Punishment in Dante’s Inferno

Dante wrote his magnum opus well. Over the centuries since the Divine Comedy has seen print, imaginations have sparked and fears confirmed. Of the three books of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno is the most vividly aware of the human condition. Incredibly detailed descriptions of eternal agony and suffering directly correlate to the misdeeds committed against God and common decency, enabling those who read the Inferno to conclude that an otherworldly Hell would logically follow Dante’s thorough example. In the story, the character of Dante passes through the underworld accompanied by famed and respected writer of the ancient world, Virgil, in an allegorical attempt to convey the hierarchical structure of justified pain and suffering. To Dante, the biblical passage of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” is the basis for which all punishment is ultimately given, and all those who suffer do so with a fitting or ironic method. The hierarchy is not random; the methods of torture inflicted follow a scale of least to most serious the deeper into the underworld the characters visit. In Dante’s view there are three major divisions of the circles of Hell, populated by those who give into their lesser instincts and desires, those that refuse God, and those that intentionally do harm to themselves or others by physical or deceptive means. Dante uses these three divisions to explain which misdeeds are more severe than others and why the punishments given to those populating each are fitting and deserved.

The first division is built upon those who give in to desire and instinct, as well as the virtuous heathens. The virtuous heathens are stranded in Limbo for not knowing God, their punishment merely an eternal longing: “they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits, that’s not enough” (Canto IV, 34-5). They died before knowing Christianity; therefore even the most noble and dedicated heathens could not ascend to Heaven. Their inability to reach Heaven tugs at Dante’s heartstrings like a Lyre, when he explains that “great sorrow seized my heart” (IV, 43). Accompanying the heathens in lower circles of Hell are the Lustful and the Gluttons. The lustful are doomed to repeat their damning actions endlessly, and in the particular case of Francesca the act of seduction is but one step over the line separating control over lust and loss of that control: “one point alone defeated us” (V, 132). Dante draws in the audience, allowing readers to feel sympathy while at the same time challenging them not to: “Dante does not give us the storyâÂ?¦ Instead we are given her voice and words- a dramatic device emphasised by the fact that her infinitely mournful account begins suddenly and unannounced” (Berthoud 119). Gluttons are pelted by “cold and filthy rain.” It is not described what exactly makes this rain filthy, only that it turns the falling hailstones from their normal pure white to a drab, ashen gray. The darkening shade of the tormenting weather is an obvious allusion to the aversion of purity the sufferers have indulged to earn them a spot in Hell; what is not obvious is the reasoning for which Dante uses this method of torment for Gluttons. Gluttony is the act of overindulgence, therefore Dante needed to devise a method of punishment that embodied a sense of mass collection without being too harsh. Cold rain and hail, especially falling in mass quantities, provides this sense to Dante when exaggerated. To give an added touch of irony, Dante gives the rain a dimension of filth, perhaps commenting on the Glutton’s insatiable need to satisfy their desires by giving them the filth they so desired in life. These three sins of the first major division exemplify the lightest of all sins, depicting punishments that are fitting yet tolerable.

Punishment becomes fiercer in the second division, increasing in physicality and becoming visually displeasing to the reader who imagines the scenes. Writhing in flaming agony are heretics, entombed within open sepulchers. Forever they must endure conscious awareness of their pain as a way to counter atheist beliefs. Believing that the soul’s experiences ended after death was a literally grave miscalculation, and by giving heretics perpetual awareness the torture is a perfect example of counter-punishment as Virgil acknowledges: “Here are the Arch-Heretics and those that followed them, from every sect; those tombs are much more crowded than you think” (IX, 127-9). It is implied that the followers of the heretics are imprisoned in the open tombs together with their leaders, as if a number of people are packed like radical sardines. Together they spoke against the notion of God and together they burn. Their error is worse than those of the first division because their sins are not impulsive as the first division’s can be credited as being, but conscious decisions made by rational thought. Their choices, though clearly wrong ones in Dante’s view, are not the most evil.

The third and last great division demonstrates far beyond impulses and erroneous decisions the evil that men do. In it contains fewer people, many more lesser divisions, and much more devious punishment. It is the realm of the violent and the deceivers, their acts so reprehensible that Dante implies God would find them to be worse than unbelieving. Whereas it is possible to live a virtuous life and not believe in God and the afterlife, Dante suggests those that hurt and betray trust cannot live a life of virtue because the said acts go against the very nature of faith. The violent, including tyrannical leaders and murderers, are boiled in a river of blood (XII, 46-8). Suicide victims are transformed into mangled, twisted, lamenting trees (XIII, 25-7). Blasphemers walk in fiery sands (XIV, 25-6). The punishments have become much more sadistic. Even deeper than violence lies betrayal, in which flatterers are submersed in bile, Astrologers walk with their heads screwed backwards, and Friars are crucified to the ground. At the bottom lays only three men and the tri-faced Devil gnashing them between its teeth, the three men Dante believed to be the most horrific to have ever lived for their acts of betrayal; Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. By placing violence and betrayal in the final division of the sins of man, Dante asserts that the worst things man can do are not impulses or bad choices, but acts that knowingly cause either physical, emotional, or spiritual harm.

Dante wrote the Inferno at a point in history when hopes of a better tomorrow were dismal and schisms in the church caused political, civil, and religious unrest. Morgghen writes that “it was a world that ensnared [Dante] with its sufferings and troubles” (121). Exiled by the Black Guelphs from Florence, Dante began a journey of homelessness, depending on the charity of patrons for day-to-day extensions of life: “Dante came immediately into contact with the Ghibellines of north-central Italy and obtained Ghibelline patronage in one court setting or another for the rest of his life” (LCC 283). Certainly the political message of the Inferno was not simply one of artistic retribution but also political spite. The growing ferocity of the eternal tortures endured by the shadows inhabiting Hell serve to pique the reader’s emotions on which sins are, by Dante’s definition, more accursed than others, thereby readers find alignment with his base values. By finding readers that learn to agree, Dante establishes political leverage used to support the Holy Roman Emperor to reestablish empirical power in Italy (LCC 283).

The Inferno, then, serves as a didactic multipurpose tool used for religious inspiration and political power simultaneously. The pain and suffering seen by Dante the character mirrors the exaggerated problems that he, Dante the poet, no doubt had seen through his life, and the writing of the Inferno allowed him to act as a harbinger of the final judgment. Lagercrantz comments on the realism Dante produces: “in all things, the dead are like the living. They are distinguished from the living only by their having moved on to another form of existence” (134). The counter-punishments depicted therefore act as a believable supplement to Dante’s frustration with the state of the world, and by delivering the tale as an allegorical quest of passage he is able to transcend the lines crossed by those that had crossed him. Traveling through depressing layers through and out of Hell while not belonging there, Dante simultaneously comments on his detractors and bestows grace upon himself.

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