Dante's Inferno Canto Summaries

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Virgil leads Dante up to the Gate of Hell, upon which they read a foreboding inscription that includes the admonition "abandon all hope, you who enter here." As soon as they enter, Dante hears innumerable cries of torment and suffering. Virgil explains that these cries emanate from the souls of those who did not commit to either good or evil but who lived their lives without making conscious moral choices; therefore, both Heaven and Hell have denied them entry. These souls now reside in the Ante-Inferno, within Hell yet not truly part of it, where they must chase constantly after a blank banner. Flies and wasps continually bite them, and writhing worms consume the blood and tears that flow from them. The souls of the uncommitted are joined in this torment by the neutral angels—those who sided with neither God nor Satan in the war in Heaven. Virgil leads Dante to a great river called Acheron, which marks the border of Hell. A crowd of newly dead souls waits to be taken across. A boat approaches with an old man, Charon, at its helm. Charon recognizes Dante as a living soul and tells him to keep away from the dead, but after Virgil informs him that their journey has been ordained from on high, Charon troubles them no longer. He returns to his work of ferrying the miserable souls, wailing and cursing, across the river into Hell. As he transports Virgil and Dante across, Virgil tells the frightened Dante that Charon's initial reluctance to ferry him bodes well: only damned souls cross the river. Suddenly, an earthquake shakes the plain; wind and fire rise up from the ground, and Dante, terrified, faints.
A clap of thunder restores Dante to consciousness. When he wakes, feeling as though he has been asleep for a long time, he finds himself on the other side of the river, apparently having been carried off the boat by Virgil. He looks down into a deep valley that stretches in front of him: the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo. Virgil informs him that this circle, which contains the souls of those who led virtuous lives but either were born before the advent of Christianity (and thus could not properly honor God) or were never baptized. Dante asks if any souls have ever received permission to leave Limbo for Heaven, and Virgil names a number of Old Testament figures—Noah, Moses, and others. Christ granted these souls amnesty when he descended into Hell during the time between his death and resurrection (an episode commonly known as the Harrowing of Hell). Many other notable figures, however, remain in Limbo. Virgil himself resides here, and has been given only a brief leave to guide Dante. Dante watches a group of men approach and greet Virgil as a fellow poet. Virgil introduces them as Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan—the greatest poets of antiquity. They lead Dante to a great castle with seven walls, wherein he sees the souls of other great figures from the past: the philosophers Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato; Aeneas, Lavinia, and other characters from the Aeneid; the mathematician Euclid and the astronomer Ptolemy; and many others. Virgil guides Dante out of the castle and again off into the darkness.
Dante and Virgil now descend into the Second Circle of Hell, smaller in size than the First Circle but greater in punishment. They see the monster Minos, who stands at the front of an endless line of sinners, assigning them to their torments. The sinners confess their sins to Minos, who then wraps his great tail around himself a certain number of times, indicating the number of the circle to which the soul must go. Like Charon, Minos recognizes Dante as a living soul and warns him not to enter; it is Virgil's word that again allows them to pass unmolested. Dante and Virgil pass into a dark place in which torrential rains fall ceaselessly and gales of wind tear through the air. The souls of the damned in this circle swirl about in the wind, swept helplessly through the stormy air. These are the Lustful—those who committed sins of the flesh. Dante asks Virgil to identify some of the individual souls to him; they include many of great renown, including Helen, for whose sake the Trojan War was fought, and Cleopatra. Dante immediately feels sympathy for these souls, for essentially they are damned by love. With Virgil's permission, he calls out to the souls to see if they will speak to him and tell him their story. One woman, Francesca, recognizes Dante as a living soul and answers him. She relates to him how love was her undoing: bound in marriage to an old and deformed man, she eventually fell in love with Paolo da Rimini, her husband's younger brother. One day, as she and Paolo sat reading an Arthurian legend about the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, each began to feel that the story spoke to their own secret love. When they came to a particularly romantic moment in the story, they could not resist kissing. Francesca's husband quickly discovered their transgression and had the young lovers killed. Now Paolo and Francesca are doomed to spend eternity in the Second Circle of Hell. Overcome with pity, Dante faints again.
