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The Book Club

Dante Alighieri’s Inferno

1. Dante’s Inferno. I will be perfectly honest: the main reason why I had even picked up this book in the first place was because of the video game I was playing, and it seemed interesting to me to see if I could pick out similarities and differences in the plot. Even though I am an atheist, “Inferno” is an interesting read primarily because it conjures a medieval notion of Hell and its nine circles of suffering, and the attention to detail is remarkable in terms of attaching the sins to the respective punishments. The narrative is gruesome and revolting at points, but it is intriguing to highlight the allegorical nature of the torture and retributions that the sinners are correspondingly subject to.

2. Reading and comprehending the text. Digesting this epic poem can be of tremendous difficulty if you – like me – do not have a very well-informed knowledge or background of the historical references, as well as the socio-political landscape of Dante’s time. Dante, through “Inferno”, was attempting to provide an indirect commentary on the state of affairs in Florence; presented through his disdain of various political figures, and the frustration towards the supposed corruption of the state. Furthermore, the medieval references were also considerable hurdles whilst reading the text. It would be a good idea to pick up a book with the appropriate footnotes and appendices to guide you along in understanding the numerous allusions established; and also to read up briefly on the background of Florence prior to reading per se.

3. The common experience of Dante Alighieri. Whether the fictional Dante was a reflection or direct representation of the poet himself is not important; what can be ascertained is that the fictional character’s journey through Hell can be seen as a universal religious quest for God. As he travels through the various circles of Hell he sees the horrors of sin and punishment; yet simultaneously and subtly comprehends that God’s justice is fair, since the evil are eternally trapped in their dimensions. Quintessentially, it is a tremendous exposition on the saying “you reap what you sow”.

4. The portrayal of Hell and its elements. “Through me you enter into the city of woes // through me you enter into eternal pain, // through me you enter the population of loss … abandon all hope, you who enter here”.

5. The construct of Dante’s Hell. Dante’s Hell is made up of nine concentric circles, culminating at the centre of the Earth where Satan is held in an ice-bondage, with Brutus and Cassius feet-first in Satan’s mouths. Just as Satan’s immobility, evilness and detriments are contrasted with God’s perfection and power; the people trapped in Hell are individuals who have been unrepentant over their sins, unlike their counterparts in Purgatory or Heaven. The circles are, in order of their wickedness: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Avarice and Prodigality, Wrath and Sullenness, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treachery. The first five circles make for Upper Hell, and others Lower Hell.

6. Virgil. Virgil is the perfect mentor and complement to Dante. While Dante is confused, unsettled, and momentarily emotional in reflection of the sights and sounds, Virgil is presented to be more steadfast in his beliefs and approaches. More importantly, besides his role as the voice of reason, religious faith and moral sobriety, he significantly protects Dante from the physical threats and dangers in Hell. As Hell is presented as a place of darkness and unforeseen dangers, Virgil’s sturdiness and intellect is further magnified, reaffirming his role as Dante’s guide.

7. Divine and poetic justice. For me, the most obvious reflection of this was the punishment afflicted towards the sorcerers, astrologers and false prophets, who are trapped in the Eighth Circle for fraud. Because of their desires to look into the future through various means and ways – mostly forbidden – they have their heads twisted backwards around their bodies, such that they walk backwards continually in Hell.

8. Virgil’s attempts to bring Dante out of his emotions and base his judgements on greater degrees of objectivity. “These have no hope of death … mercy and justice disdain them. Let us not speak of them, but do thou look and pass on”.

9. God’s perfect justice. The idea, of course, is that each sinner’s punishment and its severity are closely matched with the degree and magnitude of the sin. The means of punishments are methodological and scientific in their execution; and their impersonality is in stark contrast to many of Dante’s reactions, which are characterised by human pity and sympathy. Virgil, along the journey, asks for Dante to be more objective in his perspectives towards the judgements, and to strengthen his comprehension towards the plethora of punishments in accordance to the sins.

10. “I could never have believed that death had undone so many”. My book did highlight the fact that this line was used as a direct allusion by T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land”; which itself is also a modern literary masterpiece.

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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