The purpose of this book is educational. I have read, studied, and taught Dante’s Divine Comedy, and I wish to pass on what I have learned to other people who are interested in studying Dante’s Divine Comedy. In particular, I think that the readers of this short introduction to Dante’s Divine Comedy will be bright high school seniors and college first-year students, as well as intelligent adults who simply wish to study The Divine Comedy despite not being literature majors.
This book uses a question-and-answer format. It poses and then answers relevant questions about Dante, background information, and The Divine Comedy. This book goes through the Inferno canto by canto. I recommend that you read the relevant section of the Inferno, then read my comments, then go back and re-read the relevant section of the Inferno. However, do what works for you. I also do the same thing for the Purgatory and the Paradise in other discussion guides.
Teachers may find this discussion guide useful. Teachers can have students read cantos from the epic poem, then teachers can ask students selected questions from this discussion guide.
It helps to know something about Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and other works such as Saint Augustine’s Confessions, but this background reading is not strictly necessary. You have to begin reading great literature somewhere, and Dante’s Divine Comedyis a good place to start. (Come on in! The water’s great! And later you can go and read the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, etc.)
This book uses many short quotations from Mark Musa’s translation of The Divine Comedyand from John Ciardi’s translation of The Divine Comedy. If I don’t identify the translator of a passage as John Ciardi, the translator is Mark Musa. This use is consistent with fair use:
- 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use Release date: 2004-04-30
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The long quotations (those in block format) are from the translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, unless otherwise noted. This translation is no longer under copyright.
Introduction to The Divine Comedy
- Who was Dante Alighieri?
Dante, of course, is the author of The Divine Comedy. He was born a Roman Catholic in Florence in 1265 C.E. He died of malaria in Ravenna, Italy, in 1321 (the night of Sept. 13-14). He remains buried in Ravenna, although an empty tomb in Florence is dedicated to him. Dante is known for his ability as a world-class poet, for his interest in politics, and for being exiled from Florence. In a way, he remains exiled from Florence, as his body in not in a tomb in Florence.
- What is The Divine Comedyin essence?
The Divine Comedytells about Dante’s imaginative journey through the afterlife. Dante finds himself in a dark wood of error, and his guide, Virgil, the author of the Roman epic The Aeneid, takes Dante through the Inferno (Hell), and up the Mountain of Purgatory to the Forest of Eden. There Beatrice, Dante’s beloved who died early in life, takes over as Dante’s guide, and the two ascend the spheres of Paradise, until finally Dante, with the aid of another guide and of the Virgin Mary, is able to see God face to face. These three parts of Dante’s imaginative journey make up the three parts of The Divine Comedy: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante tells the reader how to achieve Paradise. In addition, the epic is a love story. A woman takes it upon herself to save Dante.
- How long does the journey in The Divine Comedytake?
Considering all the distance that is traveled, it doesn’t take long at all. It begins on the night before Good Friday and ends on Easter Wednesday of the year 1300, when Dante was 35 years old (midway through his three score and ten years). The journey takes roughly five and a half days. The year 1300 is significant other than being the midpoint of Dante’s life. In 1300, spiritual repentance and spiritual renewal were major themes of the Catholic Church’s first Holy Year.
- What is the scope of The Divine Comedy?
Herman Melville,author of Moby Dick, once said that in order to write a mighty book, an author needs to choose a mighty theme. By choosing the afterlife as his theme, Dante chose a mighty theme. He writes about the Inferno and how sins are punished, about Purgatory and how sins are purged, and about Paradise and how good souls are rewarded. In doing this, he writes about many themes that are important to the people of his time and to the people of our time and to people of any time: religion, God, poetry, politics, etc.
- Is The Divine Comedy universal?
“Universal” means applicable to anyone, at any time, and anywhere. Yes, The Divine Comedy is universal. One need not be a Christian to enjoy and learn from The Divine Comedy. All of us sin, and probably most of us regret sinning. Many people can identify with the characters of The Divine Comedy. For example, Francesca da Rimini refuses to take responsibility for her actions, instead casting blame on other people. Many of us have done exactly the same thing.
Reading The Divine Comedyseriously will take some work. Readers will need to know something about Dante’s biography, about the history of his time and previous eras, and about literature. However, The Divine Comedyis relevant to our lives today, and this book and its companion volumes can be your guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
- What are some of the really big issues that are of concern to The Divine Comedy?