Virgil and Dante continue down toward the Fourth Circle of Hell and come upon the demon Plutus. Virgil quiets the creature with a word and they enter the circle, where Dante cries out at what he sees: a ditch has been formed around the circle, making a great ring. Within the ring, two groups of souls push weights along in anger and pain. Each group completes a semicircle before crashing into the other group and turning around to proceed in the opposite direction. The souls condemned to this sort of torturous, eternal jousting match, Virgil explains, are those of the Avaricious and the Prodigal, who, during their lives, hoarded and squandered, respectively, their money. Dante, as before, inquires whether he knows any of the souls here. Virgil informs him that most of the Avaricious are corrupt clergymen, popes, and cardinals but adds that the experiences they undergo here render them unrecognizable. He notes that the Avaricious and Prodigal share one essential characteristic: they were not prudent with the goods of Fortune. Dante asks Virgil to explain the nature of this "Fortune." Virgil replies that Fortune has received orders from God to transfer worldly goods between people and between nations. Her swift movements evade human understanding; thus, men should not curse her when they lose their possessions. Pondering this explanation, Dante follows Virgil down to the Fifth Circle of Hell, which borders the muddy river Styx. They see souls crouched on the bank, covered in mud, and striking and biting at each other. They are the Wrathful, those who were consumed with anger during their lives. Virgil alerts Dante to the presence of additional souls here, which remain invisible to him as they lie completely submerged in the Styx—these are the Sullen, those who muttered and sulked under the light of the sun. They now gurgle and choke on the black mud of the swampy river.
Still in the Sixth Circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil wander among the fiery tombs of the Heretics. Virgil describes the particular heresy of one of the groups, the Epicureans, who pursued pleasure in life because they believed that the soul died with the body. Suddenly, a voice from one of the tombs interrupts them and addresses Dante as a Tuscan (Tuscany is the region of Italy in which Florence is located). The voice belongs to a soul whom Virgil identifies as Farinata, a political leader of Dante's era. Virgil encourages Dante to speak with him. Dante and Farinata have hardly begun their conversation when another soul, that of Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, the father of Dante's intimate friend Guido, rises up and interrupts them, wondering why his son has not accompanied Dante here. Dante replies that perhaps Guido held Virgil in disdain. (According to some translations of Inferno, Dante says that Guido held God, or Beatrice, in disdain. The point is a matter of considerable debate among scholars.) Frantic, the shade reads too much into Dante's words and assumes that his son is dead. In despair, he sinks back down in his grave. Farinata continues discussing Florentine politics. He and Dante clearly represent opposing parties (though these parties are not named), yet they treat each other politely. From Farinata's words and those of the nearby soul, Dante realizes that the shades in Hell can see future events but not present ones. Farinata can prophesy the future—he predicts Dante's exile from Florence—but remains ignorant of current events. Farinata confirms that, as part of their punishment, the Heretics can see only distant things. Virgil calls Dante back, and they proceed through the rest of the Sixth Circle. Farinata's words have made Dante apprehensive about the length of time remaining for his exile, but Virgil assures him that he will hear a fuller account when they come to a better place.
At the edge of the Seventh Circle of Hell rises a stench so overpowering that Virgil and Dante must sit down at the tomb of Pope Anastasius in order to adjust to it. Virgil takes the opportunity to explain the last three circles of Hell and their respective subdivisions. The Seventh Circle of Hell, which contains those who are violent, is subdivided into three smaller circles: they punish the sins of violence against one's neighbor, against oneself, and against God. Worse than any violence, however, is the sin of fraud, which breaks the trust of a man and therefore most directly opposes the great virtue of love. The last two circles of Hell thus punish the Fraudulent. The Eighth Circle punishes "normal fraud"—sins that violate the natural trust between people. Such fraud includes acts of hypocrisy and underhanded flattery. The Ninth Circle, the seat of Dis, punishes betrayal—sins that violate a relationship of particularly special trust. These are the loyalties to kin, to country and party, to guests, and to benefactors. Dante asks Virgil why these divisions of Hell exist, wondering why the sinners they have seen previously do not receive this same degree of punishment, as they too have acted contrary to divine will. In response, Virgil reminds Dante of the philosophy set forth in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which posits the existence of "[t]hree dispositions counter to Heaven's will: / Incontinence, malice, insane brutality" (XI.79-80). The disposition of incontinence offends God least, says Virgil, and thus receives a more lenient punishment, outside of the city of Dis. Dante then asks for clarification of one more theological issue: why is usury a sin? Virgil explains to Dante that usury goes against God's will because a usurer makes his money not from industry or skill ("art")—as Genesis stipulates that human beings should—but rather from money itself (in the form of interest). Thus, usurers also go against God's "art," or His design for the world. The two poets now progress toward the First Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell.
