Wordsdays – Order in The Inferno

(the centre of gravity is the Devil’s penis, the centre of gravity is the Devil’s penis, the centre of gravity is the Devil’s penis, the centre of gravity is the Devil’s penis, the centre of gravity is the Devil’s penis, the centre…)

Throughout The Inferno, Dante shows humanity to be deeply flawed: we’re gluttonous, treacherous and violent, and all of this is clearly shown in the various circles of Hell. However, Dante presents these as individual sinners, who are flawed themselves; even the ‘groups’ only exist to reinforce the flaws of the individual: the Sodomites are anonymous, suggesting no man has an identity, Francesca and Paolo’s love only reinforces their own imperfections, and the brain-gnawing brethren, Uglino and Ruggieri, only reinforce their won individual treachery.

I’d argue that Dante criticises all of mankind in The Inferno, as both Dante the Pilgrim, the representative of man, and Virgil, the representative of reason, try to divide Hell into nine neat circles, a practice which is shown to be futile in its scope, and incorrect in its execution.

There is a clear attempt to provide Hell with an order in the very structure of the work itself: there are 34 cantos, each consisting of stanzas of three lines each. However, there is an immediate problem here, in that the other two texts of The Divine ComedyPurgatory and Paradise, contain 33 cantos each, suggesting that humans do not perceive Hell as an extension of the Christian afterlife, on par with the other two phases, but as an entirely different entity altogether. The fact that each realm is geographically connected to the next, with the bottom of Hell emerging in the southern hemisphere, where Mount Purgatory was thought to be, would suggest that such a distinction is flawed.

Furthermore, the 34 cantos in the first poem contrast to the idea of the Holy Trinity: the frequent use of multiples of three reinforces any ideas presented: Lucifer is all the more terrible as he has three heads, a corruption of the Trinity of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the initial dangers of the Leopard, Lion and She-Wolf are heightened for the same reason. The additional ‘introductory’, according to Mark Musa, canto undermines the entire presentation of Hell in the poem; it is not a multiple of three, and so any ideas we can draw from it, good or bad, are weakened.

The idea of this ‘introductory’ canto is also important, as it suggests mankind needs to be prepared for the horrors of Hell, horrors that man will be prepared for in this introduction; however, the Pilgrim’s assertion that ‘How hard it is to tell what is was like’ would suggest that in the realm of preparation, mankind is left scared and confused.

Perhaps this canto is the most ambiguous of the work: the diagram illustrating the structure of Hell is not shown until the third canto, suggesting knowledge of it can never be gained prior to entering it, and the forest the Pilgrim finds himself in is only called the ‘dark wood’, which contrast to the only other forest in The Inferno, the much more informatively-named ‘Wood of suicides’.

More specifically, the varying canto and line length could suggest that each circle has a different level of complexity and importance, which contrasts to the Poet’s idea that all sinners feel their pain is the greatest – Francesca says ‘There is no greater pain’ than hers. This contradiction between Dante’s own ideas may even suggest that in writing about Hell and trying to codify religion, we will ultimately harm ourselves.

Furthermore, The Inferno itself is a human perception of religion, and these perceptions are shown to be flawed in that sinners such as the Simonists are punished for their sinful interpretations of the Bible, their prioritisation of wealth over religious integrity, perhaps indicating that any human understandings of religion will be flawed in some way. If this is the case, Dante would be showing all of mankind, including his readers, to be weak in terms of theistic beliefs.

Dante’s division of the sins and sinners into nine separate circles could also be said to be problematic: again, he creates a hierarchy of sins that the sinners themselves oppose, in arguing that each’s pain is the greatest.

Thinks links back to the problems with interpreting Hell: a poet observing Hell thinks one thing, while those suffering it it think another, and it is the latter whose opinions would likely to be accurate in this case. Maybe this indicates that man considering Hell is inferior to those in it, an idea perhaps reinforced by the shade’s ability to foresee the future: Pope Nicholas III knows that his successor, Boniface VIII will die and join him in Hell before he actually dies, even mistaking Dante for said pope: ‘Is that you, here, already upright? / Is that you here already upright, Boniface?’.

Furthermore, Dante the Pilgrim’s assertion that the ninth circle is ‘the bottom of the universe’ is equally incorrect as it is a human interpretation of Hell; the fact that Virgil agrees with this distinction would suggest that reason, as well as humanity, would make this decision. Perhaps Dante the Poet is arguing that both humanity, and our primary means of figuring out the universe, reason, are equally flawed to this end.

Dante shows humanity to be flawed more broadly than the individuals of Virgil, the Pilgrim and the shades in Hell, by undermining his own divisions of Hell; if our source of information on Hell is shown to be weak, all of our ideas and reactions to eternal punishment will start from an imperfect base, just as the Pilgrim’s and Virgil’s are.


You know what the centre of gravity is?

‘Wordsdays’ is a weekly series on the Jamespatrickcasey blog, with a terrible name and an unnecessary message in the footer. Every Wednesday, I will attempt to balance the sophistication and complexity of the ideas of some of the world’s most popular pieces of literature, with the bluntness and daft metaphors of my own writing style, while trying to make it vaguely informative and halfway amusing. No prior knowledge of the texts discussed will be needed to read these posts, although a vague knowledge of the word being discusses won’t exactly hurt.


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