One big issue is sin. For example, what are the results of sin?
One big issue is spiritual transformation. For example, how can one purge him- or herself of sin?
One big issue is politics. For example, Dante warns the reader about the dangers of extreme factionalism.
One big issue is poetry. How can poetry help us?
Of course, one really big issue is this: How do I enter Paradise?
- This book is your guide to The Divine Comedy. What is the purpose of a guide?
A guide will help you to cover territory safely the first time you go through the territory. However, many guides, including teachers, want to make themselves irrelevant. By reading this book as you read Dante’s Inferno, you will get a good grasp of the material, but I hope that you continue to read The Divine Comedy and the Inferno on your own, making it a part of your life and going beyond what is written here. The Divine Comedy is one of the Great Books of Western Literature — a book that you can reread with interest and profit each year of your life.
- Briefly, what are the major facts of the biography of Dante the Poet?
Dante was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy. He was successful in both poetry and politics. Early, he fell in love with Beatrice, a woman who died young in 1290. Both Dante and Beatrice married other people. About Beatrice Dante wrote a group of poems that he published in a volume (with commentary) titled Vita Nuova (The New Life).
Dante was a member of the political group known as the Guelfs, but when the Guelfs split into rival factions, he became a White Guelf. The White Guelfs opposed the Pope and wanted Florence to be free from papal power, while the Black Guelfs supported the Pope and were willing to do his bidding if he put them in power. Not surprisingly, Pope Boniface VIII supported the Black Guelfs, and he sent troops to Florence who took over the city in November of 1301. We can date Dante’s exile from Florence at this time, but he was officially exiled in January of 1302. Dante never returned to Florence.
While in exile, Dante composed his masterpiece: The Divine Comedy. He died on Ravenna in 1321 at age 56.
By the way, “Guelf” is sometimes spelled “Guelph.” The Italian word can be transliterated into English in these two ways.
- What does the title The Divine Comedymean?
Dante called his poem the Commedia or Comedy. In the 16thcentury, the word Divinaor Divine was added to the title to show that it was a work rooted in religion.
The Divine Comedyis a “comedy” for two reasons:
1) The Divine Comedywas not written in Latin, but was instead written in the “vulgar” language of Italian. Being written in a “vulgar” language, the vernacular, it is written in a language that was regarded as not suited for tragedy.
2) The epic poem has a happy ending.
- What is the difference between Dante the Pilgrim and Dante the Poet?
Dante the Pilgrim is different from Dante the Poet. Dante the Pilgrim is a character in The Divine Comedy. At the beginning, he is naive and sometimes believes the spin that the sinners in the Inferno put on their own stories. However, Dante the Poet is an older, wiser Dante. Dante the Poet has journeyed throughout the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, and he sees through the stories that the sinners tell in the Inferno.
Dante the Poet is the author of The Divine Comedy, whose major character is Dante the Pilgrim. Dante the Poet has more knowledge and experience than Dante the Pilgrim.
For example, Dante the Poet knows that he has been exiled from Florence because he is in exile when he writes The Divine Comedy. Because the poem is set in 1300, and Dante is not officially exiled until 1302, Dante the Pilgrim does not know at the beginning of the poem that he will be exiled. He will hear the prophecies of his upcoming exile that are made in the Inferno, but he will not fully understand that he will be exiled until his ancestor Cacciaguida clearly tells him that in the Paradise.
Dante the Poet is also more intelligent than Dante the Pilgrim. Dante the Pilgrim will sometimes be taken in by the spin that sinners in the Inferno put on their stories, but Dante the Poet knows that God does not make mistakes. If a sinner is in the Inferno, Dante the Poet knows that the sinner belongs there.
- The Divine Comedy is an allegory. Define “allegory.”
An allegory has a double meaning. It can be understood on a literal level, but also present is a symbolic level. On the literal level, Dante the Pilgrim travels through the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. On the symbolic level, a human soul who will be saved faces trials, overcomes them, and achieves Paradise.
Allegories have many symbols.
- What do you need to be in the Afterlife in Dante’s Inferno?
You must meet three criteria:
1) You must be dead.
2) You must be dead in 1300 (with a few exceptions where a soul is in the Inferno while a demon occupies the soul’s body in the living world).