The passage to the First Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell takes Virgil and Dante through a ravine of broken rock. At the edge, the monstrous Minotaur threatens them, and they must slip past him while he rages to distraction. As they descend, Virgil notes that this rock had not yet fallen at the time of his previous journey into the depths of Hell. Coming into the ring, they see a river of blood: here boil the sinners who were violent against their neighbors. A group of Centaurs—creatures that are half man, half horse—stand on the bank of the river with bows and arrows. They shoot at any soul that tries to raise itself out of the river to a height too pleasant for the magnitude of his or her sin. The head Centaur, Chiron, notices that Dante moves the rocks that he walks on as only a living soul would. He draws an arrow, but Virgil commands him to stand back, and he obeys. Because the broken rocks make the ring treacherous to navigate, Virgil also asks that a Centaur be provided to guide them through the ring around the boiling blood. Chiron provides one named Nessus, on whose back Dante climbs. Leading Virgil and Dante through the ring, Nessus names some of the more notable souls punished here, including one called Alexander (probably Alexander the Great), Dionysius, and Atilla the Hun. Those who lived as tyrants, and thus perpetrated violence on whole populations, lie in the deepest parts of the river. After fording the river at a shallow stretch, Nessus leaves the travelers, who continue on into the Second Ring.
In the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, Virgil and Dante enter a strange wood filled with black and gnarled trees. Dante hears many cries of suffering but cannot see the souls that utter them. Virgil cryptically advises him to snap a twig off of one of the trees. He does so, and the tree cries out in pain, to Dante's amazement. Blood begins to trickle down its bark. The souls in this ring—those who were violent against themselves or their possessions (Suicides and Squanderers, respectively)—have been transformed into trees. Virgil tells the damaged tree-soul to tell his story to Dante so that Dante may spread the story on Earth. The tree-soul informs them that in life he was Pier della Vigna, an advisor to Emperor Frederick, and that he was a moral and admirable man. But when an envious group of scheming courtiers blackened his name with lies, he felt such shame that he took his own life. Dante then asks how the souls here came to be in their current state. The tree-soul explains that when Minos first casts souls here, they take root and grow as saplings. They then are wounded and pecked by Harpies—foul creatures that are half woman, half bird. When a tree-soul's branch is broken, it causes the soul the same pain as dismemberment. When the time comes for all souls to retrieve their bodies, these souls will not reunite fully with theirs, because they discarded them willingly. Instead, the returned bodies will be hung on the soul-trees' branches, forcing each soul to see and feel constantly the human form that it rejected in life. At this point, two young men run crashing through the wood, interrupting Dante's conversation with the tree-soul. One of the men, Jacomo da Sant'Andrea, falls behind and leaps into a bush; vicious dogs have been pursuing him, and now they rend him to pieces. Virgil and Dante then speak to the bush, which is also a soul: it speaks of the suffering that has plagued Florence ever since it decided to make St. John the Baptist its patron, replacing its old patron, Mars (a Roman god). The bush-soul adds that he was a Florentine man in life who hanged himself.
Virgil and Dante find themselves outside the Eighth Circle of Hell, known as Malebolge ("Evil Pouches"). Dante describes the relationship between the circle's structure and its name: the circle has a wall running along the outside and features a great circular pit at its center; ten evenly spaced ridges run between the wall and the pit. These ridges create ten separate pits, or pouches, in which the perpetrators of the various forms of "ordinary fraud" receive their punishments. Virgil leads Dante around the left side of the circle, where they come upon the First Pouch. Here, Virgil and Dante see a group of souls running constantly from one side of the pouch to the other. On both of the pouch's containing ridges, demons with great whips scourge the souls as soon as they come within reach, forcing them back to the opposite ridge. Dante recognizes an Italian there and speaks to him; the soul informs Dante that he lived in Bologna and now dwells here because he sold his sister to a noble. This pouch is for the Panders (pimps) and the Seducers—those who deceive women for their own advantage. Moving on, Virgil and Dante also see the famous Jason of mythology, who abandoned Medea after she helped him find the Golden Fleece. As Virgil and Dante cross the ridge to the Second Pouch, a horrible stench besieges them, and they hear mournful cries. Dante beholds a ditch full of human excrement, into which many sinners have been plunged. From one of these souls, he learns that this pouch contains the Flatterers. After a few seconds, Virgil says that they have seen enough of this foul sight. They progress toward the Third Pouch.
