Inferno is part of a trilogy of the Divine Comedy. It is written by Dante Aligheri and it is a popular and well-loved book that paints a picture of what hell could be like and who are the people who could be in hell. Inferno is the first of the trilogy. The two other books in the trilogy are the Purgatorio and the Paradiso.
There are nine circles in Dante’s Inferno. The sinners are grouped according to the sins that they made. Each circle is populated by sinners who made one kind of sin. The punishment for the sinners in the circle that they are in is related with the sin that they committed. This is what we mean by symbolic retribution. In this paper, I look at Circles 1, 2 and 9 of Dante’s Inferno and discuss the sin, the sinners, the physical condition and the symbolic retribution in each circle.
Circle 1 of Dante’s Inferno is the circle of the unbaptized, meaning they are not members of the Church and they are not believers of God. The people in this circle actually did not make any sin. They are not punished as severely as the people in the other circles. Since they did not know God when they were still living, they are separated from God. They are to stay eternally in Limbo where they are not given any hope because that is the state of having no God in one’s life:
That they sinned not; and if they merit had, 'Tis not enough, because they had not baptism Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest;
For such defects, and not for other guilt, Lost are we and are only so far punished, That without hope we live on in desire."
(Alighieri, Canto IV).
In an essay that analyzes why Dante constructs the first circle as a Limbo or a place
for those who are unbaptized, the writer asks why do the people who are unbaptized should be in the Inferno specifically in the first circle: “If no one could enter heaven without baptism and if God were perfectly just and merciful, how could He consign to everlasting pain the souls of babies unbaptized through circumstances obviously beyond their control?” (“Inferno”, Par. 19). In short, the writer is asking if it is a sin to be unbaptized and to live earlier than Jesus Christ.
If it is not a sin, then there should not be a Circle for the unbaptized in the Inferno. The essay “Inferno” surmises that when Dante reaches the first Circle, he is not yet in hell. He is in the “borderland, a place free both from the suffering of hell and from the bliss of heaven” (“Inferno”, Par. 19). Thus, in Circle 1, we can still apply the law of symbolical retribution. God does not punish those who did not believe in him. But they cannot be with him in heaven so in an act of mercy and just, there is the first circle, the Limbo for those people.
When Dante enters the circle, he describes the first part as a forest of “thick-crowded ghosts”. It is dark but after a few steps, they see a fire and the people that they see there are all shadows. When they continue on walking in the circle, there arrive at a castle. The castle is described as having seven walls and that around it, there is a rivulet. They pass through all the seven walls of the castle and finally they reach a meadow with greeneries and then this is the end of Limbo.
In Circle 1, Dante sees many people from the ancient Greek civilization. Homer is the writer of the two greatest Greek epic. Horace is also a writer who wrote about poetry. Plato is one of the three leading philosophers of the Greek society. The other two philosophers are also in Circle 1: Socrates and Aristotle. The geometrician Euclid is there and so is Hippocrates who known to be the founder of medicine in ancient Greek.
Dante regrets that he does not have the chance to spend more time with any of these people. But Virgil who is the guide of Dante in his descent to hell, is from this circle, Limbo. Virgil is a writer who wrote about the epic about Aeneid.
Circle 2 is the circle for the people whose sin is lust. The symbolical retribution for this sin is to be incessantly swept by a violent gust of wind. The lustful pursued the desire of their flesh without any regard for reason. Their punishment is just right because like their sin, their punishment is also devoid of reason:
I understood that unto such a torment The carnal malefactors were condemned, Who reason subjugate to appetite. (Alighieri, Canto V).
The wind brings the sinners in whichever direction it wants to blow. As Gardiner puts it: “The life they chose was below the dignity and calling of a human being, but they are in the circles of incontinence, not violence, because what they did was not malicious. Their penalty represents what they chose: They subjected their higher nature to their lower urges” (Gardiner, Par. 2).
Dante describes that Circle 2 of the Inferno is dark and it is smaller than Circle 1. There is an “infernal hurricane that never rests” (Alighieri, Canto V) and people are flying around crying and shrieking.
Some of the renown people that Dante sees in Circle 2 are Dido, the queen of Carthage who is the lover of Aeneas and Cleopatra who is the lover of Antony. Dante also sees Helen who has an affair with Paris, Achilles and Tristan.
One of the people in Circle 2 which talks to Dante is Francesca. She recounts her life and why she is there now in Circle 2. She is bounded to her lover Paolo and they are stuck in that position eternally. Francesca tells Dante that she and Paolo are reading the book on Guinevere and Lancelot when they are taken over by their emotions. When they reach the part of the book when Guinevere and Lancelot kiss, they also kiss. They are discovered by the husband of Francesca. They are overtaken by lust and so they are now in Circle 2 of the Inferno.
Circle 9 of the Inferno is the deepest and the last of the Circles. This lies at the bottom of the Inferno. The people who are in this circle are those who for Dante committed the severest sin. They are the traitors. There are four kinds of traitors as there are four part in this circle. The first kind is the traitor to the people who one loves most. They are in the part of Circle 9 called Caina from Cain who murders his brother. The second kind is the political traitor who is in the part known as the Antenora. The third kind of traitor is the traitor to friends who is in Ptolomea from the name Ptolomy. And the last kind of traitor and the worst traitor for Dante is the traitor to God which is the part known as the Judeca. The symbolic retribution for the traitors is to be emerged in a frozen lake forever with only their heads showing.
Dante describes the circle as one having pillars that are really the Giants. On the feet of the Giants is the frozen lake:
Whereat I turned me round, and saw before me And underfoot a lake, that from the frost The semblance had of glass, and not of water. (Alighieri, Canto XXXI).
The sinners that Dante sees in Caina are the brothers Napoleone and Alessandro who killed each other because they are fighting for their inheritance. Bocca who does not want to talk to Dante, is the sinner that Dante sees in the Antenora. He is a traitor to his country. Ugolino is the sinner in Ptolomea that Dante talks to. He is eating the back of the head of his friend Ruggerio. And lastly and the most fearful person that Dante sees in the Inferno is Lucifer who is in Judeca. Lucifer is a traitor to God.
Lucifer has wings that he unceasingly flaps and this make the lake frozen. He is the biggest person in Inferno, even bigger than the giants. His appearance is very ugly and he has three faces. Each of his face as a color, one red, one yellow and one black. His three mouths are eating other people and his eyes are fearsome. He is the personification of evil.
The law of symbolic retribution operates in Dante’s Inferno. As what the cliché goes, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Whatever sin a person did in his life, he will be punished accordingly when he dies. What made Inferno more interesting are the sinners that Dante sees in the circles. The sinners are renowned people either in books or in real lives. Dante’s Inferno makes one think about one’s life and the things that one does during his lifetime. Dante’s Inferno indeed deserves to be a classic in Western literature.