Inferno Cantos 1 to 5 Questions for Analysis by Stacy Esch

Inferno: Questions for Analysis, Cantos I – V

by Stacy Esch

[with illustrations selected by EIL staff]

  • Gustave Doré, Canto 1
    (Dante lost in the dark wood)

    What is the “dark wood”? How did Dante get there? [see Introducing Canto I]

  • What’s the significance of Dante “waking up” HALFWAY through the course of his life? He says he was so “full of sleep” that he can’t even tell when he began to lose his way….why does he wake up HALFWAY through? [see Introducing Canto I]
  • What was the sleeping state Dante was in before? [see Introducing Canto I]
  • Let’s stay with this image of waking up in a strange, dark, savage, tangled, rough place-a place you don’t entirely recognize and which you can’t remember getting to. It sounds like someone on a bender, doesn’t it? A kind of hangover from drunkenness? What’s that feeling, and why is there at the beginning of the Inferno? When you imagine yourself in those shoes, what state do you realize Dante is in as the poem opens? [see Introducing Canto I]
  • Why can’t Dante leave the wood? What’s the significance that “three beasts” block his way? What do you think these beasts signify? Do they have symbolic meaning, do you think?
  • Light appears and disappears here at the beginning of the book. What do you think the “light” and “dark” symbolize?
  • Not sure if he’s “man or shade” Dante cries to Virgil for help, and Virgil offers to lead him on a “timeless” path through an “eternal realm.” He seems to be offering Dante the chance to see things he’s never seen before, things he needs to see if he’s going to climb out of his “rut,” his confusion and moral disorientation. When he realizes his guide is Virgil, Dante seems to have all the confidence in the world in him, because Virgil is one of his “heroes.” Keep an eye on Dante’s relationship with Virgil as the book progresses; notice how it changes and grows.
  • Dante sets out with confidence, but as we’ll see at the very beginning of Canto II, his mood quickly changes to doubt. Why the roller coaster emotions, do you think?

Canto II, Persuasion

Daylight is departing as the Canto begins. What mood does that set? In what sense is he “alone”? What’s the double struggle he names?

  • Mood = foreboding. For the rest of creation, the dark means rest, but for the Pilgrim it means going to war.
  • He has to struggle with the journey itself and the pity which this journey will evoke in him; his battle against pity is one of his major struggles in the Inferno. You’ll notice he has a lot of it at the beginning, but that he gradually learns, grows, and changes. See if you can observe these changes in his level of pity.

Dante invokes the muses, not for inspiration exactly, but for the power to set down what’s in his memory. Why the emphasis on “memory”?

  • Should we take him literally? His insistence on “memory” rather than the traditional “inspiration” makes the story he’s telling seem more real, more believable. If it’s memory, then it’s not an “inspired fiction.”
  • If he’s remembering something he must have come through it all right. And he must have learned something along the way that makes the narrator telling the story now different than the character in the story, though they are the same person. The Poet is wiser than the Pilgrim.

Why does Dante compare himself to Aeneas and Paul?

  • Dante is referring to Book VI in the Aeneid and a Gnostic gospel called “The Vision of St. Paul,” which was very a popular text and which describes Paul’s journey into the underworld, which is mentioned in the New Testament, but not described there.
  • It might seem like false modesty, but he really seems to be emphasizing his self-doubt, his sense of personal unworthiness for this journey. Only the “greats” have made this trip. How will he compare? Does he have it in him? He seems to need Virgil’s reassurance here. Virgil needs to persuade him that he’ll be okay. It’s a very human reaction, to feel unworthy, to feel foolish, to be filled with self-doubt.

