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Canto 5

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 5 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 5 | Summary

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Summary

This canto begins by describing Dante's entry to the second circle, noting that each circle is smaller than the one before and therefore more cramped. Descending from the first circle to the second, Dante sees Minos, who listens to the confessions of those who must enter and assigns them to the circle in Hell appropriate to the sins they committed, wrapping his tail around himself to indicate the number of the circle to which they are assigned. Virgil tells Minos that Dante is allowed by God to enter, and the two poets pass into the darkness inside. Here, hurricane-like winds ceaselessly batter wailing and lamenting sinners, whirling them about every which way. Dante learns that those who are punished this way are people who allowed their lust to overcome their reason. He asks Virgil who is being punished in this circle, and Virgil gives him several famous names, including Cleopatra, Helen, Paris, and over a thousand more. Dante asks to speak with them, and two of the spirits approach. Francesca, whose secret affair with her husband's younger brother, Paolo, led to their deaths at her husband's hand, tells of their ill-fated love. As she speaks, her lover Paolo weeps, and Dante feels such pity for them that he faints.

Analysis

In this circle, the theme of sin and punishment is developed as the sinners punished here are the lustful who were swept along by their feelings and desires as though by strong winds: "subjecting reason to the rule of lust." Therefore, they are punished by literally being blown here and there by strong winds. In Dante's view, God's justice requires that the punishment be suited both to the type of sin and to the severity of the sin. This is called contrapasso, a Latin term meaning "to suffer the opposite"; the idea seems to be that the sin is redressed by either replicating it in a hellish way, as with the lovers blown about, or reversing it, as with the gluttons in the next canto.

Francesca explains that she and Paolo began to have an affair as a result of reading a romance (a medieval story of love and chivalry) about Lancelot, the lover of King Arthur's wife, Guinevere: the two of them kissed after reading about the adulterous lovers' kiss. This suggests that literature is powerful and potentially dangerous. If good literature—the kind written by Virgil—has the ability to teach virtue, bad literature has the ability to tempt readers into sin.

Minos is a fascinating example of how Dante used characters from various sources (especially Greek mythology and Virgil's own writing) in his work, transforming them along the way. In Greek mythology, King Minos kept a creature called the Minotaur in a labyrinth under his palace. He was also well known for his well-crafted set of laws and when he died, he became a judge of the dead in Hades, the underworld. Later, Minos appeared in Virgil's Aeneid as the judge who sends souls to Tartarus (a Hell-like afterworld) or Elysium (a Heaven-like realm). In Dante's envisioning of Minos, he is a monster, not a man, who judges only the damned, deciding where in Hell they will be punished.

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