 1300, a year and a half before his exile was to begin, during the great Jubilee Year called by Pope Boniface VIII. In the fiction of Dante the exiled poet, the younger Dante is at the height of his political success (having just been elected one of the six priors of Florence), and is widely respected as a talented love poet and as an intellectual of universal interests, who would have had no reason to anticipate his precipitous downfall through partisan politics in the near future. From the perspective of his later life, however, Dante the poet looks back upon what the world would call his period of greatest success and styles it retrospectively a time of moral failure.
To be specific, the poem begins with Dante lost in a famous allegorical landscape. In the brief space of 60 lines, terror piles on terror: the wilderness, the near drowning in "the lake of my heart," the "pass that none had ever left alive," and then, just as the danger seems ended, the beasts--the prowling leopard, the raging lion, and the she-wolf that stalks our desperate hero back into the woods. The context makes clear the symbolic implications of the scene. The landscape forms the background to a psychomachia in which Dante has strayed from the straight road and so must face circumstances and creatures who represent threats to his soul's survival.
The movement of the Comedy is the archetypal Christian one of conversion. From this moment of spiritual confusion and moral isolation Dante takes us with him on a journey through the realms of the dead until finally, in the 100th canto, supposedly wholly reconciled to God, fellow humans, and self, he describes to us his vision of God. The main premise of the poem's fiction is that at the end of the poem Dante, the confused sinner of canto 1, has become the poet whose integrative vision can recreate the whole universe, and the saved Christian whose self-knowledge can place into perspective his earlier life. As Dante journeys through hell, purgatory, and paradise, therefore, he is also going through states of personal and human potential, and we accompany him on this pilgrimage from darkness to light, from ignorance to wisdom. Part of the poem's fun is involved in watching the pilgrim grow in wisdom and confidence, approaching closer and closer to the vision of the poet until, finally, in the last canto of the Comedy, they merge.
In Inferno, therefore, two movements are involved, one external and one internal. On the level of external journey, Dante moves down into the center of the earth, to the Satanic core of Hell, through various discrete regions where specific modes of sinfulness are punished in symbolically apt ways. The general movement is of degree of severity. The deeper the pilgrim goes, the more he--and we--learn about the psychology of sin, of the sinful instincts we all share, and of God's justice. By the time the journey ends, Dante is sufficiently aware of the evil to begin the purgative process that leads ultimately to God.
The first step must be to understand this evil, and this is where Virgil comes into the story. Three souls guide Dante through the otherworld: Virgil, from the dark wood, through Inferno, up Mt. Purgatory to the Earthly Paradise; Beatrice, from the Earthly Paradise, up through the various circles of heaven; and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who takes over in the Empyrean, in what medieval Christians would have thought of as heaven proper, the permanent presence of God beyond time and space.
Virgil appears in the first canto of Inferno as Dante is forced back into the woods by the wolf. He identifies himself and foretells the journey in store. In Dante's reaction to Virgil's introduction of himself, we can sense the special role the pagan poet played in Dante's life and will play in his salvation. Dante calls himself an apprentice who learned from master Virgil how to ply his craft, and now he asks: "Help me against her [the wolf], famous sage, for she makes my veins and pulses tremble" (I, 89-90).
Virgil was to the Middle Ages, the greatest and wisest poet of classical antiquity, author of the Aeneid (often Christianized by heavy allegory), and of the fourth eclogue whose hyperbolic celebration of an aristocratic birth was seen as prophetic of the birth of Jesus during the pax Augustana. Without ever ceasing to be himself in the Comedy, Virgil is also a figure of natural humanity at its best, of all that one can achieve artistically, intellectually, and morally without supernatural aid. Left to one's own devices, a person can reason out and classify the various modes of moral evil and can comprehend the value of systematic "purification" through self-denial. Virgil, therefore, accompanies Dante on this part of the journey, up to the earthly paradise. Beyond this point, Dante's experience can be comprehended only by understanding the truths of Christianity, and so Virgil returns to hell, victim of what one of my students once referred to as planned obsolescence.
