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Dante Alighieri

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Inferno | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does Dante's Inferno show God to be a benevolent force?

In Canto 1 of Inferno, just after the leopard blocks Dante's way, he notices the sun rising "in fellowship/with the same stars that had escorted it/when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty." The sun and stars are both sources of light and are connected to God symbolically. Additionally, they were set in place by Divine Love, or God. Because Dante recently found himself in a dark wood, and will shortly travel through the darkness of Hell full of torment and anguish, this evidence of God's light and love brings him hope. Throughout Hell, the sun and stars are not visible. The final image of Inferno—stars in the sky, the physical evidence of God's presence and love—echoes the hope Dante feels when he finally emerges from Hell.

In Canto 1 of Dante's Inferno, how does Virgil's role as Dante's helper evolve?

Virgil has been sent to help Dante, at the request of Beatrice (the lady Dante loved), St. Lucia, and the Virgin Mary. Virgil initially asks Dante why he doesn't just go up the slope, after which Dante showers Virgil with praise for his poetry before asking for help standing against the she-wolf. At this point, Dante is simply hoping for some help to get past the beast blocking his path. He's obviously very afraid, because Virgil reacts to his "tearfulness" by giving him a lengthy explanation of the she-wolf's nature. As Virgil describes how terrible the she-wolf is, he seems to come to the conclusion that Dante has no hope of getting by her and will need to follow Virgil along a different path, one that will lead through Hell, then through Purgatory, and finally to Paradise. In the end it seems that Virgil uses his intellect and reason to come to a logical conclusion, but he is also motivated to help Dante because he feels genuine compassion for a fellow poet who looks up to him as a teacher.

In Inferno, Dante says he was "full of sleep" when he lost the true path. How does this explanation affect the mood and meaning of the first canto?

At the beginning of the poem Dante describes himself as having been "full of sleep" when he strayed from the true path. This adds to the general sense of confusion and disorientation that he feels. So, describing himself as having been asleep, only waking up to find himself in a dark forest, sets the ominous mood and otherworldly setting of the poem. On an allegorical level, Dante's dark forest, his disorientation, his loss of the true path, and his sleep all serve to explain his spiritual condition. He is in the dark forest, where the light of God does not shine. He has strayed from the path of righteousness and seeking God. He was asleep—blind to his sad condition, but is now "waking up" and coming to realize that he is in a perilous state.

What is the effect of past-tense narration in Dante's Inferno?

Dante tells the story of Inferno, as well as the rest of The Divine Comedy, as a memory, which he is recounting to an audience after the events described. He even invokes the Muses to assist him in remembering and relating it accurately. This reassures readers that Dante survived the journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. There is no suspense created by not knowing his personal outcome. It creates a sense that these events are real, not a fictional plot made up by a writer, but a genuine experience recalled by a man. It also creates two Dantes: one, the character in the story, who we follow along through the circles of Hell, seeing and experiencing what he sees and experiences; and another, whom we recognize as the narrator of the story, who is looking back on the whole experience. Moreover, Dante portrays spiritual uncertainty and straying from the viewpoint of somebody who has found the true path again, invoking the Christian cycle of sin and redemption.

In Canto 2 of Dante's Inferno, how does Virgil convince Dante to follow him?

Although Dante has followed Virgil a little way, he is fearful and hesitant to go very far. To convince him to continue on, Virgil tells Dante more fully how he came to be Dante's guide. He describes in detail how Beatrice, who is now in Heaven, came to implore him to find Dante, whom she knows has gone astray, and lead him back. Two other blessed women are also in on this plan. Beatrice knows that Dante is in danger of being damned and wants to intervene so this will not be his fate. Beatrice says she is motivated by love. The effect of this story on Dante is tremendous. He casts off all his fear and hesitation and tells Virgil that his persuasive words have filled his heart with "longing for this journey."

In Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno, why does Dante describe shades in the Ante-Inferno as those "who never were alive"?