After hearing Ulysses' story, Virgil and Dante start down their path again, only to be stopped by another flame-immersed soul. This soul lived in Italy's Romagna region, and now, hearing Dante speak the Lombard tongue, he asks for news of his homeland. Dante replies that Romagna suffers under violence and tyranny but not outright war. He then asks the soul his name, and the sinner, believing that Dante will never leave the abyss and thus will be unable to spread word of his infamy, consents to tell him. He introduces himself as Guido da Montefeltro and states that he was originally a member of the Ghibellines. After a time, he underwent a religious conversion and joined a Franciscan monastery, but he was then persuaded by Pope Boniface VIII to reenter politics on the opposing side. At one point, Boniface asked him for advice on how to conquer Palestrina (formerly called Penestrino, it served as the fortress of the Ghibelline Colonna family). Da Montefeltro showed reluctance, but Boniface promised him absolution in advance, even if his counsel were to prove wrong. He then agreed to give his advice, which turned out to be incorrect. When he died, St. Francis came for him, but a devil pulled him away, saying that a man could not receive absolution before sinning, for absolution cannot precede repentance and repentance cannot precede the sin. Such preemptive absolution he deemed "contradictory," and thus invalid. Calling himself a logician, the devil took da Montefeltro to Minos, who deemed the sinner guilty of fraudulent counsel and assigned him to the Eighth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell.
Still journeying toward the center of the Ninth Circle of Hell, Dante becomes aware of a great shape in the distance, hidden by the fog. Right under his feet, however, he notices sinners completely covered in ice, sometimes several feet deep, contorted into various positions. These souls constitute the most evil of all sinners—the Traitors to their Benefactors. Their part of Hell, the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle, is called Judecca. Dante and Virgil advance toward the giant, mist-shrouded shape. As they approach through the fog, they behold its true form. The sight unnerves Dante to such an extent that he knows not whether he is alive or dead. The figure is Lucifer, Dis, Satan—no one name does justice to his terrible nature. The size of his arms alone exceeds all of the giants of the Eighth Circle of Hell put together. He stands in the icy lake, his torso rising above the surface. Gazing upward, Dante sees that Lucifer has three horrible faces, one looking straight ahead and the others looking back over his shoulders. Beneath each head rises a set of wings, which wave back and forth, creating the icy winds that keep Cocytus frozen. Each of Lucifer's mouths holds a sinner—the three greatest sinners of human history, all Traitors to a Benefactor. In the center mouth dangles Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ. In the left and right mouths hang Brutus and Cassius, who murdered Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate. Brutus and Cassius appear with their heads out, but Judas is lodged headfirst; only his twitching legs protrude. The mouths chew their victims, constantly tearing the traitors to pieces but never killing them. Virgil tells Dante that they have now seen all of Hell and must leave at once. Putting Dante on his back, Virgil performs a startling feat. He avoids the flapping wings and climbs onto Lucifer's body, gripping the Devil's frozen tufts of hair and lowering himself and his companion down. Underneath Cocytus, they reach Lucifer's waist, and here Virgil slowly turns himself around, climbing back upward. However, Dante notes with amazement that Lucifer's legs now rise above them, his head below. Virgil explains that they have just passed the center of the Earth: when Lucifer fell from Heaven, he plunged headfirst into the planet; his body stuck here in the center. According to Virgil, the impact caused the lands of the Southern Hemisphere to retreat to the North, leaving only the Mountain of Purgatory in the water of the South. Dante and Virgil climb a long path through this hemisphere, until they finally emerge to see the stars again on the opposite end of the Earth from where they began.
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