The origin of Virgil's mission to Dante, meanwhile, is explained in canto 2, in response to Dante's protest that he is not worthy of the kind of journey Virgil promises. ("I am not Aeneas. I am not Paul.") The Virgin Mary (v. 94) takes pity upon the wayfarer struggling for survival in canto 1, and so she goes to St. Lucy, who goes to Beatrice, who goes to Virgil, who appears to Dante. Mary had become by the High Middle Ages considered "mediatrix of grace," the mother of mercy whose feminine tenderness on behalf of all her children can blunt the sword of God's justice. The medieval instinct for hierarchy may be at work, however, in her going to Lucy, a martyr associated with moral steadfastness, whose name is linked etymologically to the word light and who may, therefore, have been considered a special patroness of intellectual pursuit. It is as though Mary decided that the best way to save the cowardly but intellectual Dante is through a saint famous for moral stubbornness who may also serve as something of a celestial emblem of intellectual vision. Lucy in turn decided to go to Beatrice, Dante's private saint, the saved soul most likely to effect the desired conversion. Beatrice, finally, apparently acknowledging that Dante, in his confusion, would respond to no divine summons, even from her, sends Virgil, the only call to virtue Dante will respond to. In his apostasy, Dante may have lost the intensity of his faith, but in his devotion to secular learning lies his potential salvation. In elaborate allegorical fashion, Dante seems to be proclaiming that it was his reading of pagan literature, specifically of Virgil, that convinced him that he was, even in his successes of 1300, on the wrong path and that inspired him to seek the truth that he eventually rediscovered in Christianity.
Virgil is a marvelously complex figure. Not only was he literally the author who exercised such a profound influence on Dante, and not only was he representative of natural humanity, he also in his life and work touched many concerns central to Dante. The overriding theme of the Aeneid, the celebration of the Roman Empire, would have been sympathetically received by Dante (who became increasingly committed during his exile to the concept of a single world ruler), as would Aeneas's great sense of duty and purpose in rejecting the comforts of Dido's Carthage to renew his quest. Like Dante, Virgil was of a learned and scholarly temper, and Dante seems to have deduced from him more than from any one else how to tame that learning to the demands of art and so avoid being a mere encyclopedist.
As one might expect, therefore, in canto XI, when Virgil explains the structure of Inferno by classification of sins, he follows pre-Christian traditions, an amalgam of Aristotle and Cicero. Pagans are perfectly capable of discerning the effects of original sin, the darkening of moral vision and weakening of will that afflicts all the offspring of Adam and Eve. What they cannot do without God's grace is remedy the all-too-visible difficulties.
In general, as one descends into hell from the surface to the Satanic core, the sins punished become increasingly grievous. The three general categories, Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud, move from sins of self-indulgence where one injures only one's self or, if others, only cumulatively, to sins of more sudden, catastrophic, and other-directed violence, and finally to the worst sins of all, those that more specifically involve the intellect.
The external journey also typifies an internal one, however, so that the descent into hell is also a descent into self, into the potential for evil that exists at the core of us all. The structure of Dante's descent reaffirms the traditional Christian psychology that each sinful act makes subsequent sin easier. Acts of apparently harmless self-indulgence draw our sympathy, as well as the sympathy of Dante the pilgrim, and make us forget that sin is, for a medieval Christian, nothing but the soul's decision to do its own will rather than God's. Giving in to ourselves in matters of mere creature comfort leads inevitably in Dante's scheme, in ways we shall shortly examine, to increasingly serious destructive modes of selfishness, unless we experience a conversion, literally a "turning" away from this path.
Before turning ourselves to a more specific consideration of the "plot" of Inferno, we need to consider one last generalization. Dorothy Sayers says that the Comedy is "the drama of the soul's choice," a point that had been made before, but perhaps not so concisely. The fiction Dante insists upon is that no one has been consigned to a position in the otherworld either through the generosity or through the hostility of God's justice; all the souls Dante meets are where they have chosen to be. Those who have chosen to do the will of God, to discipline and humble themselves and reunite themselves in this life with the Ground of all Being, spend eternity in perpetual celebration in His presence. Those who have made this same choice but need a bit more schooling before actually entering His presence spend some time first on Mt. Purgatory. Those who chose sin, however, spend their eternity confronting an externalization of their peculiar mode of sinfulness. Contrapasso is the awkward-to-translate and hence usually adopted-into-English word for this phenomenon. By an ingenious series of externalized metaphors, Dante reasserts the idea that makes its way into the medieval consciousness via St. Augustine, St. Gregory, and other early Christian thinkers that the true punishment for sin is sin itself. If one accepts as axiomatic that the human spirit can only find ease and comfort in union with God, and if sin separates the soul from God, then God's worst punishment is simply to let sinners continue unchecked to make themselves miserable. Hell is the logical extension of this misery through eternity, with the soul now deprived both of the value of human remorse and of divine mercy. The sin is externalized in all of its ugliness, brutishness, and evil, stripped bare of the veneer with which we all are wont to plate our peccadillos. Any time we feel inclined to feel pity for one of the souls Dante encounters, we would do well to remember that the poem's fiction is that the soul is exactly where (according to the poet) it ought to be and where it has chosen to be (even if the pilgrim--as opposed to the poet--sometimes expresses the pity we are likely to share). The souls often present revisionist autobiographies, but we would do well to be suspicious readers of them since Dante's fictional world is based on a moral geography: where the souls are is our starting point in evaluating whothey are.
Dante conceives of hell as a funnel-shaped indentation beneath the earth's surface which grows increasingly narrow until at the very center of the earth it converges upon the form of Satan. At the moment of his fall (as we learn in the final couple of pages of Inferno), Satan plunged headlong from heaven, crashed into the earth, penetrated it to its center, and remains lodged there at the point furthest removed from the outer edges of the concentrically circular universe (and so, at least from that point of view, furthest removed from God). In his descent to the center, Dante passes through the Gate of Hell, crosses the River Acheron, bypasses three additional areas in the circles of incontinence and comes to city walls inside of which the most serious sins, heresy, violence, and fraud, are punished. Surrounding the city walls as a moat is the Marsh of Styx, the fourth circle of Incontinence.
Immediately inside the walls heretics are punished, and then, in perhaps the most elaborate of all the circles, six categories of souls are punished for violence against neighbor, self, and God, in a single circle with three very different terrains. An impossibly deep and steep abyss separates violence from fraud, both in fact and in Dante's fiction, where a gigantic waterfall plummets off the cliff into the blackness below. Geryon, the personification of Fraud, carries Dante and Virgil on his back down into the abyss, drops the poets off and vanishes, leaving them to survey the eighth circle, the malebolge. Dante conceives of them as a series of ten concentric ditches carved out of the inner wall of the funnel, crossed by a series of spoke-like roadways that bridge the ditches and by which the poets can make their way to the center. In each ditch a different category of fraud is punished in a different, uniquely appropriate, way.
Finally the lowest area of all in hell is located at the bottom of a deep circular well. Stationed around the perimeter of the well, their torsos sticking up over the edge are a half dozen giants, one of whom, Antaeus, gently deposits the poets down upon the frozen floor of hell. Here, at the center of evil, all the infernal waters, and all the tears and blood of suffering humanity gather and freeze in the total absence of love. Here those souls are trapped in the ice who have been treacherous, that is, fraudulent to those who especially deserved loyalty. At the center of this frozen lake, his torso coming up above the surface, Satan himself, with his three faces, perpetually gnaws on Brutus and Cassius and Judas Iscariot.
In canto 3 the descent begins. Dante and Virgil come to the Gate of Hell, with God's words carved over the entry as over an imperial triumphal arch or gateway. Virgil explains that the souls inside have lost "the good of the intellect," takes Dante by the hand, and they enter. Immediately, Dante gets a taste of infernal suffering in the treatment of the opportunists (even though the souls are not, technically speaking, "in" hell, being vomited forth even from there; Dante's lack of sympathy for those who lack zeal is one of the hallmarks of his vision). Dante then comes to the River Acheron where the souls crowd together like heaps of dead leaves, has a surly exchange with Charon, is reminded that he would not be in hell at all if he were not himself a sinner, and then, while God thoughtfully provides a background of earthquake, windstorm, and lightning-flash against a red sky, Dante faints.
He awakens in Canto 4 to find himself somehow transported over the river and now in the circle of limbo with the virtuous pagans. They have not participated in Christ's redemption, and so cannot enter heaven, but they are also, in their first circle spared the physical torment of the rest of hell. The logic of Dante's conception drives this notion, too: If such torment is the externalization of moral evil, then those guilty of no such evil face no such suffering. They are "rewarded" with the afterlife they have chosen.
Limbo was a place postulated by early Christians as a haven for the souls of unbaptized children. These Christians felt trapped by what seemed an inherent contradiction in their system of belief. If no one could enter heaven without baptism and if God were perfectly just and merciful, how could He consign to everlasting pain the souls of babies unbaptized through circumstances obviously beyond their control? The solution was to surmise that there must have been a Limbo, literally a borderland, a place free both from the suffering of hell and from the bliss of heaven, in which the souls of these children would remain eternally. Thus were preserved intact the doctrines of God's mercy, of the discrete immortality of each human soul, of eternal rewards and punishment, and of the dependence of salvation upon the church and her sacraments.
