David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 3: The Gate of Hell”

“Canto 3: The Gate of Hell”

  • At the beginning of Canto 3, we enter Hell.

In Canto 3, Dante and Virgil go through the gate that leads into the Inferno.

  • Many ancient heroes have visited the Underworld. Name a few, and briefly describe some of their visits to the Underworld.

Theseus was held captive in a chair of forgetfulness in Hades. Hercules rescued him.

Hercules entered the Underworld as part of his labors. He stole Cerberus, the three-headed dog, and took him up into the living world.

Odysseus entered the Underworld to get information about his journey home from Troy from the prophet Tiresias.

Aeneas visited his father in the Underworld in Book 6 of theAeneid. He was able to see many of his future descendants and many important Romans.

  • What is the meaning of the sign over the entrance to Hell, and who created the sign?

The sign over the gate of Hell reads:

“Through me the way into the suffering city,

Through me the way to the eternal pain,

Through me the way that runs among the lost.

Justice urged on my high artificer;

My maker was divine authority,

The highest wisdom, and the primal love.

Before me nothing but eternal things were made,

And I endure eternally.

Abandon every hope, ye who enter here.”

(Longfellow 3.1-9)

God, of course, created the sign. God is known for being omnipotent (the Father), for having the highest wisdom (the Son) and for having primal love (the Holy Spirit). We learn that although the Inferno is a place of eternal damnation, it is also a place of justice. The people who enter the Inferno (with the exception of the still-living Dante and a few other heroes from long ago) are doomed to remain there always. (Other exceptions are the people rescued by Christ during the Harrowing of Hell.) The basic meaning of the sign is that unrepentant sinners will forever be punished.

Of course, the sign contains the most famous line in The Divine Comedy, a line that is often translated in this way: “ABANDON ALL HOPE, ALL YOU WHO ENTER.”

  • What is Dante’s reaction to the words on the sign? Is his reaction appropriate?

Dante is understandably afraid to enter the Inferno; however, his reaction to the sign is inappropriate. He says, “these words I see are cruel” (Musa Inferno3.12).

We know that God is just, and we know that the Inferno is a place of just punishment. However, at this point Dante the Pilgrim does not know that, although Dante the Poet knows that very well. At this time, Dante the Pilgrim is naïve.

For Dante, punishment in Hell is eternal. The sinners we see in the Inferno will never get out of the Inferno, thus the sign above the gate to Hell refers to “ETERNAL GRIEF” (Musa Inferno3.2).

John Ciardi writes, “The souls of the damned are not permitted to repent, for repentance is a divine grace” (Ciardi, The Divine Comedy, 36).

  • The souls punished in the Inferno have “lost the good of intellect” (Musa Inferno 3.18). What does that mean?

According to mythology, human beings have eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we can tell the difference between good and evil. This is something that animals cannot do. A dog does not feel guilty if it eats the food of another dog. Human beings ought to use their intellect to determine the right thing to do and then to do it. The unrepentant sinners being punished in the Inferno did not use their intellect to do these things.

  • Which souls can be found in the Vestibule of Hell? What is a Vestibule, and why is the punishment of the souls found there appropriate?

A Vestibule is a passage between the door and the interior of a building. Even before we reach the first Circle of Hell, we see souls being punished.

The punishments of the Inferno begin even before Hell Proper is reached. Outside Hell Proper are the souls of those who never took a stand in life. While living, they were neither for good nor for evil, and now that they are dead, neither Heaven nor Hell wants them. In life, they did not follow a banner; in death, they follow a banner endlessly, running after it as it travels here and here, never remaining in one place. Similarly, in life, these noncommitted souls never staked out a firm position. In life, these souls never felt deeply, either for good or for evil. Now, these souls do feel deeply, as wasps and hornets bite them. They bleed from the bites, and maggots eat the pus that flows to the ground. This punishment is fitting. What these souls avoided doing in life, they now do in death. In addition, these souls did no lasting good or harm on Earth, and they will be not be remembered on Earth. In the Inferno, Dante mentions none of them by name.