Virgil comments on Dante’s fear. He calls it “cowardice,” and compares it to the “trick of vision” that “startles a shying beast.” Notice how emotion, for Virgil, is linked to bestial behavior; you’re not much nobler than a beast when you allow your emotions to rule you this way-that’s the implication. What does Virgil do to “ease the burden of fear”? Why does Dante trip all over himself to write “like one who unchooses his own choice and thinking again undoes what he has started…”

  • He makes sure the emphasis is on “choice.”
  • Fear is seen as an inferior emotion. Reason is always superior. Yet, Augustine taught (and Dante obviously believes, given the amount of fear he emphasizes at the beginning of the work here and elsewhere) that fear was a form of “grace” that was a kind of gift because it’s a kind of energy. Your fear can be the catalyst that sets you back on the right path, as it does for Dante.
  • To ease his burden of fear, Virgil tells Dante the story of how Beatrice came to him in Limbo-where she came from, who sent her. Love is the force that moves her to entreat Virgil, and love is what moves Virgil to action as well. He concludes that with such help at his side, how can he possibly remain cowardly? He should be bolder, freer. More human.
  • Notice how Virgil questions Beatrice just as Dante questions him. Virgil doesn’t know everything.
  • Beatrice is high up in heaven!! She’s sitting around with “Rachel of old”—who is Abraham’s wife, if you know your Bible, and Abraham is one of the major patriarchs of the Old Testament.
  • A little about Beatrice here [see notes on “Beatrice“]

Notice that Beatrice instructs Virgil to persuade Dante, knowing that no one can “command” him; he has to make the choice himself. How does Virgil persuade Dante to go on?

  • He tells him the story of how Beatrice came to him. Dante learns that he has three women in heaven “watching over him”-all the way up to the Virgin Mary (although she’s never named).
  • Love is a saving grace for Dante here. He’s willing, literally, to be led through the depths of Hell if Beatrice, his true love, requires it. He is such a devout servant of love!
  • Do you think love can be a saving grace elsewhere in the world, in our world today? In our lives? Is it naïve to think that love can “save us,” that “love is all you need” (as John Lennon put it). How does this message square with your own experience?

What’s Dante’s reaction when he hears that his beloved Beatrice is involved in helping him?

  • Dante uses a simile (and he only uses these when he really wants to draw attention to something)-to describe how he “blooms” and he emphasizes that he feels “set free.”

Notice, again, the roller coaster emotional ride.

  • As he sets out, he’s blooming and full of confidence. This is quickly shattered as he enters outer Hell in the very next Canto.

Canto III, Outer Hell

Hell has a “gate” (remember the Gate at the end of Genesis, Chapter 3)-it will contain a “city”-though we won’t reach the actual city walls until Canto X, when Virgil and Dante get stopped at the Gate of Dis. But the fact that it’s preceded by a gate makes this entire region seem like a specifically human place; it’s the very opposite image of the “Garden” of Eden, which was built for everything, all of earth’s creatures. A gated place, and especially a city, seems specifically for humanity. What do you think is the significance of making Hell into a city?

  • Maybe because the evils of the city would be familiar to us? The fact that cities are packed in with people?
  • But also that Dante’s Hell is inspired by his classical sources. His underworld greatly resembles that of Virgil’s (Book VI, Aeneid) and the underworld described in “The Vision of St. Paul.” A lot about the structure of Hell is unique to Dante, however, which you would discover if you made a point of comparing these works systematically. The inscription over the Gate is all Dante, for example.

Read the inscription over the Gate very carefully. What does it tell you about this place?

