The Inferno: Essay Q&A

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1. What is the difference between the way Dante experiences Hell and the way the souls of the damned are experiencing it? Consider both the literal and the allegorical levels.
The key difference is that Dante is in Hell temporarily, whereas the damned are permanent residents.
On the literal level, the most essential difference is that Dante is alive and they are dead: thus he still has the power to choose to turn to God, whereas they have lost that power, and so will experience eternally what they chose during their lives. God cannot force anyone to repent and ask for forgiveness, and to die unrepentant means to choose to stay centered on oneself, and to have what one chooses eternally. It has been said that the fire of Hell is God's love as perceived by those who have rejected it. Dante, on the other hand, is a living man who wants to choose to turn to God, and so he is open to the help of Virgil when it comes, and is inspired by the thought that the Virgin Mary and St. Lucy and Beatrice all want to help him; he is willing to go through Hell, if that is what it takes to come to real joy. The damned are stuck in the circles appropriate to the sin they have chosen, and there they stay, blaming everyone but themselves for being there. Being alive and aided by Virgil and (at the Gate of Dis) an angel, Dante is moving through all the circles, looking and passing on, pitying and sympathizing at first, but learning to accept the state of the souls of the damned as fitting, given what they chose. In the depths of Hell, the damned are frozen in the ice created by the flapping of Satan's wings. In the depths of Hell, with Virgil's help, Dante can use Satan himself as a ladder to escape from Hell. Once out of Hell, he can begin to climb toward the mountain, the ascent of which will make him ready to see Beatrice again, with whom he will rise from the surface of the earth and move toward the final vision of God. Satan has great power over the damned; but not over the living Dante who has the power to choose God.
On the allegorical level, Dante stands for all who realize, however dimly, that the path to real happiness comes through inner growth and who are willing to do what it takes to grow, however painful it may be to look closely at the true nature of all those tendencies that are keeping them from true happiness. The souls of the damned stand for those who blame their unhappiness on everyone but themselves, who are utterly unwilling to see what they themselves are doing that is making them miserable, who, in a word, are stuck, and see the world as their enemy. Thus Dante's experience of Hell stands for the experience of coming to know all the parts of ourselves that psychologist Carl Jung spoke of as the shadow, while the experience of the souls of the damned stands for the experience of being trapped by the shadow.
2. What is the role of Virgil in the Inferno?
On the level of the story, Virgil is the wise elder, so often found in myths and fairy tales, who guides the hero or heroine through the perils of the journey so that they can find the treasure they are seeking. Virgil is the perfect person to play that role for Dante because Dante reveres Virgil so deeply, knows most of his Aeneid by heart, and has learned how to write great poetry from him. Thus Dante is ready to do whatever Virgil says, to trust him completely-or almost completely. Again, as so often in myth, the wise elder is not enough-love must draw the hero or heroine. Thus Virgil has to be inspired by Beatrice to come to Dante in the Dark Wood, and Dante must know that Beatrice and St. Lucy and the Virgin Mary are reaching out to him in love through Virgil in order to get the strength to face Hell.
Still on the level of the story, Virgil, as the wise elder, makes it possible for Dante to keep going when he might just get lost in pity for the damned or turned back by stubborn demons. He literally rescues Dante, both by exhorting him to conquer his fear and by literally carrying him to safety when necessary. And the relationship between Dante and Virgil serves to remind the reader what good relationships between human beings can be, providing a strong contrast to the indifference or hostility that the souls of the damned show to each other.
Allegorically, Virgil has, like all the figures in the Divine Comedy, more than one meaning. He can be seen as standing for Dante's conscience, as for example when in Canto 23 it is only Virgil who saves Dante from the demons in the circle where grafters suffer. Again in Canto 30, Virgil reproaches Dante for listening to the quarreling of the damned and speaks of always being with him, even back in the living world. More broadly, Virgil embodies all the wisdom that Dante had learned from the classical world. When he teaches Dante, often he draws on Aristotle, the greatest classical authority in the Middle Ages. Thus Virgil's limitations point to the limitations of classical wisdom from Dante's point of view; lacking the Christian revelation, the classical world could not know the ultimate reality of the universe as forgiving love.
3. What is the difference between Dante's image of Satan and more usual images of Satan, and what is the meaning of that difference in allegorical terms?
Usually Satan is pictured as active and full of energy, roaming around the world tempting people. When he is pictured in Hell, he is often having great fun tormenting sinners, and he is surrounded by flames. He is often pictured as attractive, a proud rebel, one who has refused to spend his life serving God, and many have identified with him. Even those who have portrayed him in a way that emphasizes his evil nature have portrayed him as powerful and dangerous. But it's hard to imagine anyone identifying with Dante's Satan.
