Inferno Cantos and Questions Themes

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Inferno Cantos and Questions


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Trickster sinners

Virgil's Human Reason

Virgil and Dante's relationship

Pity as questioning God's judgment

Spiritual journey




Beatrice in Inferno (she doesn't appear; she is mentioned as Dante's champion)



Francesca and Paolo


Filipo Argenti





Pierre del Vigne

Brunetto Latini



Guido de Montelfeltro


Places and geographical formations





City of Dis






Epic simile

Willing suspension of disbelief

Invocation of the Muses


Study Guide for The Inferno

Canto I: The Dark Wood of Error (introductory canto to the Commedia as a whole, not solely of the Inferno).

Characters and Objects of Significance: Dante, Virgil, Beatrice, three beasts, Dark Wood, the hill of light

What does the dark wood represent allegorically?
Why is it Virgil who leads Dante through Hell?
What do the three beasts represent in relation to the structure of Hell's punishments?
What does Dante's reaction to seeing Virgil indicate about his readiness for the spiritual journey?

Canto II: The Descent (the first canto of the Inferno proper)

Characters and Objects of Significance: Invocation of the Muses, Virgil, Beatrice, Mary, relationship between Virgil and Dante

How does Dante change the pagan method of invoking the Muses?
Who has sent Virgil to help out Dante?
Flowerlet simile: how is Dante altering the typical characterization of the epic hero?
Why is Dante unsure about the journey? What does Virgil say to allay his fears and boost his confidence?

Canto III: The Opportunists (the Vestibule of Hell)

Characters and Objects of Significance: the Opportunists, inscription on the gate of hell, Pope Celestine, Acheron, Charon

Who are the opportunists? What is their punishment?
Describe the inscription on the gate of hell.
"Here must you put by all division of spirit/and gather your soul against all cowardice" (line 14-5).
What does Dante hear once he crosses through the gate?
"I had not thought death had undone so many?"
What does Virgil say in response to Charon's rejection of Dante in Hell?
Explain the rhetorical effect of Dante's use of self-reflexivity.
What does Dante's faint mean allegorically?

Canto IV: The Virtuous Pagans (Limbo, Circle 1)

Characters and Objects of Significance: Limbo, other writers: Homer, Ovid, Horace, Lucan,

Virgil turning pale when they reach the brink of Limbo.
How does Dante describe the meeting with the writers that are in Limbo?
"for they included me in their own number, / making me sixth in that high company"

Canto V: The Carnal (Circle 2)

Characters and Objects of Significance: Francesca, Paolo, contrapasso of lust, trickster figure, Minos, incontinence

Minos in Greek mythology. Dante's transformation of him for Hell.
How Minos determines where to send the sinners.
Dante's susceptibility to lust as a sin
Dante's exchange with Francesca. Francesca as a trickster figure
The line from Dante's poetry

Canto VI: The Gluttons (Circle 3)

Key Characters and Objects of Significance: Cerberus, Ciacco

How does Cereberus symbolize gluttony
How do Virgil and Dante make it past him?
Who are the gluttons? What is their punishment?
What prophecy does Dante hear from Ciacco?
How does Dante treat politics within The Commedia?

Canto VII: The Hoarders and the Wasters (Circle 4)
The Wrathful and the Sullen (Circle 5)

Key Characters and Objects of Significance: Plutus, hoarders and wasters, tonsured ones, the Wrathful, the Sullen

Who is Plutus?
What does Virgil say to him to pass him?
What sin do the hoarders and wasters share?
Explain how their punishment fits the sin
Who are the wrathful? Explain their punishment.
Who are the sullen? Explain their punishment.

Canto VIII: The Wrathful (Circle 5)
The Fallen Angels (Circle 6 Dis)

Characters and Objects of Significance: Phlegyas, Styx, Filippo Argenti, City of Dis

What happens when Dante steps on the boat? (Verisimilitude)
What is Dante's response to seeing Argenti?
What does Dante learn from Virgil's failure at the gate of lower hell?

Canto IX: The Heretics (Circle 6)

Characters and Objects of Significance: Fallen Angels, Heavenly Messenger of God, the Furies

Describe how Dante and Virgil feel as they wait for the messenger to come.
Describe the Furies. Explain the timing of their appearance (patriarchy is failing).
How does Dante reassert the power of patriarchy (i.e. Virgil's actions and the appearance of the Heavenly Messenger)
What is the Heavenly Messenger's manner?