3) You must be an unrepentant sinner. (After all, if you are a dead repentant sinner, you would be found in either Purgatory or Paradise.)
- What does it mean to repent?
To repent your sins means to regret them. Of course, this does not mean regretting being caught for doing them, but regretting the sins themselves.
The sinners Dante will meet in the Inferno are unrepentant sinners. The repentant sinners he will meet in Purgatory treat Dante very much differently from the way the unrepentant sinners he meets in the Inferno treat him.
- What is the geography of Hell? In The Divine Comedy, where is Hell located?
Dante did not think that the world was flat. (Educated people of his time did not think the world was flat.) To get to the Inferno, you go down. The story is that Lucifer rebelled against God, was thrown from Paradise to the Earth, and landed on the point of the earth that is opposite to Jerusalem. His landing made the Southern Hemisphere composed of water as the land rushed under the water to hide from him. In addition, when he fell to the center of the Earth the land he displaced formed the Mountain of Purgatory.
Dante and Virgil will climb down to the center of the Earth, where Lucifer is punished, then they will keep climbing up to the other side of the world, where they will climb Mount Purgatory.
- Explain the three separate kinds of moral failure: incontinence, violence, and fraud.
Incontinence is not being able to control yourself. For example, you may not be able to control your sexual desire (lust) or your desire for food and drink (gluttony).
Violence can be directed against yourself (suicide), against God (blasphemy), or against other people (physical violence).
Fraud involves the willful use of misrepresentation to deprive another person of his or her rights. For example, one can claim to be able to foretell the future and charge people money to tell them their “future.”
Complex fraud is fraud committed against those to whom one has a special obligation of trust. Sinners who commit complex fraud are traitors of various kinds: e.g., traitors to kin/family, traitors to government, traitors to guests, or traitors to God.
Simple fraud is fraud, but it is not committed against those to whom one has a special obligation of trust.
Of course, sin is the opposite of virtue, and we can look at these kinds of sins as being the opposite of kinds of virtues.
Incontinence is the opposite of moderation.
Violence is the opposite of courage.
Fraud is the opposite of wisdom.
Another classical virtue is Justice, and we will see an unjust city in the Inferno.
- What kinds of characters will we see in The Divine Comedy?
We will see both real characters and fictional characters. Mythological creatures will often be the guards in the Inferno.
Some of the characters will be important historically and globally, while others will be important only locally and would in fact be forgotten if they had not been mentioned in the Inferno.
- What do the sinners in the Inferno all have in common? Why can’t we take what the sinners say at face value?
They have in common the fact that they are unrepentant. They do not take responsibility for the sins they have committed. Because of that, they will spin their stories and try to put the blame on someone or something else.
When we read the Inferno, we must be careful to try to see the whole story. The sinners will nottell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. (Reading this discussion guide to Dante’s Infernoor the notes in the translation of the Infernothat you are reading can help you to understand when a character is trying to spin you.)
Be aware that many people in the Infernoare going to be able to tell a good story, and you may end up thinking — like Dante the Pilgrim sometimes — that a certain sinner does not belong in Hell. However, Dante the Poet realizes that God doesn’t make mistakes. Anyone who is in Hell deserves to be in Hell. It’s important to closely examine the stories of some persuasive sinners to see what they are leaving out.
- Why do people sin?
Two main reasons, perhaps:
1) A lack of will. Often, we know what we ought to do, but we can’t bring ourselves to do it. (Everyone who needs to lose 10 pounds knows exactly what to do to lose it: Exercise more and eat less. A student who exercises less than needed and eats more than needed without a good reason such as illness is guilty of the sin of gluttony.)
2) An attractive veneer. Sometimes, sinning can appear to be attractive and to be fun, and thus people are tempted to sin. (Staying up late, getting drunk, and partying can be fun, but if these things prevent a student from attending class, that student is guilty of the sin of sloth.)
- Does God make mistakes? Do these sinners belong in the Inferno?
We must be careful when reading the Inferno. Dante the Pilgrim will sympathize with some sinners early in the Inferno, and we may be tempted to do exactly the same thing, but God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. God does not make mistakes. If a sinner is in the Inferno, the sinner belongs there.
By the way, the difference between Inferno and Inferno is that Infernois the title of a book and Inferno is the name of a place. (Similarly, Hamlet is the title of a play, and Hamlet is the name of a character in that play.)
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