Study Questions for Dante's Inferno, Cantos I-XI

Canto I

  1. As an epic journey to Hell and back, the Inferno clearly traces its ancestry, in part, to the Aeneid. As an "autobiographical" record of a spiritual struggle, it has equally obvious roots in Augustine's Confessions. We come to this book, then, uniquely well-versed in its literary antecedents. Where do you see the influence of the Aeneid in Dante's poem? Of the Confessions?

  2. If the Light of grace is at the top of the hill on p.3, why must Dante go down in order to reach it? What other allegorical images are present in Dante's landscape (e.g., what about the forest? the valley?)? What do the three wild animals symbolize?

  3. Why does Dante get a guide, and why should it be Vergil? What are Vergil's credentials for the job? How does Dante get around the fact that his guide and mentor is a pagan, rather than (say) a Christian saint? How does Dante-pilgrim introduce himself to Vergil? Is this any way to talk to a ghost? And where do you suppose Vergil learned Italian?

Canto II

  1. How does Dante explain his privileged role as one who, though "not Aeneas, [and] not Paul" (l.32) is now getting to imitate their journeys to the beyond (Aeneid VI; 2 Cor. 12:2-4)? Why is this important? What is revealed about Dante-pilgrim's state of mind? What is the point of these nested layers of reported speech (Dante says Vergil says Beatrice says Lucia says Mary says...)?

  2. The Virgin Mary, St. Lucia, and Dante's beloved Beatrice form a shadow Trinity of sorts (just as the 3 beasts on the hill form a Trinitarian "Axis of Evil"). We shall shortly be meeting their fallen sisters in the Inferno. How do Dante's categories of women compare with those of Vergil? of Augustine?

Canto III

  1. Finally, we enter Hell proper, through the famously inscribed gate. How do you make sense of the claim that Hell was built by "Justice," "Wisdom," and "Love"?

  2. What do you make of the Neutrals? Why is their fate important?

Canto IV

  1. The natural home of Vergil and his pagan colleagues. How are they punished? Why is this fitting?

  2. How does Dante (-pilgrim, -poet) negotiate the tension between the debt he owes to Vergil (and his fervent admiration for Vergil et al.) with the fact that they are eternally damned (there is no Court of Appeals here)? How does (how can) he respond to their invitation "to join their ranks" (l. 101)?

Canto V

  1. The Lustful. Now is the time to start keeping track of where exactly each category of sinner ends up in Dante's Hell (use the map on p. 343 as an aide-memoire). The Inferno is renowned for its device of contrapasso, the punishment that fits the crime; why then should the lustful be located in the upper regions of Hell?

  2. Why is Dido here? Does Dante concur with Vergil on her location?

  3. We shall have much to say about the story of Paolo and Francesca. What is the role of art here? What parallels can you draw with the Aeneid? the Confessions? How is the reader being educated as a reader?

  4. What is Francesca's effect on Dante-pilgrim? Is there a discrepancy between the attitudes of D-pilgrim and D-poet here?

  5. Where does Francesca fit in Dante's categories of women? Is she anything like Mary, Lucia, and Beatrice?

Canto VI

  1. The Gluttonous: how do you explain the weather in this circle? (You should track the weather throughout the Inferno.)

  2. Dante-pilgrim encounters his first Florentine Hell-inmate; what does Ciacco do for the poem? What other cities (poetic, Biblical) does Florence recall, in this conversation between D-pil. (whose real-life alter ego, remember, has not seen Florence in years, and never will again) and the prohetic Ciacco?

  3. Dante-pilgrim asks what will happen to these dead folks after the Last Judgement (cf. Matt. 24, 25). It's a theological question; does Vergil give him a theological answer? How reliable do you suppose Vergil's information is?

Canto VII

  • The fourth and fifth circles: how do the punishments of those located here fit their respective crimes? What sort of progression(s) do we seem to be following as we move further down in Hell--e.g., psychological, aesthetic, sensory, meteorological...?

Canto VIII

  • How do you rate Vergil's performance as guide in this Canto? How does Dante-pilgrim rate it? Dante-poet? What distinctions/hiearchies begin to emerge among D-pilgrim, D-poet, and Vergil-guide?

Canto IX

  1. Further challenges to Vergil's authority. How does he hold up?

  2. What is Dante-pilgrim's danger on p. 79? How does Vergil address this danger? What is the lesson encoded in this "veil of verses" (as Dante calls it at l. 63)?

Canto X

  • Why can the damned see only the past and future, but not the present (p.91)? What will happen to them after the Last Judgment?

Canto XI

  • What do we learn on p. 99 about the hierarchy of sin? Like many things in the Inferno (and in the Commedia generally), sins come in a set of three. Cf. Augustine's characterization of the three "chief kinds of wickedness," Conf. p.47. Is Dante working with the same three kinds? Where have we seen Augustine's categories of sin come into play in the Inferno?

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