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Dante Alighieri

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Inferno | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What kinds of figures guard circles and enforce punishments in Inferno, and what insight do they give readers into the sins they punish?

The Minotaur is charged with guarding the seventh circle of Hell where souls who committed violence reside. In Greek mythology the Minotaur was renowned for its violence. Just like the sinners in Hell's seventh circle, the Minotaur's hybrid human-animal nature is a symbolic representation of a person whose reason gives way to animalistic instincts. In this manner, Dante associated violence with the inability to reason like a human and instead succumb to animal desires. The first ring of the seventh circle of Hell contains those who incited violence against others. This ring is guarded by Centaurs, mythological beasts referred to in Ovid's Metamorphoses who attempted to kidnap the bride and other women at a wedding, thereby instigating a battle on what should have been a day of celebration. The souls in this first ring are continually submerged to various degrees in a river of boiling blood. Like the Minotaur, the Centaurs are guilty of the same sin as those they guard. Geryon is appointed as guardian of the eighth circle of Hell, where those guilty of fraud are tormented. A creature with the face of a "gracious man" but the tail of a scorpion, Geryon cultivates trust face-to-face but hides a deadly sting behind him. When someone commits the sin of fraud, they trick others into believing things that are not true. They convince people to believe in a facade. Geryon's body works well as a visual or symbolic image of fraud.

What roles do female figures play in Dante's Inferno?

There are not many women in Inferno, but examining some of their roles can shed light on how Dante views women. First and foremost, of course, is Beatrice, the blessed lady now living in Heaven who intervenes on Dante's behalf. Along with the other blessed ladies who help her in this, Beatrice represents an idealized version of womanhood as an agent of divine grace, a pious woman who embodies the grace and love of God. Beatrice is arguably more important for her function as an advocate and love interest of Dante than as a human being with agency. Yet she does show some agency, because she orchestrates the whole journey. Beatrice's role as a representative of love contrasts sharply with the characterization of Francesca da Rimini (and other women in the second circle, such as Cleopatra and Helen) who are objects of lust and sexual temptation. These women seem to disarm men of their reason, making the sin of lust more likely. Thus, Francesca is punished along with her lover and gives an explanation for the sin that characterizes her adulterous relationship with Paolo as loving and inevitable. Francesca's actions resulted in violence. Cleopatra and Helen, too, are notorious for causing wars and violence among men.

How do the images and wording of the opening lines of Canto 13 of Dante's Inferno reflect the sin of those confined to this area of Hell?

The second ring of the seventh circle of Hell is where those who committed suicide are punished. In the opening lines of Canto 13, Dante describes this area as "a wood on which no path had left its mark." This image of a pathless wood is a similar image to the very beginning of the poem in which Dante says he is in a wood and has lost the path. In both cases not having a path is symbolic of losing one's way to God. The souls here lost their way to God when they ended their own lives. Dante notes that the trees do not have green leaves, but rather they have black leaves. The trees also have "knotted and gnarled" branches rather than "straight and smooth" ones, and instead of bearing fruit, they bear poisonous briars. These are all images of natural ways and processes becoming unnatural or diseased. Trees are not meant to grow black leaves, and gnarled branches are a sign of disease. Bearing fruit is a natural part of a tree's life cycle. In the same way, the souls here did not live their lives according to nature's way—they chose an unnatural way of dying. These lines contain several repetitions of the word "no," indicating that those who commit suicide say "no" to living, when they should say "yes."

How does the principle of contrapasso apply to those in Dante's Inferno who committed suicide?

Contrapasso, which means to suffer the opposite, refers to the idea that the punishment for each type of sin is uniquely suited to the nature of the sin. Throughout Inferno, souls are punished in ways that either show a grotesque continuation of their sin—like the suicides—or that negate it by mirroring, as in the case of the gluttonous, who are now denied physical pleasure. In Canto 13, Dante learns that those who commit suicide must take the form of trees. He inquires how they came to be trees—how the "soul is bound into these knots"—and if the souls there can ever find freedom. The sinner replies that when the soul of a person who committed suicide enters Hell, Minos sends it to the seventh circle, and wherever it lands, there it begins to grow into a tree, just the way a seed that falls must sprout and grow wherever it lands. Because they misused the free will God gives to the living, they now have no freedom.

In Dante's Inferno, how do the souls in Hell feel about the sins they have committed, and how do their explanations, evasions, or protests help readers to understand them?

The souls in Hell are no longer given the chance to repent and ask God for forgiveness. They had opportunity to do so over the course of their earthly lives but continued to defy God by their refusal. The idea of repentance plays an important role throughout Inferno. Those damned to Hell are not only there because they sinned, but because they persisted in their defiance. And because of this, they are doomed to spend eternity in a permanent state of defiance, even though they are no longer given the freedom to choose. Their explanations and attempts to escape or alleviate their suffering are indicative of their unchanging nature in Hell. Just as Hell is a place of eternal suffering, so too do the souls suffer eternally by being denied the chance to experience God's mercy.

Ovid's Metamorphoses identifies four ages of humankind, from the iron age to the golden age. How does Dante incorporate this idea into Canto 14 of Inferno?

In Canto 14 of Inferno, Virgil describes the statue of an old man found on the island of Crete. The statue has a gold head, silver arms and chest, a brass abdominal section, iron for the legs and one foot, and one clay foot. All but the gold head is cracked. The statue is crying, and its tears flow from its eyes down through the channel created by the crack, finally forming the river that flows through Hell. Because Ovid uses the four materials to describe the ages of humankind, the tears symbolically represent the suffering of humankind since the beginning of time.

In Canto 14 of Inferno, what does Dante learn about the Lethe River, and how does this relate to the fate of Capaneus?

In Canto 14, Dante, being a good student of mythology, asks about a river Virgil hasn't mentioned yet: the Lethe. In Classical mythology, the Lethe is a river that causes forgetfulness or oblivion. Virgil tells Dante that he will encounter this river later, when he is "past this abyss." Virgil says that the Lethe is "where the spirits go to cleanse themselves/when their repented guilt is set aside." From this exchange, Dante learns that the forgetfulness the Lethe brings is not a punishment, but a blessing that comes when they are ready to move from Purgatory to Paradise. Therefore, the river is found not where souls are punished but where they are redeemed. Unlike Capaneus, who is unrepentant, those who cleanse themselves in the Lethe River have repented their sins.

In Canto 15 of Dante's Inferno, how does Dante feel about Brunetto Latini?

In Canto 15, Dante encounters a man he considers a mentor and teacher, Brunetto Latini. He clearly feels affection for Latini, exclaiming, "With all my strength I pray you, stay" as he tries to get Latini to stop and talk a while. When Latini says he can't stop, Dante walks along with him "with head bent low as does a man who goes in reverence." He clearly respects and admires his mentor. Later, Dante speaks of his gratitude toward Latini for teaching him "how a man makes himself eternal" through his writing. At the end of the canto, Dante notes that even among his fellow runners in the seventh circle, Latini seems like a winner rather than a loser. Despite the fact that Latini is in Hell, Dante holds him in high esteem and has a personal affection for him based on their past friendship. Latini demonstrates an important principle: sinners are not simply evil or cardboard-cutout representatives of their sin. They are complex human beings who are guilty of specific transgressions, and their sins damn them but do not always define them.

What is the opening image of Canto 16 of Dante's Inferno and how does it relate to later events in the canto?

At the beginning of Canto 16, Dante and Virgil have reached a place where they can hear "a murmur, like a beehive's hum/of waters as they fell to the next circle." They are close enough to this waterfall to hear it, faintly, in the distance. At the end of the canto, when the poets come to the waterfall, this distant hum has grown into a deafening roar: "the roaring water came so near to us/we hardly could have heard each other speak." This waterfall flows down into the next circle of Hell, and over it Virgil throws Dante's cord to summon Geryon.

In Dante's Inferno, what do Limbo and the sixth circle of Hell have in common?

Limbo is the first circle of Hell reserved for the virtuous pagans—those who did not sin but also were not baptized into the Catholic church. The sixth circle of Hell is for heretics—those who did not believe correctly about God. The heretics Dante meets are those who did not believe in an afterlife. Both heretics and virtuous unbelievers sin not by their actions, but their beliefs; either they did not have access to Christianity, in the case of the virtuous pagans, or they knew of Christianity but did not have faith. Because the heretics we meet are Epicureans, they are not simply godless people, but people who have been persuaded by Classical philosophy rather than Christian dogma.

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