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Blogging through Hell – Part V

Further thoughts on Dante's "Inferno"

Journalist: “What are your thoughts on Hell?”
G.K. Chesterton: “I regard it as a thing to be avoided.”

One of the most obvious benefits of reading Dante’s Inferno is that it provides a vivid reminder that sin destroys and heaps horrific consequences upon the sinner. Temptation, by definition, entices one because of the apparent pleasure that the sinful act will bring, but Dante cuts through such transitory appearances, directing us to the frightening aftermath.

Paolo & Francesca

One of the most memorable and oft-discussed encounters Dante describes in The Inferno occurs in Canto V, where he meets Paolo and Francesca. In 1275, Francesca was wed to Giovanni Malatesa in what was likely a political arrangement between her father and Giovanni – a powerful man, a brave yet disfigured warrior with great wealth and influence. But, when Francesca arrived in her husband’s home in Rimini, she committed adultery with Giovanni’s younger brother, Paolo.

When Dante meets Paolo and Francesca in hell, he finds that they are “swept together so lightly on the wind and still so sad” (V.74-75). Their affair began while reading Gallehault’s story of Lancelot and Guinevere, who similarly succumbed to the temptation to commit adultery. Francesca says, “That book, and he who wrote it, was a pander. That day we read no further” (V.134-135).

Most likely, Dante includes this as an indictment against Gallehault. John Ciardi (the translator whose work I am using for these articles) noted: ’Galeotto,’ the Italian word for ‘pander,’ is also the Italian rendering of the name Gallehault, who, in the French Romance Dante refers to here, urged Lancelot and Guinevere on to love.”

Francesca tells Dante of the doom that resulted from their affair:

Love, which permits no loved one not to love,
took me so strongly with delight in him
that we are one in Hell, as we were above (V.100-102).

Often read as “sooooo romantic,” more than a few readers have taken Francesca’s words as an endorsement of her adultery, in spite of the punishment. In other words, “even the judgment of God could not part love so strong.” That interpretation, however, requires us to separate this particular incident from the rest of The Inferno. It violates the nature of the work.

Paolo and Francesca are not united in love; but they have become constant reminders of the misery that they have brought upon one another through their sin of adultery. The transitory promise of pleasure together, ended with eternal misery together. Adultery is a false union, one from which Paolo and Francesca cannot remove themselves (Proverbs 6:33, perhaps?). What they claim they could not resist on earth, they now cannot escape in Hell.

The Sullen Souls

Another noteworthy encounter comes in Canto VII, where Dante and Virgil begin their descent into the fifth circle, the habitation of the wrathful. The pair beholds the “marsh called Styx, a dreary swampland, vaporous and malignant” and as they near it, Dante sees that the slimy water is filled with “a swarm of spirits.” Virgil explains:

“My son, behold the souls
of those who lived in wrath. And do you see
the broken surfaces of those water-holes

on every hand, boiling as if in pain?
There are souls beneath that water. Fixed in slime
they speak their piece, end it, and start again:

‘Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun;
in the glory of his shining our hearts poured
a bitter smoke. Sullen were we begun;

sullen we lie forever in this ditch.’
This litany they gargle in their throats
as if they sang, but lacked the words and pitch.” (VII.115-126)

Last week I journeyed through Houston and St. Louis en route to an event in Hillsdale, Michigan, and as I was about to climb inside a metal tube, ascend several miles into the air, and be propelled into another time zone, I realized that everyone around me was either bored or aggravated. Two grow men cursed and muttered to one another upon realizing that a wheelchair-bound, elderly woman would be allowed to board shortly before them. A little girl, around age 7, sternly told her mother to “shut it” when she disrupted her iPad gazing.

Do we understand sullenness as sinful? Or has our sense of detachment and entitlement – from both God and man – simply become part of our cultural identity?

I recently ran across an “Examination of Conscience” (a collection of questions used before prayers of confession) which asked, “Have I… Been cross, impatient, peevish, discontented, sullen, sad?”

Those sullen souls who were trapped in the slime of Styx refused to offer hymns of praise while they walked amid “the air made sweet by the Sun,” so they were made to offer them in recognition of their ingratitude. What they refused to do on earth, they cannot escape in Hell.


In Canto XXXIV, Dante and Virgil finally encounter the evil one, Satan himself – “the foul creature which once had worn the grace of Paradise,” “The Emperor of the Universe of Pain.” He is found encased in ice, with his head and wings jutting out. Struck with terror and awe at his appearance, Dante says:

If he was once as beautiful as now
he is hideous, and still turned on his Maker,
well may he be the source of every woe! (Canto XXXIV.34-36)

Satan’s six wings, once used in his duty of worship (Isaiah 6), now help seal his doom. They jut out from his ice prison, flapping incessantly, stirring up the icy wind that deepens his encasement. The once who would “ascend” (Isaiah 14), is now the lowest, his wings serving only to keep him down.

Satan has three faces, a gruesome anti-Trinity, with each mouth eternally chewing upon history’s greatest traitors – Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.

“That soul that suffers most,” explained my Guide,
“is Judas Iscariot, he who kicks his legs
on the fiery chin and has his head inside. (Canto XXXIV.61-63)

Judas committed treachery against the Lord, his sin akin to Satan’s, so his punishment is greatest. Brutus showed treachery towards his friend, Julius, by conspiring against him.

Of the other two, who have their heads thrust forward,
the one who dangles down from the black face
is Brutus: note how he writhes without a word.

Brutus, who at least in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, won supporters with his words, is now unable to speak. His treachery against Julius, to Dante, has no defense. Though connected to Brutus, Cassius’ crime involves more direct treachery towards the state – also seen as a serious betrayal of those to whom we owe loyalty. Brutus was a friend of Caesar, Cassius a fellow countryman.

So, here dwells Satan, at the very bottom of Hell, gnashing his teeth on those who followed him most closely. This “eternal dinner” pictures a counterfeit communion, a hellish wedding feast, in which Satan feasts upon his followers – the reverse of Christ, who gave His body and blood to His followers as spiritual food, leading to eternal life (John 6).

Satan sought to ascend, rather than humble himself, as did Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, in their own ways. But, what they once refused to do, they cannot escape in Hell.

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