AP English Literature, Period 6
24 October 2018
“Dante’s Inferno”, a part of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”, tells the story of Dante traversing through the levels of Hell and his perception of the sins and the sinners that are punished there. The epic poem in its entirety relays personal elements as it humanizes Hell by explicitly describing the descent of a singular man into sin. By doing so, Dante creates an enduring image of Hell that conveys that sin can only be committed through choice and it is this decision to sin that ultimately corrupts society as a whole. All in all, Alighieri’s use of ironic punishments for the sins of incontinence as well as allusions to both historical and mythological figures contribute to the message that people’s willingness to sin destroys society as they demonstrate their failure to determine right from wrong.
The sins of incontinence, found in the second through fifth circles of Hell, receive ironic punishments emphasizing the idea that the sinners of these immoral acts deserve their eternal sentence. The sins of incontinence are defined as those sins that are committed due to a lack of self-control. These impure characteristics can be found within every person, but it is up to them whether or not they will act upon these feelings. Not only does the fact that these specific sins are innate to human nature personalize the story, the use of the well-known figures in society provides for more personal incorporation as people will begin to feel empathy for the characters they are fond of and start working to improve upon their own lives and the sins they may have committed. The first sin of incontinence to be mentioned in the poem is lust, which is found within the second circle of Hell. The lustful are punished by a “hellish hurricane” that blows them violently back and forth, “wheeling and pounding” (V. 31-33). This is fitting for them as the great wind symbolizes their own passionate and restless desires for pleasure. Additionally, the wind represents the great power lust can evince in relationships. For example, by being subject to these lustful feelings, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Paris, and Achilles, some historical and mythological figures that Dante meets in this circle, experienced a violent death (V. 61-67). Dido committed suicide after her lover, Aeneas, abandoned her. Paris killed Achilles in the Trojan War and later died himself due to their love for Helen Of Troy . Cleopatra also committed suicide along with her lover, Antony, after their defeat by the forces of Octavian. Not only through this characteristic were they inclined to commit adultery, but some were caused to hurt others over someone they merely lust for and not love. Others hurt themselves because they were unable to live without their supposed significant other. According to Christian value, suicide is a grave sin because the person is choosing to kill themselves instead of allowing God to be the one to decide when their time on Earth is up.
The next sin of incontinence is Gluttony which is punished in the third circle. The sinners of this particular sin are condemned to lie within a vile slush under a never-ending icy rain. Additionally, these sinners are cursed to be blind to their neighbors surrounding them. This punishment is also ironic in that it parallels their last lifestyle. The grimy slush represents their indulgence in worldly pleasures as well as their own degradation during their lifetime, while their blindness to others represents their selfishness and their willingness to cut everyone out of their lives. Through their self-indulgence, they separate themselves from society and ultimately, from God’s favor. The sinners of this circle’s lack of self-control when it comes to food and drink is not done by force, but by their own doing. The most notable figure that Dante meets within this circle is Ciacco, whose name actually ironically means “pig” in Latin. This man talks to Dante about the feud between the White Guelphs, Dante’s Party, and the Black Guelphs. He predicts that Dante’s Party will lose. In reality, this event actually occurred and causes the eventual exile of Dante himself. By including this interaction, Dante personalizes the Inferno even more so by using pathos to persuade readers that elements of the Inferno can predict the future. What this means is that if what is being in the poem has come to truth, then one can expect to be in Hell if they are committing the sins that are being punished within Hell. This instance is another way for Dante to express that people need to recognize that their sinful actions are wrong and will ultimately lead to harsh punishment if not terminated. In addition to Ciacco, Dante identifies Cerberus, a beast similar to that of the one read about in Greek mythology. Cerberus usually goes along with Hades, the God of the underworld. The use of this character also makes it so Dante’s message can be familiarized with more people.
The fourth circle holds the greedy, also known as the avaricious, and the prodigal. Prodigal sinners are those that spend in excess. Both types of sinners are forced to roll weights in opposite directions, in the shape of a semicircle. Supposedly, the two groups are jousting each other and the weights they are provided with act as their weapons. This punishment contains an ironic element in that the avaricious get to keep a weight all to themselves and that the prodigal can spend in excess their energy and efforts into rolling the weight. Ultimately, both groups of sinners are to be eternally living their afterlife in moderation, a juxtaposition to their past life. In another sense, the rolling of the weights represents their drive and desire to both possess and spend material goods. As opposed to the first two circles, Dante does not spend too much time here. Within the same canto he and Virgil are already descending towards the fifth circle. Despite this, an important figure is the character of Plutus, a demon who guards the fourth circle. According to Greek mythology, Plutus is the Greek god of wealth. He provides for another symbol to Dante’s reality and to that of the society he is reaching out to. Dante appeals to those who are well versed or fond of Greek myth, thus their use continues to add unto his central message.
The last sin of incontinence is expressed as those who are Wrathful and Sullen. The punishment of the wrathful is to continuously fight each other on the River Styx. The Sullen, on the other hand, lie beneath the water of the Styx. Dante describes this sight in a very unsightly manner as he witnesses the Wrathful hurting each other with not just their hands, but even with their teeth by tearing each other apart. This punishment is ironic because the wrathful can continue to be angry at others and express that anger through combat. Unfortunately for them, there is no end to fighting and they are ultimately doing so for no reason at all. These actions are representative of their personalities before death and how they were either angered easily or had no purpose for their anger. The punishment of the sullen is also ironic because they can eternally be subject to the feeling of sullenness as they are condemned to lie in the dark waters unable to see or feel any happiness whatsoever. This punishment represents not only their attitudes, but by demonstrating how the sullen have physically drowned themselves in their emotions and have refused to look in the brighter side. Now they are stuck seeing in the dark and will truly never find retribution for their silliness. A character mentioned in this circle is Filippo Argenti who is a Black Guelph, a member of the party opposing Dante’s. While not much is known about him in particular, Dante describes him as an important Florentine figurehead and someone who Dante is very experienced with. While Dante demonstrates his sorrow and empathy for all the sinners he encounters, he places a special importance towards Filippo. While the audience is not told how Dante knows the character personally, they are shown how sorry Dante feels for him when he is ripped off the boat Dante is traveling on. Furthermore, Dante describes Phlegyas, another character from Greek mythology. While in the poem he is the one who carries Dante and Virgil across the River Styx in a boat, he is known in Greek myths for his rage as he sets fire to the temple of Apollo. Phlegyas not only serves as a symbol of rage, but also as a warning to those who offend or exemplify rage to the gods themselves.
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