The uncommitted who are punished here include angels who fought neither for God nor for Lucifer when Lucifer rebelled against God.

Sometimes people say that Dante put the morally neutral in the deepest pit of Hell. That is not true. Not even Hell wanted them, so they are not even in a Circle of Hell.

One thing to learn here is that Dante is letting us know that choosing not to make a choice is in itself a choice. These people chose not to choose to be committed to good.

John Ciardi sees the human beings here as Opportunists. They did not act either for good or for evil; they acted only for themselves (Ciardi, The Divine Comedy, 30).

In addition, some commentators believe that these souls are the Slothful. Because the sin of Sloth is purged on the Mountain of Purgatory, the sin of Sloth ought to be punished in (or near) Hell. The Slothful may be punished here in the Vestibule of Hell, or the Slothful may be punished in Circle 5. Many commentators believe that the Sullen are punished in Circle 5, but Mark Musa believes that the sinners punished there are the Slothful. The Angry or Wrathful are also punished in Circle 5, and since Sullenness is a form of bottled-up anger, perhaps the Sullen are punished in Circle 5. Sloth means not loving the right things enough, and the souls in the Vestibule of Hell did not love what is good and right enough to pursue those things, so perhaps these are the Slothful.

Hell does not want these uncommitted souls because “the damned might glory over them” (Musa Inferno3.42). The verb “to glory” means “to exult.” Apparently, the sinners in Hell would feel superior to the uncommitted. The uncommitted never took a stand, either for good or for evil, but the damned at least took a stand, even though it was for evil.

Who keeps the uncommitted souls out of Hell Proper? Although Hell does not want these uncommitted souls, the proper answer is not Lucifer because we will see that Lucifer has no power in the Inferno. The proper answer is that God keeps these souls out of Hell Proper. After all, we know that God created the Inferno, and therefore God created the Vestibule of the Inferno.

  • The banner that the Uncommitted in Hell chase is a symbol. What is a symbol, and what does the banner symbolize?

According to the 6thedition of A Handbook to Literature, by C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon, “A symbol is something that is itself and also stands for something else; as the letters a p p l e form a word that stands for a particular objective reality; or as a flag is a piece of colored cloth that stands for a country. All language is symbolic in this sense, and many of the objects that we use in daily life are also” (466).

The banner symbolizes a cause. The souls in the Vestibule of Hell had no causes that they were passionate about.

  • Who of the people in the Vestibule of Hell is “the coward who made the great refusal” (Musa Inferno3.60). Who is he?

The “coward” (Musa 3.60) is perhaps Pope Celestine V, who was pope for only five months before he renounced the papacy in 1294. John Ciardi points out that this man was manipulated by a priest named Benedetto, who convinced him that any man living in part of the world (as opposed to renouncing the world and living as a monk) would lose his soul. As soon as Pope Celestine V renounced the papacy, Benedetto became Pope Benedict VIII, an enemy to Dante and a worldly man who ends up being punished in Dante’s Inferno. (See Ciardi, The Divine Comedy, 35-36.)

However, Mark Musa makes a good case that the coward is Pontius Pilate, who did not want to condemn Jesus to death, but who allowed Jesus to be executed, blaming the Jews for the execution of Jesus (Musa 95).

  • Who would you say belongs in the Vestibule of Hell?

We can say that people who refused to speak out against the evils of racism, sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia, religious persecution, and torture belong there. Those who refused to speak out against the Nazis during the Holocaust belong there. (Of course, if they are in the Vestibule of Hell, they would not have repented.)

  • If you want to stay out of the Inferno, what should you do?

If you want to stay out of the Inferno, you need to make a stand for good.

