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Inferno, XII-XXII
(click here for Cantos I-XI)
(click here for Cantos XXIII-XXXIV)


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Study Questions
We will not have time to look at every Canto, and I shall not be posting study questions for each Canto as I did for Cantos I-XI. As you progress through the Inferno, however, you should keep an eye on certain general trends and key terms:

A. Three general trends in the punishment of the damned--

  1. the weather/environmental conditions: what happens to heat and humidity as we descend? How do these general environmental trends work within Dante's system of contrapasso?
  2. the range of motion granted to (or forced upon) the inhabitants of each circle. What trend is observed here?
  3. distortion of the human form: it is on this subject that Dante often claims his language is not up to the task of description. Since Dante has been at pains to emphasize that his verbal art supersedes that of Vergil et al., this is no small admission. Why do his words fail here?

B. Key terms--
Keep track of the following words and concepts, some of which we have already seen assume importance for Dante's predecessors. (Since we have the parallel-text translation, you can even check with the Italian if you're not sure of a reference.)

  • volle, vuolo--to will: at III.95-6 and V.23-4, Dante defines God the same way as Augustine, as one "who can do whatever he wills" (si puote ciò che si vuole, lit. "what is willed is possible"). Meanwhile, Dante-pilgrim stands in a similar position to Augustine, as one plagued by a divided will: quei che disvuol ciò che volle (lit. "one who unwills what he willed"), p. 14. So Dante's journey, like Augustine's, is in part a quest to unify his will and "turn" it toward God. Keep tabs on his progress.

  • amor--love: like amor in Vergil and Augustine, or eros in Plato and Thucydides, amor in Dante can be a force that leads one astray (like Paolo and Francesca, the two lovers in Canto V), but it is also the supreme force for good, motivating the actions of God (including the creation of Hell!--p. 21) and of Beatrice, who causes Dante to make this journey in the first place, and sends him Vergil as a guide. How to distinguish between "good" love and "bad" love? That, gentle reader, is for you to figure out....

  • disio--desire: Located somewhere in the murky space between volontà (will) and amor (love), disio is a force that, like the two preceding terms, can be turned to good objects or bad. Some exampes we've already discussed in class are Dante's intense desire to see Filippo Argenti suffer ( p.71), which Vergil praises; and the conversion (that word again) of the damned souls' fear into desire for punishment, effected by God (p. 27). What is the proper object, in Dante, of disio? Which characters are defined in terms of their disio?

  • pietà--pity: Dante-pilgrim's susceptibility to pity rivals Augustine's (recall the latter's tears for Dido, and for actors in plays). But the emotion, as a properly human response to touching narratives, has a longer literary history than that: it goes back to Alkinoös in the Odyssey as well as to Dido in the Aeneid. As for disio, we should ask: what is the proper object, in Dante, of pietà? Look for clues in Cantos II, V, XIX, XX.

  • mente--memory, mind: For Augustine, this is where we find God (Conf. X); for Vergil, it is the source of epic (Aeneid VII:53, 887).What is the importance--philosophical and allegorical--of memory in Dante? See pp 13 (invocation), 23 (the neutrals), 55 (Ciacco), 117 (Pier della Vigna, aka talking tree), 139 (Brunetto Latini, Dante's poetry teacher), and 147 (the three Florentines), for starters. Do you see any relationship between the way the damned deal with memory and the way they perceive time? Where is Augustine in all this?

  • experienza--experience: What is the valence of experience in Dante? Is it to be desired, or not? What happens to characters who turn their desire (disio) toward experience? Does reading count as experience, or not? What are we to make of Dante's claim to have "experienced" Hell in person?

    • The relationship between lived experience and narrated experience has been a hot topic since the Odyssey (Bks. 1-8 and 13-24 vs. Bks. 9-12), and it will be one of the most important questions on the table throughout the second semester of Lit. Hum. (along with our old favourite, the question of im/mortality). Think of Aeneas's story (and Dido's temple carvings) re: the Fall of Troy; Daedalus's inability to narrate Icarus's fall in sculpture, Aeneid VI; Aeneas's experience of the Underworld--half first-hand, half-narrated--in Aeneid VI; Augustine's comparisons of poetry and theatre to the "real world"; the contrast between Augustine's pity for the fictional Dido (Conf., p. 15) and his ruthless abandonment of his own mother (p. 81), not to mention the abrupt dismissal of his mistress of 15 years (p. 109).
            --How does Dante conceive of the relationship between lived experience and narrated experience?

    • We touched in class on the related issue of "tellability"--what kind(s) of experience can be narrated, and what cannot; more interestingly, why some things are harder to narrate than others, and why the author undertakes his project of narration at all. Dante raises this issue right at the beginning of the Inferno (I.4): "Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was," and goes on to suggest why it is important that he overcome this "difficulty": "But to retell the good discovered there,/ I'll also tell the other things I saw." Think about other "I-narrators" we have known in Lit. Hum., all of whom have expressed reluctance to tell at some point in their stories: Odysseus ("It is hateful to me to retell a story, when once it has been well told"), Aeneas ("Sorrow too deep to tell, your Majesty..."), Augustine "It [the saga of the pears] is a foul affair; I have no wish to give attention to it...." Where does Dante fit in here?

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