Divine Comedy-I: Inferno

Divine Comedy-I: Inferno Summary and Analysis of Cantos IX-XII

Canto IX: Summary:

Dante and even Virgil were dismayed that their helper was so long in coming. Dante asked Virgil if spirits from Limbo ever descended into the deeper regions of Hell, and Virgil answered that it was very rare, but that he had gone even to the darkest place, Judas' circle, under orders from the witch Erichtho.

Dante suddenly noticed at the top of the tower with the flames, the three furies stood. They tore their flesh with their talons and wailed threats, but Virgil protected Dante by covering his eyes so he would not be turned to stone by the Gorgon.

They heard the sound of a great wind and turned to see thousands of damned souls fleeing from a noble figure who calmly walked across the Styx: heaven's messenger had come to relieve them. He opened the gate of Dis and rebuked the fallen angels for their foolish presumption, then turned back on his way like someone with a lot to do, without speaking to Dante.

Inside the city of Dis, Dante saw a field of graves: burning tombs were spread all around and inside them souls suffered great torments. Virgil told Dante that these were the arch-heretics, and that each was burnt more or less according to his deserts.

Canto IX: Analysis:

This is one of the few moments in the poem when Virgil seems to be unsure of himself. His fear, and the arrival of the heavenly messenger, make it clear how much Dante's wellbeing depends on a favorable divine will. Beatrice is not mentioned directly, but it seems likely that she has kept a careful eye on Dante's progress, and is ready to intercede for him when necessary. Without his lady's love, Dante would be lost: his salvation depends on her.

Dante often expresses fear and other emotions which do not belong to the heroic canon: he is afraid of the wild beasts in the first canto, and of many of the demons and tortures he sees in Hell. He frequently weeps out of pity and has fainted twice. The effect of Dante's weaknesses emphasizes how little agency he has: he does nothing on his own, and follows the path marked out for him by Beatrice and Virgil. This might be thought to undermine his message: he is not a remarkably heroic character. However, there are two parts to his message: what he sees, and how he reacts to what he sees. Because of this separation, the reader might be inclined to judge Dante's unheroic reactions, but is forced to accept his visions as truth. Since the historical Dante created both his visions and his reactions to them, this serves his purpose quite well: the harshest denunciations in the Inferno come not from Dante himself, but from souls he meets in Hell.

The inhumanity of the heavenly messenger stands in marked contrast to the suffering souls in Hell: Dante takes more care to make his sinful characters sympathetic than the good ones. The heavenly messenger is good, but he is not likable ­ even as he rescues Virgil and Dante he disdains to speak to them. On the other hand, Francesca da Rimini is a very touching character. Although Dante has a strong sense of good and evil, his vision is not entirely black and white.

Canto X: Summary:

Dante asked Virgil if the people in the sepulchers could be seen, since the lids were opened. Virgil answered that the lids would be closed eternally afterJudgement, and that these were the followers of Epicurus, and all those who did not believe in the immortality of the soul. Dante was frightened to here a voice from one of the sepulchers, asking to speak to him since he was a Florentine. Virgil told Dante not to be afraid, and that he would see the speaker, Farinata, sit up from his grave, which he did. Farinata asked Dante about his ancestry, and, when told, remarked that they had been enemies of his party and that he had scattered them twice. Dante replied that, though scattered, they had managed to return to Florence - as Farinata's people did not.

Just then they were interrupted by another shade who drew himself up and wept to see that his son was not with Dante ­ he thought that "high intellect" permitted the voyage. Dante told him that his son Guido was not with him because divine will rather than intellect was the cause of his presence, and that Guido did disdain the one he was being led to. At these words the shade was struck by horror, saying: "What's that: He Œdid disdain'? He is not still alive? The sweet light does not strike against his eyes?" Dante hesitated to answer and the shade fell back and disappeared.

Farinata continued to speak, and warned Dante that before the face of the Lady who ruled Hell was kindled fifty times, Dante too would learn how hard it was to return. He asked Dante why Florentines were being so cruel to his people, and Dante replied that a certain carnage made Florence hate them. Farinata admitted his participation in the carnage, but reminded Dante that once he had interceded to save Florence when others were ready to destroy the city.

Dante asked Farinata how much the inhabitants of Hell knew about events in the world. Farinata said that they were far-sighted: they could see the future but not the present. When time ended they would no longer see anything. Dante asked Farinata to tell the other shade that his son was still alive, and that he had only hesitated because he was wondering about how much he knew.