  • You are entering a “city of woes,” of sorrow, a place of “eternal pain” where “forsaken people” dwell. The city image evokes images of an urban, social, human place, while the eternal sorrow suggests it is ruled by animal emotion rather than reason, which is further emphasized by the “forsaken” people who are forsaken because they’ve “lost the good of intellect,” as Virgil will explain.
  • “Sacred justice” is dispensed here. There’s a causal relationship between your free will and your responsibility. How well you meet your responsibilities determines the nature of your punishment or reward.
  • “Divine Power, Love, and Wisdom”-God plays an active role in setting up this place. God has the Power to make it in the first place, so be assured about that; God has the Wisdom to run it properly, so don’t question it; God created it out of Love-tough love, but love nevertheless.
  • “Eternal”-the emphasis on the eternal nature of this place takes us outside of time, outside of our temporal reality; we are in an “other” world
  • “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE.” What can be said there? This is not going to be about rehabilitation. It is about punishment, pure and simple. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth justice. Divine justice does not rehabilitate, it punishes. How do we feel about that in 2005? Do we share this view?
  • Remember that this is a vision of an “afterlife,” not actual life. Many people read the Inferno as if it is a metaphorical picture of our real world, but it also sharply contrasts with our “real” world. For instance, we still have our intellect (we haven’t forsaken it entirely yet), and we can choose to use it; we can still choose not to forsake God/truth; we can make right choices, take responsibility; we are still subject to time; nothing is eternal in real life-real life is all about growth and change, and we can always change for the better. So in other words, we don’t have to abandon all hope!

Dante asks Virgil to explain the inscription-notice the nature of their “teacher/pupil” relationship. Why does Virgil instruct Dante to leave his fear and his distrust behind?

  • He’s emphasizing that he has to put his trust and faith in the divine love and wisdom that set up this place, and that he’ll be protected as he goes through. This is a place of punishment; the sinners don’t deserve pity. Of course, Virgil can tell Dante this, but Dante still struggles with pity.
  • As Dante learns to reign in his pity, he becomes what some readers consider a little cruel. That leads us to question whether or not Dante is “justifying torture.” Some readers have been really put off by this book for that reason. It’s a sensitive question.
  • Notice how Dante is reduced to weeping as soon as he passes the Gate? What is he reacting to? What does his reaction tell you about him?
  • He’s overcome with pity and fear; you can see how sensitive and human he is. This divine justice takes some getting used to!

Who are the Neutrals? (Read “The Heirs of Canto III of Dante’s Inferno” online)

When does the light bulb turn on-when does Dante really understand who these sinners are, and the meaning of what they’ve done to deserve their punishment?

What’s the significance of the “dim” light? John Ciardi translates it as “infected” light, which I think is an even more powerful figure of speech than Pinsky’s “dim” light.

Why won’t Virgil answer Dante’s question? Why does Dante feel abashed? Is this a rift in their relationship?

Charon offers an “anti-greeting” that’s more like a curse. Notice how Virgil rebukes him. Also, notice how this kind of exchange between Virgil and the Inferno’s demons develops over the next several Cantos, culminating in a crisis in Canto IX.

Look closely at the spectacular simile Dante uses to describe the movement of sinners towards Charon’s ferry. He compares them to leaves falling from a tree, but combines that image with the image of a falcon lured by its master’s call.

Why does Dante faint at the end of the Canto? What overwhelms him, in your opinion?

Canto IV, Limbo

  • Is there any significance to the fact that Dante misreads Virgil’s pity for fear? Is Dante the Pilgrim being stupid, or is Dante the Poet trying to emphasize something significant here? Does this change their relationship at all?
  • Why does Virgil berate Dante for not asking questions? (Remember, he told him not to ask questions earlier.) Is this confusing, or does this inconsistency make some kind of sense?
  • What does Virgil reveal about himself when he claims to have no fear and still a lot of pity? (We can’t answer this now, but we will be able to soon—that’s the style of the book…it makes great use of “hindsight”—what you learn as you go on helps you understand where you’ve been. The past is always being integrated into the present.)
  • Why is Dante so covert in his question to Virgil about anyone ever leaving Limbo?
  • Dante is accepted into the ring of great poets. No false modesty there. What does this tell us about him, about this work we’re reading?
  • Who lives in the Castle? We’re learning, in a sly way, about hierarchies, class systems, degrees of punishments. There’s a very elaborate order to this place. The lower level contains people of action, the upper level the more contemplative thinkers. The Castle seems an elaborate symbol for “higher learning”; it’s a kind of ivory tower (wehre “goodness hides behind its gates” to quote Bob Dylan every chance I get). It also suggests a bibliography, in case any readers are interested in reading up and getting smart like Dante.
  • When Virgil and Dante walk on water, that’s miraculous. It parallels another character who walks on water later, in Canto IX. Is there any link?
  • Notice the transition picks up the light/dark motif: they are peering into a place “with no light in it.”