An additional problem presented itself to early Christians. If Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and if God revealed Himself through Jewish heroes and writers, they would, of course, have been saved for their belief in Christ, "in anticipation." Surely, however, these souls who strove to do the will of God and who were in anticipation among the saved, did not spend thousands of years in a place of suffering. These souls were also believed to have been in Limbo, until called by Jesus on the day after his death. ("The Harrowing of Hell," as this episode in Christ's life is called, or sometimes "The Descent into Hell," is one of the most popular scenes in medieval art.)
Dante places these unbaptized infants elsewhere and adds in his Limbo to the souls of those righteous Jews who have since gone to heaven the souls of virtuous pagans, of the just who lived moral lives as far as people could without the grace of Christianity. Dante puts Virgil there in the company of other poets, and he adds a catalogue of military heroes from the Aeneid and a catalogue of scholars. These souls spend eternity in their private compound, a citadel at the center surrounded by seven battlemented walls and containing an enameled green meadow, the wall illuminated by a radiance that strikes away a hemisphere of light from the darkness of hell. The accomplishments of these souls is so great that it is recognized even in hell (God does acknowledge human excellence). And yet, there is something pitiful about having such great ones, Plato and Aristotle, Caesar and Aeneas, Homer and Virgil, accept such a tawdry eternity, rather like being in a besieged castle with nothing but bathroom tile to walk on. At this point in hell we are inclined to think this an attractive alternative to the torments of the damned, but from the perspective of heaven or even of purgatory its limitations are all too apparent.
Cantos 5-8 take us quickly through four additional circles of hell, the so called circles of Incontinence, creating thereby the effect of a rapid and dizzying descent. The moral gravity of the sins shifts greatly, too, as we move from lust, a sin where at worst, it might be argued, no one is injured but the lovers themselves, to gluttony, where the indulgence is totally selfish, lacking even the presence of the other in the act of indulgence. The circle of hoarding and squandering is the place of torment reserved for those who misused their material wealth for their own self-interest, and the Marsh of Styx the place for wrath, where the overtly angry break the surface like frogs and the sullen lie grumbling and gurgling on the bottom.
The lustful are compared to birds buffeted in a storm; the gluttons are submerged in mud and pelted by freezing rain; the hoarders and wasters roll huge boulders across a dry plain, raising "waves" of dust, and the wrathful are in a fetid swamp. Dante seems to be at pains to emphasize that three of the four elements, air, earth, and water, are implicated in the torments of the incontinent. (Fire, however, the fourth element, is found only inside the walls of the city, after canto 9, where the more serious sins are punished.) Moreover, one mode of torment leads into another, perhaps to emphasize the way one sin leads to another. Thus, the marsh of Styx is an effluent from the circle of avarice, appropriate since in a sense anger or sullenness can be said to "spill over" from disputes over money. The souls in the marsh fight with each other, but no longer as in the circle above in organized "teams" of hoarders and spenders, but in a free for all, a barroom brawl. Finally, the marsh of the wrathful serves in its turn as a logical transition to the circle of violence inside the walls.
In reading cantos 8-9, it is essential to take seriously Dante's attempts to be terrifying. Devils were not mere decorative symbols of vague malevolence to the Middle Ages, but as fallen angels were forces of intelligence and cunning, committed in their hostility to the frustration of God's will. The best way to achieve this would be to pirate as many souls as possible from the ark of the church and torture them eternally, and this is precisely the threat Dante senses in these cantos. The devils slam the gates of the city to the poets, and Virgil, who expects reasonableness, is perplexed and for once in Inferno understands less than the Christian Dante the significance of what happens. The two are required to wait outside the walls until a heavenly messenger comes, like a courtier on a diplomatic mission to a medieval dungeon, to open the gates.
Canto 10, the circle of heresy, is one of those half dozen or so moments of Inferno that most people find most memorable. As Dante wanders among the fiery sarcophagi wherein heretics spend eternity, one of them, Farinata degli Uberti, a great Florentine military leader of the generation before Dante, accosts him in conversation about their city. Farinata's "tomb- mate" Cavalcante, joins them for a while, and the contrasts between the imperious Farinata and the cowering Cavalcante and between the ghibbeline Farinata and the guelf Dante makes this a startling and memorable passage. The canto also is interesting for two parts of Dante's machinery. Farinata is the second Florentine Dante encounters in hell (Ciacco the Glutton had been the first) who predicts Dante's "future" exile. (The poem is set, remember, in 1300). Throughout the poem we should expect this motif to continue: from his fellow citizens Dante learns more and more about the sinister fate in store for him. It is also clear from Cavalcante, however, that the damned have no knowledge of the present. At the end of time, when there will be no longer any future to be dimly known, the damned souls, who cannot know the present, will have no alternative to the memory of their own damning pasts.
