David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 5: The Lustful”

“Canto 5: The Lustful”

  • Who is Minos in mythology, and what role does he play in the Inferno?

We may want to say that Hell Proper begins with Minos and the second Circle. Previously, we saw the Vestibule of Hell, where souls desired by neither Heaven nor Hell were punished. We also saw the first Circle of Hell — Limbo — where there is no torture. Limbo in some ways seems like a pleasant place.

Minos is the first judge we see in the Inferno. In mythology, there was a King Minos of Crete and a bad King Minos of Crete. (Some authorizes say that there was only one King Minos of Crete, and he had both good and bad qualities.) Supposedly, the good King Minos of Crete became a judge in the Underworld.

In the Inferno, Minos is the judge of the dead souls, but he is a monster with a long tail. When a sinner is before him, Minos wraps his tail around his body. The number of times the tail is wrapped around his body shows to which Circle the sinner will be sent. If the tail is wrapped three times around his body, then the sinner will be punished in the third Circle of Hell. Sometimes, Minos uses his tail to fling the sinner to that Circle.

Dante makes Minos, who was a human being in life, a monster in the Inferno. Sin is bestial and monstrous, and so the guards and judges in the Inferno are also bestial and monstrous.

  • How good of a guide is Virgil here?

Virgil is a very good guide for Dante here, as he will be throughout the Inferno and while climbing the Mountain of Purgatory. Occasionally, Virgil will need divine help, but almost always he is able to be an excellent guide for Dante.

Virgil is always on the lookout for Dante. Minos speaks to Dante:

“O thou, that to this dolorous hostelry

Comest,” said Minos to me, when he saw me, 

Leaving the practice of so great an office,

“Look how thou enterest, and in whom thou trustest;

Let not the portal’s amplitude deceive thee.”

(Longfellow 5.16-20)

Dante does need to be careful about whom he trusts. He also needs to take care not to be fooled. After all, we will see sinners such as Francesca da Rimini who will try to scam him into pitying her. Indeed, Francesca succeeds in doing this.

However, Virgil apparently thinks that Minos is telling Dante not to trust him. Of course, Virgil is trustworthy. In addition, Virgil’s job is to take Dante into the Inferno — and out again. Virgil will succeed in doing that. After all, he is on a mission from God, and God will help him.

Earlier, Virgil spoke to Charon and made him ferry Dante, a living man, across the Acheron. Here, Virgil may be worried that Minos will keep Dante from entering the Inferno because of his warnings, which are just. Virgil tells Minos:

“Do not impede his journey fate-ordained;

It is so willed there where is power to do

That which is willed; and ask no further question.”

(Longfellow 5.22-24)

  • Which souls are in the second Circle of Hell?

Four Circles will be used to punish the incontinent.

In the second Circle, the lustful are punished. These are people who were incontinent with sexual desire. They could not control their lust.

  • How are the lustful being punished in the second Circle of Hell? Why is that punishment appropriate for this sin?

The second Circle of Hell is the first of the four Circles that are dedicated to punishing the incontinent — those who were unable to control themselves. In this second Circle are punished those who are guilty of the sin of lust. These sinners could not control their lustful desires, which drove them to do things they should not have done, and in the second Circle they are unable to control themselves, for a storm blows them here and there, but always around in a circle. In this Circle we find Francesca and Paolo, who wanted to be together — adulterously — in life. Now they will be together — eternally — in death.

This is a good example of contrapasso. These sinners get what they wanted, but they turn out not to want it.

  • Which technique does Dante use in describing the Circle of Hell that appears in Canto 5 — a technique that he will use elsewhere?

Dante gives us the big picture first, then he focuses on a group picture, and then he focuses on one or two people.

First we see all the sinners in a group being blown around by the storm, then Dante mentions a few sinners by name, then he talks to Francesca, who is punished together with her illicit lover, Paulo.

  • Identify some of the souls — including Dido — who are in the second Circle of Hell.


Semiramis married her own son. She was an Assyrian queen of Babylon, and she was known for her lechery.


Dido, of course, commits suicide in Book 4 of the Aeneid, when Aeneidbreaks off their love affair and leaves Carthage to go to Italy and become an important ancestor of the Roman people. Dido could have appeared in a lower Circle devoted to punishing the sin of suicide, but Minos the judge felt that it was more important for her to be punished here.

