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Canto 3

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 3 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 3 | Summary

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Summary

Dante sees the inscription above the gates of Hell that reads "Through me the way into the suffering city." Virgil tells him he must leave all hesitation behind, for now he will enter Hell where people are miserable and have lost their reason. As they go through the gates Dante hears loud wailing, "strange utterances," and voices of all kinds. The chaos is so intense that Dante weeps, horrified. He asks Virgil what all the noise is, and Virgil tells him that this place holds the souls of those who were neither rebellious against God nor faithful to God. They live in this space, called the Ante-Inferno, continually following a great banner, being bitten by insects, and having their blood and tears consumed by worms. Also existing here are the "coward angels," who cannot enter Hell but were cast out of Heaven.

Next Dante sees a great crowd of people waiting on the banks of a river. He learns they are the shades of the damned, waiting for the demon Charon to take them across the river Acheron into Hell. They wail and weep as Charon tells them to forget any hope of seeing Heaven. Charon then challenges Dante's presence, saying he may not cross, but Virgil tells Charon Dante's presence has been "willed above." Dante is perplexed as to why the people seem eager to enter Hell. Virgil explains that divine justice turns their fear into desire. Then an earthquake and a violent wind cause Dante to fall unconscious.

Analysis

In this canto, the relationship between the two poets—Virgil as teacher, and Dante as student—is made clear. Virgil is not just Dante's guide; he also functions as a schoolmaster who teaches Dante the meaning behind what he sees. So it is only natural that Dante cannot understand the inscription above the gates of Hell and must ask Virgil to explain its meaning. Virgil also schools Dante on the type of people confined here, saying they have lost the "good of the intellect," which means they have lost the ability to find God's truth through the divine gift of reason.

Dante uses the word "coward" to describe those who occupy the Ante-Inferno. The "coward angels" are here—those who did not choose sides either for or against God when Lucifer rebelled. One who made the "great refusal" through cowardice is here—thought to be a pope who stepped down from his high position—as are all those who, through cowardice, refused to act on God's behalf or against Him. Since they did not choose sides in life, they chase endlessly after a banner and are bitten by insects. It is important to remember that Virgil accuses Dante of cowardice in the previous Canto; by overcoming his fear and entering Hell, he has already begun to align himself with God and his Christian faith once again.

Both the inscription on the gates and Charon instruct the damned to abandon all hope. Although Virgil assures Dante that Hell is divine justice at work, and even the damned souls wish to enter Hell because they long for that justice, Dante is horrified by the pain and chaos that he witnesses; the repeated insistence on hopelessness draws the reader's attention to the unsettling fact that there will never be any relief for this pain.

Dante's use of a double simile to show how sinners move from the shoreline across the river creates a powerful image. First, the sinners are like leaves in autumn that drift down from a tree branch, one by one. Second, they are like hunting hawks that are lured back to the hunter. The first simile evokes the isolation of each sinner as he or she goes to his fate; the second evokes the way they are drawn to their punishment.

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