In the Ante-Inferno are the souls who "lived without disgrace and without praise," along with the angels who were neither rebellious toward God nor faithful. Those here are simply cowards, those who failed to take a stand either for or against God. Because their lives were so lacking in purpose, it is as if they were never alive. In addition Dante notes that these are ones who, in the world of the living, do not have any lasting fame—neither good nor bad. So, they failed to even attain the kind of life for which a person would be remembered. Because they are not remembered, they also, in a sense, never lived.

What is the relationship between Virgil and the creatures the poets encounter in Cantos 3–9 of Dante's Inferno?

In the early circles of Hell in Inferno, Virgil and Dante are challenged by various creatures, from demons to fallen angels. The first one they encounter is Charon, who challenges them and refuses to allow the living Dante to pass. Virgil explains their mission and while Charon becomes angry, he has to comply. A similar situation occurs when they encounter Minos. Cerberus is antagonistic toward the poets as well, and Virgil silences him by feeding him. Plutus, guarding the fourth circle, also challenges the poets. Virgil again explains the mission, and Plutus is forced to give way. Phlegyas, at the next circle, is also resentful and angry that Virgil and Dante must be allowed to go past. In all of these interactions, there is a sort of pattern: Dante and Virgil want to enter a circle of Hell, they are confronted in some way by a demonic creature, then Virgil does something or says something that ensures their passage. None of the creatures are very happy about this situation, but Virgil evidently has the upper hand. However, when Virgil and Dante want to enter the city of Dis, the balance of power changes. Virgil can't get the fallen angels to let them in. Having reached the limit of what power he alone can have against the creatures of Hell, he must obtain assistance from Heaven.

In Limbo from Canto 4 of Inferno, what is the significance of Dante having to raise his eyes "a little higher" to see Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and the other philosophers?

In Canto 4 Dante recognizes a number of "great-hearted souls." First he sees those who showed great bravery in lives of action, such as Hector (Trojan prince), Aeneas (Trojan hero), and Caesar (Roman general). Yet, lifting his eyes up a little higher, he sees those "men who know," the great philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. In Dante's system things that are higher are closer to God, while things that are lower are farther from God. So, placing the philosophers a little higher than the heroes implies that Dante believes there is greater virtue in being a philosopher, or thinker, than there is in being a heroic leader or military commander. However, as nonbelievers, they are only a little higher; they are still barred from entrance into Purgatory or Heaven.

How does the Ante-Inferno from Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno compare and contrast to Limbo from Canto 4?

The Ante-Inferno is just outside the gates of Hell. This is because those in the Ante-Inferno did not commit to either God or the devil, so they cannot go to Heaven or Hell. These noncommittal souls are punished by having to chase after a banner as they are pursued by biting insects. It is a place of misery. Limbo, on the other hand, is the first circle of Hell proper—inside its gates. For the most part, the punishments in Dante's Hell get continually worse as Dante progresses deeper into it. Based on this basic principle, it would make sense that the punishment of those in Limbo would be worse than punishment of those who are in the Ante-Inferno. Yet, Limbo seems like a peaceful place, where some of the best and brightest minds, the most noble and virtuous, reside. Though they have a sense of longing for what they can't have—like all the other inhabitants of Hell, they are denied the presence of God—they live in a dignified way without any active punishment.

In Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno, what is the significance of saying love is primal in the words above Hell's gate?

In Canto 3, the adjective primal is used to describe love in the inscription above the gates of Hell. This word can mean "earliest" or "original." In Dante's understanding, God's love is the primal, or original, love, from which all true love comes. God, in fact, is the primal love. In this context, the use of "primal love" introduces the idea that God created Hell not just out of a sense of justice, but also out of love. God's divine nature is to be perfectly just, perfectly wise, and perfectly loving. Although many people may prefer the idea that love and punishment are in opposition, in Dante's view, punishment of sins is one way love manifests.

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