Dante Alighieri

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Inferno | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Canto 5 of Dante's Inferno, why does Francesca da Rimini say that the book she and Paolo da Rimini read together was "a Gallehault indeed"?

The book Francesca and Paolo are reading together is about the knight Lancelot. In the story of Lancelot, the knight has a secret affair with Guinevere, King Arthur's wife. Another knight, named Gallehault, acts as go-between for Lancelot and the Queen, facilitating their affair. Francesca says that as she and Paolo were reading this book together, "time and time again that reading led/our eyes to meet," and when they read about Lancelot and Guinevere kissing, it caused them to kiss as well. Therefore, she considers the book a Gallehault because it made it possible, or at least easier, for her and Paolo to begin their affair. This suggests that literature itself has the potential to incite people to sin.

In Canto 5 of Dante's Inferno, what do Dante's comparisons between sinners and birds suggest about those punished in the second circle?

In Canto 5 of Inferno, Dante compares souls in the second circle to starlings, because they fly around in the wind and are subject to the wind's currents. He compares them to cranes in flight, because they "lament and moan" as cranes make noises while they fly in the "assailing wind." He compares Francesca and Paolo da Rimini to doves who are drawn together by their desire to be together. These bird comparisons underscore the image of the punishment the lustful receive in the second circle of Hell—to be blown and battered by the wind, pushed here and there by strong winds as they allowed themselves to be blown here and there by their lust in life, rather than containing their impulses with reason.

In what ways is the character Dante separate from the author Dante, and how does this difference affect Inferno?

Dante the author is the Dante who is writing the story. He is a poet with a very favorable opinion of his own ability, and so, in the story, he writes himself into company with other great poets. He also feels comfortable pronouncing judgment on various fictional and real characters—deciding whether they will be in Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell, and giving specific reasons for their placements. These reasons often reveal Dante the author's experiences in Florence and his particular disdain for corrupt popes. Dante the author also sets his poem back in time enough that all of the prophecies in the poem come true. Dante the character is a man who is looking back at his experience traveling through Hell with Virgil. He is presented as a man in need of divine intervention and guidance, who, like some of the spirits he encounters, is subject to sin. Throughout the poem, readers see him learn and change. At first, he is lost and frightened, given to pitying the spirits he encounters. As he progresses on his journey, he becomes more convinced of God's wisdom and justice, and he pities the sinners less and less. In general, the perspective of Dante the character becomes more aligned with the perspective of Dante the author over the course of the poem.

In Dante's Inferno, what do the sins of the second through fifth circles of Hell have in common?

The second, third, fourth, and fifth circles of Hell are where the sins of incontinence are punished. Sins of incontinence are those related to giving in to desires of the physical self, indulging in excess, or failing to show moderation. Lust, punished in the second circle, is giving in to sexual desires beyond the boundaries of law or moderation. Gluttony, punished in the third circle, is consuming food and drink in excess, beyond what the body needs. Greed and wastefulness, punished in the fourth circle, show an excess of desire to have riches or what those riches can buy. Wrath, punished in the fifth circle, is an excess of anger. Importantly, the sins of incontinence are lesser than those of malice. The incontinent do not seek to cause harm; they simply fail to live virtuously.

Why does Dante portray the souls in Hell as well developed rather than stock characters in his Inferno?

The souls Dante meets and talks to in Hell are not stock characters (characters who represent stereotypes easily identified by the reader). They're not physical representations of sin, meant to teach readers a lesson about how to behave or not behave. Rather, they are often depicted as complex people with sympathetic stories. Sometimes they are truly terrible and corrupt people, but sometimes they are intelligent and virtuous people who happen to have committed mortal sins—sins that in the Christian theology of Dante's time warranted eternal punishment in Hell. By employing greater realism in portraying his characters, Dante shows that mortal sin is not just something committed by evil caricatures, but something that each of his readers has to worry about. After all, even Dante himself seems to have been in danger of such a transgression before the intervention of Beatrice.

How does Dante react to the suffering he sees in Inferno, and why is his reaction problematic?

Dante primarily feels pity when he sees so much anguish without any hope of relief. In this way his reactions reflect those of the reader, because it is disturbing to imagine being punished forever, with absolutely no hope of relief. However, this reaction reveals the frailty of human judgment: Dante is too willing to overlook heinous sins because of his sympathy and visceral disgust. His compassion implies a questioning of God's justice or even possibly a rebellion against His will. When Dante applauds the punishment of Filippo Argenti, he shows greater reasoning and objectivity closer to God's wisdom and judgment.

In Canto 8 of Dante's Inferno, what obstacle to Dante's journey arises, and what lesson does Dante learn from the problem's resolution?

In Canto 8 of Inferno, Dante and Virgil come to the entrance to the city of Dis, also referred to as Lower Hell. Although they have been able to move through Hell's higher circles, the poets come now to several fallen angels who will not let them enter, despite Virgil's words with them. Of course, Virgil's explanation has been sufficient every time they have been challenged before. This time he is not able to secure safe passage with his reasonable explanation alone. A helper from Heaven must come to make the fallen angels obey God's will. When this helper does come, the poets are able to enter Dis. From this, Dante learns that human reason—symbolized by Virgil and his explanations—will overcome some obstacles, but not all of them. Some problems require heavenly assistance.

In Dante's Inferno, where does the sin of heresy rank among the sins punished in Hell, and why?

The sixth circle of Hell is devoted to heretics, those who believed and taught incorrect ideas about God. The previous (higher) circles are devoted to punishing sins of incontinence, or lack of moderation in fulfilling bodily desires. The seventh, eighth, and ninth circles are devoted to punishing sins of violence, fraud, and treachery. Hell's geography reveals the relative seriousness of any given sin: it is organized so that more serious sins are punished at lower levels; the further down, the worse both sin and punishment. Readers can infer that heresy is seen by Dante as worse than sins of excess, but it is not as bad as sins of violence, fraud, or treachery. Heresy is an unusual sin because it is a sin of belief rather than action.

In Canto 10 of Dante's Inferno, why are Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti and Farinata degli Uberti confined together?

The Florentine Farinata degli Uberti was part of the Ghibelline political party, which sided with the Roman emperors in opposition to the pope. Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, on the other hand, was a pope-supporting Guelph, like Dante. The conflict between the two political parties caused division and violence in Florence, which eventually led to Dante's own exile from the city. Therefore, part of Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti and Farinata degli Uberti's punishment is to be stuck together in a single tomb for eternity. This is a good example of how Dante's contrapasso (the idea that the sin committed in a person's life is reflected in their punishment in Hell) extends beyond the most basic punishment that all sinners in a circle share, to more individualized punishments.

What are two ways a person can be violent against God, according to Canto 11 of Dante's Inferno?

In Canto 11, Virgil tells Dante that a person can be violent toward God by actively denying him or blaspheming—speaking irreverently or rudely about him. In Canto 14, the blasphemer Capaneus holds "God in great disdain." A second way a person can be violent toward God, according to Dante, is to scorn the good in nature, which is God's creation. In Canto 15, Dante encounters Brunetto Latini, a sodomite. Homosexual sex was thought to be sin because it could not produce children, which, according to Catholic teaching, is the most important purpose of sexual relations.

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