Divine Comedy-I: Inferno

Divine Comedy-I: Inferno Summary and Analysis of Cantos V-VIII

Canto V: Summary:

Dante and Virgil descended into the second circle of Hell, where the demon Minos, a conoisseur of sin, assigns each guilty soul its rightful place: after hearing what the soul has to say, he wraps his tail around his body, and the number of times the tail wraps around is the number of the circle where the sinner must go. Minos challenged Dante and Virgil, but is silenced when Virgil claims a divine order.

The first circle is characterized by a wind which whirls the souls about endlessly, never giving them a chance to rest. These are the lustful, including those who died for love: Semiramis, Cleopatra, Helen, Paris, Tristan, Achilles, Dido... Dante was struck by pity, and asked to speak to two souls who clung together as they were blown around. The souls floated over to him, and one of them spoke, telling how she had fallen in love while reading about Lancelot with her lover. She described the great power of love, and the deaths she and her lover suffered for it, deeply affecting Dante, who recognized her as Francesca. The other soul wept, and Dante fainted out of pity.

Canto V: Analysis:

Minos is another figure from Classical mythology: he was the son of Zeus and Europa. Hell is divided into seven circles, according to the seriousness of the sins. Thus the first, Limbo, is the least blame-worthy, and the second, where the lustful are tormented, is also relatively mild. This moral structure gives us insight into the relative gravity of different sins in Dante's mind. As we see here, carnal sins are relatively unimportant, and lust (which is so closely linked with love, to which Dante is not immune) is viewed with a great deal of compassion. One should note the relative abundance of female sinners here: in medieval Christian thought lust was often closely associated with women. A priest who felt himself tempted by the flesh might commonly associate the object of his desire with the desire itself: if men are tempted, women are seductresses. Dante's inclusion of many women in this circle is, however, a very mild form of this kind of prejudice.

Semiramis, Queen of Assyria, is supposed to have legalized all sorts of sexual immorality, including incest. Cleopatra committed suicide after the defeat of her lover Mark Antony. Helen's beauty started the Trojan War when Paris desired her. Tristan was a knight who drank a love potion and fell in love with Isolde, the wife of his king. Dido committed suicide after she was abandoned by Aeneas.

The historical identities of Francesca and her lover are well known. Francesca da Rimini was married around 1275 to Gianciotto Malatesta of Rimini for political reasons. She unfortunately fell in love with her husband's younger brother Paolo ­ and he with her. When her husband discovered their adultery, probably in 1285, he killed them both. Dante was then around 20 years old, and must have been profoundly saddened by the tragic affair: thus their story affects him more deeply than those of more distant historical and literary figures. The description of their falling in love over a chivalric romance testifies to the power of literature, a feature which probably appealed to Dante since he includes it so prominently.

Canto VI: Summary:

Dante awoke to find himself in the smaller third circle, surrounded by new suffering. The circle was filled with cold, heavy, dirty rain and the souls there lay unhappily in the stinking mud. They were also tormented by the three-headed doglike demon Cerberus. Virgil tamed Cerberus by throwing some mud into his mouths, allowing Dante to speak to one soul in particular who sat up out of the filth. The spirit said that he had died after Dante's birth, but Dante did not recognize him. He then said that he had been a Florentine named Ciacco, and that he had been damned for gluttony, like the other inhabitants of the third circle. Dante was sorry for his plight, and asked about the future of Florence, "that divided city." He was told that there would be fighting, and "the party of the woods" would chase out the other, but that soon the other would regain power with the help of "one who tacks his sails," and would hold it for a long time, though injustly. There were two just men in Florence, but no one listened to them. Dante then asked about some particular people who he describes as good: Tegghiaio, Farinata, Arrigo, Mosca, Jacopo Rusticucci. Ciacco replied that they were much deeper in Hell and that he might see them later. Then he "fell as low as his blind companions," not to arise until Judgement Day. Dante asked Virgil whether their condition would be better or worse after that Day, and Virgil said that being more "perfect," they would suffer more.

Descending downward, they found "Plutus, the great enemy."

Canto VI: Analysis:

Each succeeding circle of Hell is smaller because Hell is like an enormous funnel.

Caicco's prophecy is an account of the political events in Florence from 1300 (the supposed date of the Inferno) to whenever the Inferno was actually written: that is, it predicts events that had already taken place.

In this Canto, Dante clearly expresses his anger at Florence and his feeling that the city was morally as well as politically corrupt (remember that he had been exiled from Florence in 1302, and was very unhappy with the ruling government). Thus Ciacco describes Florence as a city "so full of envy that its sack has always spilled," and says that there "three sparks that set on fire every heart are envy, pride, and avariciousness." The party of the woods is that of the White Guelfs, who came to power after bloodily banishing the Blacks on May Day, 1300. Three years later the Blacks regained their position, and it was during their reign that Dante was exiled: this is no doubt why Ciacco says the party will "heap great weights upon its enemies, however much they weep indignantly." (The White Guelfs tended to try to limit papal power in Florence, while the Blacks were in favor of it. For a more detailed account of the factional strife in Florence, see the biography of Dante.) The "one who tacks his sails" is an insulting allusion to Pope Boniface VIII; the phrase refers to his ambiguous behavior.

It is not clear who the two just men are. Dante might well be referring to himself as one of them. It has also been suggested that the two "men" symbolize natural law and codified law.

The "coming of the hostile Judge" is the Day of Judgement and the judge is Christ. Note that Christ rarely appears as a merciful figure in the Inferno: mercy is reserved for female intercessors like Mary and Beatrice (see the analysis of Canto II).

