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5 “Must Ask” Questions for Teaching Dante’s Inferno

Earlier this year, I wrote a five-part series on Dante’s Inferno entitled “Blogging through Hell”, a collection that grew out of teaching the great work this spring. Along with those articles, which served as outlets for some thoughts that incessantly swirled around my head while teaching, I want to provide a bit of practical help for any who might be teaching or reading the Inferno in days to come.

I realize that this post may come at a particularly unhelpful time, given that for most, the school year is drawing to a close, but there is never a bad time to think about Dante. The questions we ask are among the most significant (or are the most significant) considerations in teaching and reading, so here are a handful that I found helpful during my most recent trip through the Inferno.

1.Should Dante go with Virgil into hell (Cantos I-II)?

Dante himself seems unsure. Despite his excitement at meeting the great poet, Dante vacillates a bit between the end of Canto I and beginnings of Canto II.

Granted, Dante’s choices seem few. A she-wolf, leopard, and a lion have driven him back down the path, but should he go with Virgil? Is hell a better choice than the wild beasts? Is the dead and apparently reincarnate poet a better choice? The “should” questions are always important, and here it leads us to consider the end of Dante’s journey (that is, the intercession of Beatrice), the circumstances that brought him to the dark wood, the symbolism of the beasts he is escaping, and more.

2.What does Virgil mean when he says that the fallen souls in hell have “lost the good of intellect” (Canto III)? How does that loss manifest itself in later cantos?

This line, early in Canto III, reveals something about Dante’s perception of “intellect” that differs from the modern limitation of intellect to the world of mere thought or academic consideration. The idea seems to be that the fallen souls have “lost their minds”, so how does that show itself in the various circles of hell? For example, see Canto V, line 39, where Dante speaks of those who “betrayed reason to their appetite.”

3.Compare circle one (the abode of the “virtuous pagans”) with later circles. Why does Dante portray their place so differently?

Circle one, which the travelers encounter in Canto IV, contains some of history’s greatest thinkers and poets. Their circle contains light, a green meadow surrounded by a “sweet brook flowing round” and opening to a “luminous and open height.” As they exit the circle, Dante says, “I pass from light into the kingdom of eternal night.” But, remember that circle one is part of Hell. So, why does it seem so, well, pleasant here? How does it differ from other circles? Is Dante having a hard time envisioning the punishment of his heroes? Is he making reference to the value of thought, learning, and art?

4.Should Dante have pity or sympathy for the souls he encounters in hell?

Early in Canto III, Virgil warns Dante to “put by all division of spirit and gather your soul against all cowardice”, but by the end of the canto, Dante passes out (this seems a more masculine way of saying, “he swooned”). At the end of Canto V, he collapses again, like a corpse, “to the dead floor of Hell.” Yet, by Canto VIII, when Dante encounters Filippo Argenti, a political enemy of his from Florence, his pity completely disappears and he even wishes greater punishment on his enemy.

Why the change? Is Dante taking on the sin of that circle (Argenti was held in the circle of the wrathful)? Should Dante maintain sympathy or pity for the souls in Hell?

5.Describe Satan’s punishment. Why would Dante portray Satan’s punishment in such fashion?

Many readers are surprised by Satan’s punishment – frozen in ice, just chewing on sinners? Why those particular sinners, anyway? Does his punishment fit his crime? Why would Dante choose to portray Satan being punished in this manner?

Of course, there are dozens more fascinating and helpful questions that Dante’s Inferno generates, but these have proven beneficial in my own teaching and reading. I hope they help you as well. What questions would you add to the list?

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