Sometimes men make a stand for good. This anecdote appears in my book The Kindest People Who Do Good Deeds, Volume 4:

When Ohio University student Haley Butler visited London, she saw and enjoyed the musical Wicked, although she attended the musical alone despite having promised her parents that she would not go out alone at night. On her way back to her hotel, she noticed that a strange man was following her. She tried to get away from him, but he kept on following her. In the subway, she needed to take an elevator to get to ground level, but she thought, “There is no way in hell I’m getting in the elevator with that man. He’s going to rape me. He’s going to rape me, and then kill me.” She was making a major effort not to cry when the elevator door opened, and a man in the elevator looked at her, saw how frightened she was, and even though he had never seen her before, said, “Oh my gosh! How are you? I can’t believe I ran into you!” Haley knew that she had never seen this new man before, but she replied, “I’m great! It’s so good to see you.” The strange man who had been following Haley left, and Haley said, “You saved me. That guy was following me, and I didn’t know what to do!” The new man responded, “I know. I could tell by the look on your face! You seemed so frightened.” The new man even walked her to her hotel just to ensure that she would be safe. (Some men can be very helpful in situations like this. Comedian Jay Leno once noticed a woman being harassed by a man, so he went over and pretended to be the woman’s boyfriend and chased the harasser away.) (Source: Haley Butler, “Wicked,” pp. 20-25. Also: Bill Adler and Bruce Cassiday, The World of Jay Leno: His Humor and HisLife, p. 59.)

  • Explain what contrapassomeans.Note: Italicize foreign words such as the Italian word contrapasso.

Contrapassois divine punishment or divine retribution. It is a punishment that is appropriate for the sin. (Note the word “sin” here instead of “crime.” Not all sins are crimes. It is not against the law to be a Glutton.)

We will see contrapassoover and over in the Inferno.

One main point to learn in the Inferno is that these sinners abandoned God, and therefore God has abandoned them. We can, in fact, say that these sinners chose to reside in the Inferno in their afterlife.

  • Describe the second crowd of souls, who are freshly deceased.

This crowd of souls is waiting to be ferried across the river by the mythological figure Charon, who in Greek mythology ferried the souls of the dead across the River Acheron.

As you would expect, these souls are those of unrepentant sinners.

  • What words does Charon tell the recently deceased? How do they react?

Charon lets the recently deceased know that they are doomed eternally:

[…] “Woe unto you, ye souls depraved!

Hope nevermore to look upon the heavens;

I come to lead you to the other shore,

To the eternal shades in heat and frost.”

(Longfellow 3.84-87)

The recently deceased grow silent, despair, and change color, and their teeth chatter in fear. By the way, we learn that these souls are naked:

But all those souls who weary were and naked

(Longfellow 3.100)

We will find out later that the Hypocrites are clothed; apparently, all the other souls are naked.

Although these souls are going across into Hell Proper to be judged and then punished, they are eager for that to happen, as we learn from what Virgil tells Dante:

“And ready are they to pass o’er the river,

Because celestial Justice spurs them on,

So that their fear is turned into desire.”

(Longfellow 3.124-126)

  • How does Charon react when he notices that Dante is still living?

Charon notices that Dante is living and orders him away. (Living visitors to the Underworld, such as Hercules, have caused problems such as stealing Cerberus.) Virgil lets Charon know that Dante’s presence in the Underworld has the approval of God, and Charon ferries Dante and Virgil across the river.

  • One point to notice as we begin the journey through the Inferno is that the Circles of Hell get smaller the further down we go.

We will be hearing about the sizes of some Circles as we begin the journey through the Inferno. The Circles will grow smaller the further down we go. Apparently, more sinners are punished in the bigger Circles than are punished in the smaller Circles. So more people are punished for the sin of lust than are punished for the sin of complex fraud (fraud committed against those with whom the sinner ought to have a special tie of trust).

  • Another point to notice is that the name “Jesus Christ” is never uttered in the Inferno.

To mention the name “Jesus Christ” in the Inferno would be inappropriate; however, the sinners do blaspheme against God. Jesus is referred to only elliptically. However, Virgil does mention the word “Christ” in Inferno 4.37 (Musa’s translation), which is set in Limbo, not in Hell Proper.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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