for Dante's Inferno, Cantos I-XI
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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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...)?
- 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?
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"?
- What do
you make of the Neutrals? Why is their fate important?
- The natural
home of Vergil and his pagan colleagues. How are they punished? Why
is this fitting?
- 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)?
- 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?
- Why is
Dido here? Does Dante concur with Vergil on her location?
- 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?
- What is
Francesca's effect on Dante-pilgrim? Is there a discrepancy between
the attitudes of D-pilgrim and D-poet here?
does Francesca fit in Dante's categories of women? Is she anything like
Mary, Lucia, and Beatrice?
- The Gluttonous:
how do you explain the weather in this circle? (You should track the
weather throughout the Inferno.)
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
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?
- 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,
- 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?
challenges to Vergil's authority. How does he hold up?
- 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)?
- 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?
- 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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