Canto V, Paolo and Francesca

Notice the funnel shape that’s suggested at the beginning of Canto V.

Notice, another “gate,” another entrance. Why are these entrances called attention to throughout the work? They seem to signal significant thresholds; they introduce rials the travelers must pass through. They are portals, in a way. Or hurdles on the straight path.

Notice the depiction of Minos. This is a character borrowed from Virgil, who borrowed it from the ancient Greeks. In Greek myth, Minos was a great judge. Virgil makes him the judge of the underworld, a judge of the dead. But Dante transforms him further into what we see here: a monster, a kind of demon, like Charon with his flaming eyes. Minos is a kind of “machine”; he’s flawless in his efficiency, a grotesque “functionary.” Throughout the Inferno you can observe Dante borrowing characters from classical literature and history and transforming them to his own artistic purposes.

Minos, like the other gatekeepers in the story are powerful reminders of where we are; they help readers navigate through the Inferno memorably. They are a kind of memory place holder, helping to distinguish one circle from the next.

Notice the “contrapasso.” The souls of the lustful, the carnal sinners are rent by hurricane-force winds that ravage, rend, and twist them like they allowed themselves to be be swept away by their passions while alive.

Observe the bird imagery. Dante uses the images of three kinds of birds throughout this Canto to make vivid the images of the souls in the air, swept by the winds. Starlings are unattractive, dirty, theiving…flying in big flocks. But the cranes, who were more admired, are the souls of the higher-brow sinners, the literary and historical legends who are more prominent, more individual. The dove (pidgeon) imagery is reserved for Paolo and Francesca, the lustful lovers who committed adultery and were murdered together.

Carefully observe Francesca’s speech to Dante.

  • Love is the force that propells Paolo and Francesca towards Dante; his love pulls them out of the wind (remember the theme: love is the primal force).
  • Francesca claims to speak for Dante’s benefit, but her speech is completely self-serving.
  • Francesca ironically quotes Dante’s earlier love poetry; by putting his own youthful words in Francesca’s mouth, he shows he’s willing to be self-critical.
  • Francesca tells her story, but her telling is distorted in order to exaggerate her own innocence. She doesn’t accept an ounce of responsibility for what happened.
  • Francesca says, “Love, which absolves none who are loved from loving made my heart burn…” Yet, if this were true, there’d be no souls in Hell! (God’s love, which would be that much more irresistable, would save all.) Francesca is merely covering her tracks, abdicating responsiblity for the seduction, blaming Paolo, the book, anything and anyone but her own self and the choices she freely made.

Many readers find it romantic the way Francesca and Paolo are together even in Hell, and they interpret this to mean that true love survives even an inferno. Paolo still clings to Francesca…. Is it romantic, or tragic? Romantic, or comic? It’s essential to be aware of the way in which Francesca is still trying to seduce. She’s trying to seduce the reader into believing she is innocent. Is she? Why doesn’t Paolo speak at all? He merely “weeps at her side”? What happened to him? Why can’t he speak? We must note that Dante, hearing Francesca’s tale, has enormous pity for the lovers. He hasn’t quite figured out that Francesca is talking about lust while he is thinking about love. He bows his head in utter defeat, hearing this tale, perhaps thinking of his own affairs, his own books. Are they seductions? Virgil seems to recognize that there’s something going on, and he asks Dante to confide in him. Dante admits to pity, not to guilt. Was Virgil picking up on something Dante isn’t ready to admit to himself, or does he actually have no guilt?


Next: Questions/Analysis on Cantos 5 – 11

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Stacy Esch teaches composition and literature at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She is an avid supporter of the liberal arts tradition in higher education.

This article is reprinted here for educational purposes only, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work. Many thanks to Professor Esch for letting us reproduce this resource, which was originally published on her website: