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Dante Alighieri

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Inferno | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In Canto 26 of Dante's Inferno, how is the "brief address" Ulysses gives his men an example of his sin?

Ulysses's "brief address" to his men is an example of using his intelligence to convince others to make bad decisions—exactly what an "evil counselor" would do. When he was alive, instead of staying home with his family after his long absence, Ulysses decided to go on a risky journey and his men went with him. They seemed to show reluctance to explore "what lies beyond the sun," but instead of turning back he gave them a motivational speech to persuade them to continue. His words had their desired effect and they all went on to their deaths, having sailed where men were not allowed to go. Aeneas, the hero of Virgil's Aeneid, who functions as a kind of answer to Ulysses, a hero who embodies Roman values instead of Greek, is portrayed as a conscientious, responsible leader in Virgil's poem.

In Canto 27 of Dante's Inferno, by what logic does the "black cherubim" carry Guido da Montefeltro off to Hell?

Guido da Montefeltro was a man who gave up his past ways as a military man to become a man of the Church. Pope Boniface, however, wanted him to tell him how to "batter Penestrino to the ground," telling Montefeltro that he could absolve him for his part in any wrongdoing. So Guido da Montefeltro agreed and gave Pope Boniface the information he desired. When he died, St. Francis came to take him, but a black cherubim from Hell wouldn't allow it because even though the pope had pronounced absolution, he had never repented: "one can't absolve a man who's not repented,/and no one can repent and will at once;/the law of contradiction won't allow it." By this logic—that a person cannot both agree to do something and also repent at the same time, and that repentance is required for absolution—Montefeltro is damned.

In Canto 28 of Dante's Inferno, how does the punishment of Bertran de Born reflect the type of sin he committed and the specific circumstances for which he is punished?

In the ninth "pouch" of the eighth circle of Hell, those who cause division, or schism, are punished by being literally split—having their bodies divided in gruesome ways. The injuries to their bodies mimic the divisions they caused between individuals and groups. Accordingly, Bertran de Born is divided. However, his "split" is between his body and his head, a particularly horrifying type of division. This reflects the fact that he caused division between a father (King Henry II) and his son (Prince Henry). The implication is that a father and son should be as inseparable as body and head. It may also reflect the idea that a king is the "head" of the country, and that a father is the "head" of the family.

In Canto 29 of Dante's Inferno, why does Geri de Bello point his finger threateningly at Dante?

As Dante is absorbed in speaking to a sinner (Bertran de Born) in the eighth circle, another shade points his finger at him in a threatening way. Virgil notices this and asks Dante about the man, whom he had heard called Geri de Bello. Dante explains that the man, a relative of his, was responsible for a family feud and was killed by the opposing family. His death has still been unavenged by his own family. From his anger toward Dante, readers can infer that Dante is one of those who should avenge his death, and Dante's weeping for Bello suggests that this may be the case. Geri de Bello was actually Dante's father's first cousin, and his death was eventually avenged by the Alighieri family in 1310, about ten years after Inferno is set.

In Canto 30 of Dante's Inferno, what is the purpose of similes comparing people to animals?

Dante's use of similes comparing people to animals is used to emphasize the nature of madness. To be an animal is to lack the capacity for human reason, which is, in Dante's view, an essential part of what sets humans apart from, and above, other living things: animals cannot sin because they do not have reason. And the animals here are not simply animals, they are animals going berserk: Hecuba's madness caused her to act like a rabid dog; she "barked, out of her senses, like a dog." Two shades in Hell run like "a hog does when it's let loose from its sty." So the people Dante describes are not simply like animals, without reason, their madness causes them to act like frenzied animals.

Why does Dante compare Virgil's tongue to Achilles's lance at the beginning of Canto 31 of Inferno?

Virgil's words to Dante at the end of Canto 30 of Inferno are harsh. He reprimands Dante, who is listening intently to the quarreling shades, saying "If you/insist on looking more, I'll quarrel with you!" Dante feels terrible about being chastised by Virgil. However, Virgil quickly softens his tone and reassures Dante: "release yourself from all remorse ... I am always at your side." Because Virgil first hurt him with his words and then used words to make him feel better, Dante compares Virgil's tongue—his words—to Achilles's lance, which had the magical ability to heal any wound it had caused.

In Dante's Inferno, why are the names of the four parts of the ninth circle Caina, Antenora, Ptolomea, and Judecca?

The first section of the ninth circle of Hell is called Caina, after the biblical character Cain who betrayed and killed his brother Abel. In this section of the ninth ring, treachery against family members is punished. The second section of the ninth circle of Hell is called Antenora, named after the Trojan Antenor, who betrayed his city by allowing the Greeks inside to capture it. In this section of the ninth ring, treachery against homeland or political party is punished. The third section of the ninth circle of Hell is called Ptolomea, after the biblical character Ptolomy, who had his father-in-law killed while he was a dinner guest. In this section of the ninth ring, treachery against guests is punished. The fourth section of the ninth circle of Hell is called Judecca, after the biblical character Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus. In this section of the ninth ring, treachery against benefactors is punished.

In Canto 33 of Inferno, why is Dante's promise to remove the ice from Fra Alberigo's eyes an example of verbal irony?

In Canto 33 of Inferno, Dante promises to take the ice off Fra Alberigo's eyes if the shade will tell Dante his name. He assures him "If you'd have me help you/then tell me who you are; if I don't free you,/may I go to the bottom of the ice." Of course, Dante knows that as part of his journey, he is already going to go to the "bottom of the ice"—though not in the way Fra Alberigo imagines it—so his promise is meaningless. Of course Dante does not help free Alberigo's eyes from the ice and instead lets him suffer, explaining to the reader that he refuses out of courtesy. The "courtesy" seems to imply that Dante wants to avoid having Alberigo resist the punishment God has decreed for him, which cannot provide him with relief and might even make things worse.

Why does Dante single out Judas Iscariot, Cassius, and Brutus for the worst torment in his Inferno?

Throughout Inferno, Dante weaves elements of Roman and Greek mythology, philosophy, and history into his Christian framework. Hell is populated with Classical creatures and characters as well as with dishonest friars, corrupt popes, and biblical figures (not to mention Florentine politicians). The three sinners punished in the very lowest place in Hell—chewed in Satan's mouth—represent the culmination of this pattern. Judas Iscariot is the betrayer of Christ in the Christian framework, and Brutus and Cassius are the betrayers of the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. All three betrayed the special trust between a man and his lord or benefactor, a sin that Dante clearly considered the very worst a person could commit.

How does Dante's description of Hell in Inferno compare and contrast with popular conceptions of Hell?

People often depict Hell as a place of burning flames: the "fire and brimstone" in which all of the damned are punished for eternity. And there is definitely fire in Dante's Hell. For example, fire falls from the sky onto the violent, and simonists are punished with burning feet. However, in Dante's Hell, the sinners are punished in a great variety of ways—not just one common punishment. They are punished in some way that suits the sin they are damned for, whether by replicating a moral sin in physical form, causing the sin to continue being carried out, or torturing the sinner with the inverse of what he sinfully sought out. In addition, Dante's Hell is not one terrain; it has a funnel shape of ever narrower circles that becomes colder as it gets lower. The worst punishments are those at the bottom of the funnel, where Satan resides. Here, Satan's beating wings cause a frigid wind, freezing the river Cocytus in which sinners are submerged to different degrees.

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