Canto 10: The Heretics (Circle 6)

Characters and Objects of Significance: Farinata, Calvacanti

Describe Farinata and his use of language.
What is heresy? What is the punishment for heretics? Explain contrapasso. Why does Dante not reflect Farinata and Cavalcanti's heresy here?
What instruction does Virgil give to Dante before he responds to Farinata?
What are Dante's mistakes with Farinata? How does he show progress since Francesca?
What are Dante's mistakes with Cavalcanti? How does he show progress since Francesca?

Canto 11: the Heretics continued (circle 6)

Learn the sins that are in the lower hell: violence and fraud (see map of hell on page 38).

Canto 12: violent against neighbors (circle seven)

How does Virgil manage to get past the Minotaur?

Phlegethon, river of boiling blood, murderers in it.

Moment of verisimilitude noted by Chiron

Canto 13: the Suicides (circle seven)

Wood of the of suicides, "pathless wood," how the suicides can speak, how they get to this wood from Minos, the attitude of pity and sorrow from both Virgil and Dante

Pierre del Vigne's discourse, a trickster figure. Know his parallels with Francesca (register of formality, and blaming Envy personified).

Canto 14: Violent against God, nature, and art (circle seven)

Capaneus, pagan blasphemer. Why does Dante have a pagan blasphemer in Christian Hell?

Canto 15: Violent against nature (sodomites) (circle seven)

Burning plain of the sodomites, violence against (human) nature, i.e. the nature is to reproduce and homosexuality does not allow reproduction. Brunetto Latini, a poet who influenced Dante.  The purpose of his poetry is secular and so isn’t productive for God. Dante has to learn to use his gift for poetry to "be fruitful and multiply" i.e. win souls for God.  Dante falls into Brunetto's flattery trap.  Virgil doesn't scold him for it.

Canto 16: Violent against nature and art (circle seven)

Virgil and Dante display sympathy and respect for the sodomites they see. 

Dante throws a cord and Geryon arises from the void.

Canto 17: Violent against art (circle seven)

Description of Geryon, another pagan image converted to Dante's Christian theme.

Dante's reliance on Virgil.

Canto 18: Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers, Seducers, Flatterers (circle eight)

Malebolge—know the geographical formation and its function for Dante’s narrative.

Here, Dante gets cruder in his language, reflecting the depth of this sin.

Canto 19: Simoniacs (circle eight)

Dante carried down into a pit by Virgil. Here the wraiths are upside down, heads in the ground and feet above twitching (inverted baptismal fonts). Comes upon Pope Nicholas III, who mistakes Dante for Pope Boniface. What is this rhetorical trick on Dante's part? (two popes in one image, and gets to place Boniface in Hell when he’s still alive). He adds Clement V to this pair of corrupt popes.

Canto 20: Fortune tellers and Diviners (circle eight)

Opening with self-reflexive moment—what is its function? Opening with inversion of religious element—litany. Fortune tellers. What is their contrapasso? How does Dante's crudeness fit this realm of Hell?

Canto 21: The Grafters (circle eight)

Grafters, Malacoda and his regiment, the gargolye canto

What is grafting? How does the punishment fit the sin?
Note change in language and comic tone.
Dante's autobiographical connection to grafting.
Dante's fear and Virgils rebuke.

Canto 22: The Grafters (circle eight)

Navarrese man, the second gargolye canto

Use of images for comparison: dolphins and frogs for grafters
The Navarrese's trick and its relation to grafting.

Canto 23: The Hypocrites (circle eight)

Caiaphas, Hypocrites

Virgil and Dante's collaboration to escape the demons.
Define what it means to be a hypocrite. How does their punishment fit the sin?
Describe their clothing.
Who is Caiaphas? Why is he being crucified?
Note that Dante and Virgil find out Malacoda lied to them about the correct passage to take.

Canto 24: The Thieves (circle eight)

Thieves, the climb to the seventh bolgia, Vanni Fucci

Describe the climb to the seventh bolgia. How is Dante feeling?
What gives him the courage or second wind he needs to go on?
Explain the reptilian punishment of the thieves (contrapasso).
How does Dante use kinetic imagery in this passage?
What is Dante's response to seeing the thieves tortured?
Who is Vanni Fucci and what was his sin?
What does he do in retaliation for Dante making him tell his story?