Virgil called Dante, who quickly asked Farinata who else was there; he answered more than a thousand, including the second Frederick and the Cardinal.

Continuing on their way, Virgil comforted Dante, who was worrying about Farinata's warning, reminding him that Beatrice was waiting for him. They came to a stinking valley.

Canto X: Analysis:

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher whose philosophy has been misunderstood by many moralists. He denied the immortality of the soul and thought that the Gods were not interested in human affairs. The greatest good, then, was pleasure: not debauchery, but the peaceful cultivation of the virtues. Epicurean philosophy had been popular in Florence, especially among the Ghibellines, such as Farinata. He and his wife were posthumously excommunicated in 1283, presumably for Epicurean beliefs, and their bones were scattered.

Farinata, a famous leader, was referred to before, in Canto VI. When Dante said that his people could not return to Florence, he means the defeat and exile of the Ghibelline party. The Ubertis (Farinata's family) were exiled in 1280. Farinata's ominous prediction means that in within 50 months Dante himself would be exiled and unable to return. The Lady who rules Hell is Proserpina, a goddess associated with the moon (her face lit once is a month). As we know, and as Dante knew when writing it, the prediction was correct: Dante was indeed exiled in 1302 and his attempts to return failed.

The son Guido was Guido Cavalcanti, and his father was Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti. Guido was a famous poet and a friend of Dante's, which explains why his father hoped to see him with Dante visiting Hell. Guido had married Farinata's daughter. From the reference to his absence, we can imagine that he was not as pious or devout as Dante himself. Although Guido was alive in April 1300, when the action presumably takes place, he died the next August, so he was dead when the Inferno was written.

The carnage Dante and Farinata refer to is the battle of Montaperti in 1260. The Ghibellines won, and proposed to to destroy Florence, but Farinata intervened and saved the city.

The second Frederick was the King of Sicily and Naples, and was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1215 to 1250. The Cardinal is the Ghibelline Ottaviano degli Ubaldini, who was made Cardinal in 1244. The fact that an Epicurean could be a cardinal emphasizes the secular nature of such ecclesiastical positions.

Canto XI: Summary:

Dante and Virgil passed the huge flaming tomb of the Pope Anastatius, and Virgil decided that they should wait a while to grow used to the terrible stench in the seventh circle. To spend the time usefully, Dante asked Virgil to explain some things about the structure of Hell. Virgil said:

There are three smaller circles past the sixth circle, holding the spirits of people guilty of different forms of fraud, which God finds very displeasing. The upper circle, the seventh, holds the violent, and is itself divided into three circles, punishing violence against God, one's self, and one's neighbors, in the order of most to least serious. Those who are violent against their neighbors are tyrants and murderers; those who are violent against themselves are suicides or squander their possessions; and those who are violent against God are blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers. The eighth circle holds those who practise fraud against people who trust them: flatterers, hypocrites, sorcerers... In the ninth circle, treachery, the greatest of all sins, is punished. The ninth circle is the center of the city of Dis.

Dante asked Virgil why the spirits of the first circles were not punished in Dis, since God was angry with them. Virgil answered that if he had read his Ethics, he would know that of the three faults which offend Heaven, incontinence, malice, and mad bestiality, incontinence was the least serious. The sins of incontinence, then ­ lust, gluttony, avarice, wrath... ­ were not as severely punished as the others.

Dante then asked why usury was so serious a sin. Virgil again referred to Aristotle, and said that usurers followed neither nature nor art, the acceptable ways of making a living. He then said that they should move on.

Canto XI: Analysis:

This canto gives a tangled but essentially straightforward description of Hell's moral geography. We have:

Ante-Hell (the neutral spirits and angels who did not take sides)

1st circle: Limbo (the virtuous non-Christians)

2nd circle: LUST (Francesca da' Rimini and her lover, among others)

3rd Circle: GLUTTONY


5th Circle: WRATH and SULLENNESS

The wall of Dis, where Dante and Virgil are let in by the heavenly messenger. The rest of the circles are in the city of Dis.

6th Circle: HERESY (Farinata and Guido's father)

7th Circle: VIOLENCE

against their neighbors: tyrants and murderers

against themselves: suicides and squanderers

against God: blasphemers, sodomites, usurers

8th Circle: FRAUD

panders and seducers



diviners, astrologers, magicians




fraudulent counselors

scandal mongers

falsifiers of metals, persons, coins, and words

9th Circle: TREACHERY

traitors to kin

traitors to homeland

traitors to guests

traitors to benefactors

The important questions here are how much this structure reflects Dante's personal beliefs, and why it takes this particular form. For example, a modern reader would not find it intuitive that usury (lending money with interest) and homosexuality were considered more serious sins than murder. From a modern Protestant perspective, all sins are basically equal in God's eyes, and it makes no real sense to try to classify them at all, so the existence of a structured Hell is in itself a problem.