After the 11th canto, in which Virgil tells of the structure of hell, Dante proceeds to the circle of the violent. We should not forget, however, that in the way the poem presents itself to a first-time reader, without notes or critical apparatus, not until canto 11 does one understand the significance of the terrain thus far traversed. For Dante the pilgrim, the succession of shocking images only now begins to make sense, only now begins to fall into the pattern that modern readers have laid bare for them from the beginning by obliging editors.
Two motifs dominate and help unify the realm of violence: bestiality and infertility. If we humans are halfway between angels and animals in the chain of being, violence is one of our connections to beasts, and so we find here an assortment of beast-men, from the Minotaur who stands as guardian to the whole region to the Centaurs and Harpies, and finally to the Usurers who, though fully human, are grotesquely bestial in their actions and whose money bags bear their family coats of arms with their lions, geese, and the like. The second notion is infertility; violent action would seem to be an attempt to accomplish something, but in fact such attempts do not bear fruit. Thus the violent against neighbors are in the boiling bloody River Acheron, the suicides are transformed into gnarled trees that bear thorns instead of fruit, and the violent against God, nature, and art are lying, running, and squatting on a burning desert. Nothing in this circle is capable of sustaining life.
At the end of canto 17, Geryon carries the poets down into lower Hell, into the region of fraud, and leaves them to make their way to the center. The typical pattern in this circle (which is dealt with from cantos 18 to 30) is to cross over a ditch via a bridge, to look down upon the souls below, sometimes to descend into the circle itself to speak with, or more closely observe, the souls, and then to pass on to the next ditch. Finally while the movement from the first to the tenth ditch is a geographic descent, all the ditches are considered part of the same circle of fraud. Therefore, the ten categories of fraud do not grow progressively and inevitably more serious, but touch each other in other, more subtle ways. The bridges between the fifth and sixth ditches, however, all broke at the moment of Christ's death, creating a distinction between the two halves of the circle, with the second five ditches perhaps reserved for sins of somewhat greater intellectual manipulation.
The different kinds of fraud do touch and illuminate each other. Panders of bodies are followed by panders of language and then panders of Church offices. The simoniacs, who used materially what should have had exclusively spiritual value, are followed by fortune tellers, who seek a wholly non-Christian spiritual experience. If the simoniacs threaten ecclesiastical stability, the grafters are simoniacs of the earthly city, putting a price tag on civic trust and so undermining communal stability. The logical implications of graft is that order can be imposed only by a police state such as the demons provide; the alternative to such arbitrary authority, however, if officials compromise their principles, would be the crime-in-the-streets found among the thieves. If the souls in some of the earlier ditches seem akin to the panders, others are akin to the seducers, such as the counselors of fraud and sowers of discord. Finally, hypocrisy and impersonation of one form or another are involved in several of the other, more specific forms of fraud. Taken together, the ten categories of evil punished in these ditches provide a frightening overview of the various ways people can use their God-given intellect for their own pervertedly selfish ends, and not to do what is best for God or for others.
In canto 32, Dante finds himself deposited at the bottom of the giant-ringed well, at the final circle, the great frozen lake, Cocytus. Four categories of treachery are punished there, those who are traitors to kin, to country, to guests, and to masters, each group frozen into the lake in different postures and different degrees of submersion. At the center of the whole lake the gigantic form of Satan towers up above, his six cherub wings, turned bat-like, flapping madly, while he eats Judas, the betrayer of Christ, and Brutus and Cassius, the betrayers of Julius Caesar, the first Roman emperor. Satan, whose sin had been to aspire toward divinity, has become a grotesque parody of God, three faces on one head recalling the Trinity, the eating recalling the Incarnation and the sacrament of the Eucharist, the symbolic attributes of the faces being the opposite of those of the divine persons (impotence, ignorance, and hatred, instead of power, wisdom, and love).
The last movement of Inferno is the leaving of it: Dante and Virgil descend down the shaggy
body of Satan to the center of the earth. There they turn around and climb the Satanic haunch up
to a cave near the shore of the River Lethe (which flows from the earthly paradise atop Mt.
Purgatory carrying even the memory of sinfulness down to Cocytus, to freeze with the infernal
waters). They then complete the climb to the surface of the earth at the antipodes, where the
gigantic Mt. Purgatory rises up out of the ocean. The descent into hell which had begun on Good
Friday ends as Dante and Virgil emerge from hell at dawn on Easter Sunday morning. Dante's
descent and ascent recapitulates those of Christ and of the Church's annual ecclesiastical calendar.
Having completed his voyage to the heart of darkness, Dante is ready to begin his climb toward