Canto 25 The Thieves cont.

Characters and Objects of Significance: Vanni Fucci

When Vanni Fucci makes an obscene gesture toward God, what happens to him?
Describe Dante's shape shifting of the thieves from humans to lizards (note the contrapasso).
Note Dante's pride when he compares himself to Lucan and Ovid.

Canto 26 The Evil Counselors (circle eight)

Characters and Objects of Significance: Ulysses and Diomede (another pair)

What is the sin of the evil counselors?
Hidden behind flames (contrapasso)
Dante "curbing the strain of my genius"
Dante's audacity in writing a new ending to Homer's epic poem.
"to experience the far-flung world"
How can Ulysses' journey be read as a parallel to Dante (worldly desire versus spiritual desire)?

Canto 27 The Evil Counselors (circle eight)

Characters and Objects of Significance: Guido do Montefeltro, Boniface VIII

Guido de Montefeltro's story.

Guido's reluctance to have his story to be known
Boniface VIII's bargain
Fight of angel and demon for Guido's soul

Canto 28 The Sowers of Discord (circle eight)

Characters and Objects of Significance: Schismatics, Mahomet, Dante's anti-Muslim sentiment

Who are the sowers of discord? What is their punishment? (Explain the contrapasso)
Note how Dante opens the canto (words can't describe the horror).
Note the description of Mahomet.
What does this description say about medieval Europeans' feelings about Islam?

Canto 29 The Falsifiers (Alchemists) (circle eight)

Characters and Objects of Significance: timeline of the journey

How does Virgil respond to Dante's weeping?
What is the timeline of the journey through hell?
Note that Virgil does not want Dante to stop and talk to his kinsmen.
What physical gesture does Dante make as a reaction to the suffering he sees? (line 45)

Canto 30 The falsifiers (Evil impersonators, counterfeiters, false witnesses) (circle eight)

Characters and Objects of Significance: Master Adam and Sinon, Capocchio

Who is Master Adam? How is he described?
What was his sin? What does he most want to do?
Note how Dante is transfixed by Adam and Sinon fighting.
How does Virgil respond to Dante's pause?
How does Virgil respond to Dante' shame?

Canto 31 The Giants (the central pit of Malebolge [which is circle eight])

Characters: giants

Why are the giants in hell?
How do Virgil and Dante get into Cocytus?

Canto 32 Compound Fraud, Caina: The Treacherous to Kin, and Antenora: the Treacherous to Country

Characters and places: Cocytus, Bocca degli Abbati, Ugolino and Ruggieri

Describe Cocytus.
Notice Dante's self-reflexive moment at the beginning of the canto.
Dante accidentally kicks Bocca degli Abbati.
Note Bocca's attitude toward Dante and Dante's violent response
How do you interpret this attitude in relation to Dante's spiritual journey?
What is Dante's strategy of persuasion to get Ugolino to tell his story?

Canto 33 Cocytus: Compound Fraud (circle nine). Antenora and Ptolemea (Treacherous to Guests and Hosts)

Characters: Count Ugolino, Archbishop Ruggieri, Friar Alberigo

Who is Ugolino? Ruggieri? (the contrapasso here)
Ugolino's story (and his rhetorical shaping of it)
Ugolino's silence (Matthew "Ask and you shall receive")
Images of cannibalism and eucharistic images
"Then fasting overcame my grief and me"
Sinners of Ptolemea who are lying down in the ice and cannot weep.
What is the state of Friar Alberigo's body on earth?
Who else does Dante learn is a living demon?
How does Dante break his promise to Alberigo?

Canto 34 Compound Fraud (ninth circle) Judecca: The Treacherous to Their Masters, the Center: Satan

Characters: Satan, Judas Iscariot, Brutus, Cassius

How does Dante react physically to the wind coming from his wings?
Who makes up Satan's three faces?
How could we interpret Dante's direct address (lines 22-27) allegorically as the culmination of his spiritual journey?
Why does Dante include Cassius and Brutus with Judas?
How do Dante and Virgil get out of Hell?
What is the significance of the last word of the Inferno?
What is the day of Dante's emergence from Hell?

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