In order to understand the existence of the structure, we can examine Virgil's explanation of it. He draws his reasoning from Aristotle, mentioning both the Ethics and the Physics. Aristotle treats sins resulting from incontinence (the excessive indulgence in things which are acceptable in moderation) fairly mildly, since they are the product of human weakness rather than genuine malice. The fact that a Pagan philosopher is referred to as an authority on what is essentially a matter of religious doctrine shows how great the reverence for Aristotle was.

The idea that fraud and usury are worse than murder and tyranny might be related to the political and cultural make-up of Renaissance Florence. As can be seen by the constant strife between the Ghibellines and the Black and White Guelfs, fighting was a common occurence, and sometimes a single insult could be enough to start a blood feud. Aristocrats deeply concerned with family honor powerfully influenced Florence's culture; these would be inclined to countenance bloodshed. But they would be deeply hostile to those who sought power by other means: rich merchants did not rise altogether uncontested, especially in the earlier years of the Renaissance. Also, Dante had a fair amount of experience with government, and probably knew how harmful fraud and corruption could be.

Canto XII: Summary:

Dante and Virgil descended into the seventh circle on a rocky mass of fallen stones which had collapsed, according to Virgil, when Hell had been robbed of its most treasured possessions. They passed the Minotaur, who bit himself in fury and ran berserk, but was unable to reach them.

They came to a river of boiling blood, the Phlegethon, where Virgil said those who injure others violently are forced to burn. They were challenged by centaurs armed with bows and arrows, including Nessus, Chiron, and Pholus. Their duty was to shoot any soul who came to far out of the river of blood. Virgil explained to Chiron the circumstances of Dante's journey, and he gave them Nessus as an additional guide. Along the river's banks Dante saw some souls who were up to their heads in blood; these, according to Nessus, were bloody tyrants like Alexander and Dionysius, Ezzelino and Obizzo of Este. Further upstream they came to others whose throats and heads were clear of the blood; one of these was the one who impaled the heart that drips blood upon the Thames. The river became shallower and shallower, but Nessus explained that it would again deepen in its circular path to the deepest part where the tyrants were punished, including Attila, Pyrrhus, Sextus and Rinier of Corneto and Rinier Pazzo, as well as those already mentioned. They forded the river at the shallowest point.

Canto XII: Analysis:

The Minotaur is a figure from Greek mythology: he was half man and half bull, the offspring of a bull and the Queen of Crete, Pasiphae, who was cursed with insane love for the bull and had a hollow cow built, in which the Minotaur was conceived. The Minotaur lived in a labyrinth beneath the palace and each year it killed and ate seven young men and seven girls who were given as tribute to Crete by defeated territories. The Minotaur was finally killed by Theseus (the Duke of Athens) with the help of the Cretan king Minos' daughter Ariadne.

The centaurs were other mythological creatures, half horse and half man. They were notorious for their volatile tempers and violent behavior. Nessus tried to rape Deianira, Hercule's wife, and was shot for it with a poisoned arrow. In revenge, Nessus gave Deianira a robe dipped in his blood, which he said would make the wearer fall in love with her. When Hercules was in love with Iole, Deianira gave him the robe, which poisoned him and made him die in agony. Chiron was a somewhat different centaur, the tutor of Achilles, a wise and cultivated being: thus he is the one Virgil wants to talk to.

Alexander is probably Alexander the Great of Macedon (356-323 BC), who made great conquests in a short lifetime. Dionysius the Elder was tyrant of Syracuse from 405 to 367 BC (not to be confused with the God of wine). Ezzelino III (1194-1259), a Ghibelline, massacred the citizens of Padua. Obizzo II d'Este (1247-1293) was a Guelph who may have been killed by his own son.

The heart that still drips blood is that of Prince Henry, killed during mass by Guy, son of Simon de Montfort. According to Villani's Chronicles, a statue of Henry, holding a casket containing his heart, was placed on London Bridge. According to superstition, the heart would bleed until the murder was avenged.

The two Riniers were famous highwaymen. Dante thus draws his examples both from antiquity and from relatively recent history.