Dante's Satan is almost completely passive. He is stuck in the ice in the depths of Hell, and his only actions are to flap his wings, and thus freeze the ice in which he's stuck, to gnaw on the sinners in his three mouths, and to weep tears and blood. He is huge, and at first Dante the pilgrim is terrified of him, but his size is the only reminder of his stature when he was Lucifer (literally, "light bearer") and the fairest angel in Heaven. Now he is completely ugly, a grotesque parody of the Holy Trinity, with his three faces of different colors. His former beauty was of course given to him by his Creator, so the mention of that beauty makes it appalling that he could have rebelled against God, who made him out of nothing and made him so beautiful. And Dante sees that there is no reason to fear him, since he has no real power-he cannot even stop Dante and Virgil from escaping from Hell by climbing down his body to the center of the earth and then turning around and climbing up. The last sight Dante and Virgil have of him is grotesque, comic, and pathetic-just two helpless hairy legs waving upside down from a hole.
Allegorically, Dante's image of Satan conveys with far greater power than the conventional one that turning away from "the love that moves the sun and the other stars" is turning away from beauty, from energy, from life itself, and that the result of such turning away, if it is persisted in, is a kind of paralysis. It may seem a romantic rebellion to refuse to serve God, but it leaves one trapped in the ego. Dante's image also conveys beautifully that sin, once understood for what it is and rejected, has no power, and in fact seems absurd.
4. What makes Dante's allegory different from the most common form of allegory, and what effect does this difference have?
The most common form of allegory involves characters who are personifications of abstract qualities and often have names like Despair or Mr. Worldly Wiseman or Grace. The setting may involve towns with names like Vanity Fair. We know what everything stands for, but we enjoy seeing inner struggles acted out, rather than simply described. Like other allegories, Dante's Divine Comedy shows an inner experience acted out, but Dante for the most part uses a form of allegory in which real people in a real setting embody different aspects of inner experience, and his form of allegory has more levels of meaning than the usual kind: it points to more than just inner experience.
The first canto of the Inferno is to some extent an example of the usual kind of allegory, but in two crucial ways it isn't. The Dark Wood in which Dante the pilgrim is lost, so dark that "the straight way was utterly lost," is not called the Wood of Error, or some such name, but it is in no sense a real wood-it is a concrete image that stands for a state of mind in which everything looks hostile and threatening, and the clear sense of how to live in a way that brings happiness is completely lost. The three beasts are in no sense real: they stand for three different inner forces that throw one off course. On the other hand, Dante the pilgrim is a real human being, with all the distinctive characteristics of Dante the person, at the same time that he is Everyman, standing for every soul that wants true happiness but has lost the way, for every human being who has ever realized at midlife that some drastic change is needed. And Virgil is Virgil, the Roman poet that Dante loved, as well as Classical Wisdom, Human Reason, or Conscience.
The effect of using real people in this way, and, as the poem goes on, a setting that Dante means us to understand as real, is that the whole poem has a deeper impact. On the most superficial level, some might react by fearing actually ending up in Hell and therefore by looking for ways to turn their lives around. More profoundly, the horror of seeing real people stuck and the joy of seeing a real person being helped to see the reality of wrong choices may inspire a desire for real growth. This approach also makes it easier to bring out the deeper meaning of the poem that has to do with what corrupts and ruins a whole society, not only because we see real people interacting with each other, but because they are able to talk about the societies from which they come and what's wrong with them.
5. Why does Dante have to go through Hell to get out of Hell?
On the literal level, Dante has to go through Hell because he is unable to get past the three beasts who come at him as he begins to climb the hill rising at the end of the valley of the Dark Wood, the hill with the rays of the rising sun shining on it. He thinks he might make it past the leopard, but the lion makes him shake with fear, and the she-wolf puts such heaviness in him that he gives up all hope of climbing the hill, and the wolf drives him back into the Dark Wood. Virgil then comes to his aid and asks him why he isn't climbing "'the delightful mountain that is the beginning and cause of all joy'" (Canto 1, lines 77-78). Dante asks Virgil's help against the wolf, but Virgil sees her as so powerful in the whole world that Dante must take another route, starting by hearing the despairing cries of the damned.
On the allegorical level, one way to interpret Dante's inability to get past the three beasts, especially the she-wolf, and climb the mountain directly is that one cannot overcome the drive to get what one mistakenly thinks will bring happiness by intellectual understanding and sheer willpower, especially when everyone in the world one lives in is dominated by that drive. Dante must go through Hell, just as one must see feelingly exactly where following that drive leads: one must go deep inside and be completely honest about the real nature of a life dominated by that drive. One must also be willing to see the other drives, which everyone has inside them, and which can always take over if they are not acknowledged and seen for what they are. And to go through Hell, that is, to experience it without getting trapped in it, means that one must see all the darkness in oneself without getting trapped by fear and despair. To do that one needs help, as Dante trusts himself to the help of Virgil; he also needs trust in the divine love revealed to him through Beatrice, and outside the gates of Dis, the help of a divine messenger. Perhaps a modern example will help to explain this: An alcoholic seldom overcomes alcoholism by sheer willpower, and the 12-Step approach speaks of the need for the help of a Higher Power as one begins to look at one's life honestly.

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