Virgil's statements about the increase in perfection of the damned souls after Judgement is scholastic: in Aristotelian teaching the soul and the body are more perfect when they are united. Being more perfect they experience both pleasure and pain more fully, so the damned will suffer more once their bodies are resurrected. In scholastic philosophy, the word "perfect" is often used relatively, which means that its meaning was not the same as it is today. Aristotle probably used it to signify wholeness or completeness in this case. For a discussion of scholasticism, see the analysis of Canto IV.

Canto VII: Summary:

The demon Plutus frightened Dante with his grating cry: "Pape Satan, pape Satan aleppe!" However Virgil told the demon to be silent since Dante's journey was willed from on high, and they were able to descend into the fourth circle. The spirits there danced an infernal round while endlessly pushing around great weights. Divided into two groups, one shouted "Why do you hoard?" and the other, "Who do you squander?" Dante pitied them, and noticed that many of them appeared to be tonsured clerics. Virgil told him that these were people who had "spent without measure." Half of them had been miserly and the others had squandered their wealth. Many of the misers were indeed "clergymen, and popes and cardinals, within whom avarice works its excess." Dante thought he might be able to recognize some, but Virgil said that they were unrecognizable, and that this sight should teach him not to put too much importance in money, since Fortune controlled it. Fortune, he said, was a servant of God, whose occupation was to shift worldly wealth from one people to another. Although she was much maligned by men, she was a blessed being.

Dante and Virgil came to another infernal river, the Styx; this one was muddy and swamp-like. It marked the boundary of the fifth circle. In it, furious naked spirits fought against one another. These were the wrathful. Other spirits, underwater, were stuck in the slime: these were the slothful and the sullen, who had not appreciated the sweet air of the sunlit world. They gurgled their lament, which came to the surface as bubbles.

Finally Dante and Virgil came to the base of a tower.

Canto VII: Analysis:

Pluto is another Pagan figure, strongly connected with avarice. In Roman mythology he is the king of the underworld; here he is merely a servant of the Devil, whose cry probably means: "Oh Satan, oh Satan, the most powerful one!"

A modern reader might be surprised to see how little Dante associates clergymen with any kind of piety or virtue. In Renaissance Italy, popes and cardinals had a very important secular role as powerful leaders. Many of them were actually soldiers and led armies. They were elected not because of their superior piety but because of complex power relationships: patronage was very important, as were connections to strong families. Although they theoretically had a priviledged link to the divine will, in practice, as we can see here, they were prone to usual human failings and even had special occupational sins. The fact that the Church was associated with avarice reflects its immense wealth in Renaissance Italy: religious taxes, goods and land seized by the Church's armies, and pious bequests made by wealthy citizens all contributed to its riches. Monasteries and convents owned huge expanses of land, which were usually rented out to tenant farmers, and nuns entering convents brought with them their dowries. Evidently the status of the Church as a financial power as well as a moral institution was not entirely without conflict, as we can see from Dante's indignation. The fact that the tonsured spirits are unrecognizable extends the insult to all deceased clergymen who are not expressly mentioned elsewhere. Of course, Dante was particularly sensitive about the Church as a secular power: he opposed the Pope and supported the Emperor. But the secular nature of many Church activities can be seen by the fact that Dante sees no difficulty in simultaneously opposing the Pope and being a serious Christian.

The lack of compassion Dante shows for the slothful and the sullen echoes his disdainful treatment of the neutral spirits in the Ante-Inferno. Always a vigorous man, his least favorite sins seem to involve a lack of action and a withdrawal from the world.

Canto VIII: Summary:

Still in the fifth circle, Dante saw two flames at the top of the tower, which were answered by another fire very far away. He asked Virgil what that meant, and was told that he would soon see.

A little boat skimmed over to them, and its boatman, Phleygas, thought they were souls trying to escape, but was told by Virgil of their superior mission. Resentfully, he ferried them across the Styx. They passed a sinner weeping in the mud; Dante recognized him and cursed him, supported by Virgil. Dante told Virgil he would like to see the Florentine sinner dragged underwater, and his fine wish was soon satisfied: other spirits attacked him, crying "At Filippo Argenti!"

Dante and Virgil grew nearer to the burning city of Dis, full of mosques, where they were challenged by thousands of fallen angels. The fallen angels were silenced by Virgil's claim of divine protection, but they retreated back into the city and locked the gates, trying to keep Dante and Virgil out. Virgil was confident that someone would help them in.

Canto VIII: Analysis:

The tower that Dante refers to is apparently that of one of the mosques in Dis. Mosques are of course the temples of Muslims, and are used here to indicate infidels.

Phleygas is another figure from Pagan mythology, the ferryman of the Styx, as Charon is that of the Acheron.

Filippo Argenti was a historical figure. He was called Argenti because he shod his horse with silver (argento means silver). There are various reasons why Dante's dislike of him was so strong: Filippo Argenti, one of the Adimari clan, was a Black Guelf. (Dante was a member of the rival party, the White Guelfs.) Filippo apparently had slapped Dante at one time, offending his aristocratic sense of honor, and his brother received Dante's goods, which were confiscated from him by the Commune of Florence when he was exiled in 1302 (see Dante's biography). Dante's motivations for hating him are thus both political and personal ­ in fact it is often difficult to distinguish between personal and political issues in this period.

The disdainful pride of the fallen angels reveals their essential error: they are incapable of repenting their rebellion against God, and are haughty despite their defeat. Their attempt to keep Dante and Virgil out of Dis echoes an earlier attempt when they tried to keep Christ out of Limbo when he descended there to rescue the virtuous Israelites (see Canto IV).