Helen of Troy and Paris

These are a good pair to put here. Paris ran off with Helen, the wife of Menelaus. Menelaus, his brother (Agamemnon), and a Greek army followed the pair to Troy, where the Trojan War was fought to get Helen back for Menelaus. Much of the story of Helen of Troy, Paris, Menelaus, and the Trojan War is told in Homer’s Iliad. The Fall of Troy is recounted in Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid.


Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War, is also punished here. According to mythology, he fell in love with Polyxena, a daughter of the Trojan King and Queen, Priam and Hecuba, and he agreed to switch sides from the Greeks to the Trojans in order to marry her. However, at the wedding Paris treacherously killed him.


Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra had love affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Like Dido, she committed suicide — she allowed a poisonous snake to bite her — and so Minos could have sentenced her to a lower Circle in Hell, but apparently lust was the greatest of her sins, so she is sentenced to eternal punishment in Circle 2.


A Knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, he fell in love with Isolt. They had an adulterous love affair. Isolt was married to someone else.

  • A key to understanding the Infernois that many of the guilty souls found there avoid taking responsibility for the actions. We will examine how Francesca avoids taking responsibility for her actions. (Spin is nothing new. Francesca is excellent at spinning her story to make herself appear in a good light.)

Here, we have a long encounter between Dante and one of the damned. Many more encounters will take place. Like many of the other sinners in the Inferno, Francesca tries to avoid taking responsibility for her actions by blaming other people and even things.

  • “Oh living creature” (Musa, Inferno5.88) — why would Francesca refer to Dante as a “creature” rather than recognize his humanity?

The sin of incontinence is about rejecting one’s humanity. We are humans, not pigs, yet gluttons treat themselves as pigs. Instead of making use of their intellect and will, the incontinent sinners ignore those things. A human being can use intellect to figure out how much he or she should eat and drink, and a continent person uses his or her will to eat and drink that much, but an incontinent person ignores his or her humanity and acts like an animal that is incapable of understanding the difference between right and wrong.

This, of course, applies to the other incontinent sins. Francesca’s sin is lust. A human being can use intellect to know that adultery should be avoided and a human being can use will to resist the temptation of adultery, but Francesca has ignored her own humanity and succumbed to the temptation of committing adultery.

By committing adultery, Francesca has not recognized her own humanity, and by calling Dante a “living creature” (Musa, InfernoV.88) rather than a human being, she is not recognizing his humanity.

Reason is not in control of Francesca — desire is.

  • A key to understanding the Infernois that the guilty souls found there fully and completely believe that they are the most important thing in the universe. How does Francesca show that she believes that?

Francesca speaks to Dante before Dante speaks to her:

“O living creature gracious and benignant,

Who visiting goest through the purple air

Us, who have stained the world incarnadine,”

(Longfellow 5.88-90)

What she says is interesting. She seems to think that Dante has come to pay her a visit, a social call. Of course, Dante is not in the Inferno specifically to pay a visit to Francesca. He is in the Inferno to discover what he must do to stay out of the Inferno after he is dead. Dante is in the dark wood of error, and this journey he is taking is intended to save his soul.

Francesca continues speaking:

“If were the King of the Universe our friend,

We would pray unto him to give thee peace,

Since thou hast pity on our woe perverse.”

(Longfellow 5.91-93)

This is interesting. It is as if she has had a little quarrel with God — a quarrel that can be patched up rather easily. It is as if Francesca does not realize that she is in the Inferno forever.

Note that Francesca does speak with much elegance and courtesy.

  • Francesca creates a personification of love — a certain kind of love that good people would NOT approve of — and then she says love made me do it.

Francesca tells Dante:

“Love, that on gentle heart doth swiftly seize,

Seized this man for the person beautiful

That was ta’en from me, and still the mode offends me.

Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving,

Seized me with pleasure of this man so strongly,

That, as thou seest, it doth not yet desert me;

Love has conducted us unto one death;”

(Longfellow 5.100-106)

Note that “this one” in line 101 of Musa’s translation refers to Paolo, Francesca’s adulterous lover.

Here Francesca blames an abstract Love for her plight. She is avoiding personal responsibility for her actions; instead, she is saying that Love made her do it.

Some prisoners can identify with Francesca. Before being sent to prison, a prisoner may blame everyone and everything for his or her actions. Sometimes, while in prison a prisoner may realize that he or she was doing exactly what Francesca is doing in Canto 5 of the Inferno.

  • A key to understanding the Inferno(and The Divine Comedy) is that when Dante has long conversations with sinners (and other people), it is almost always because these sinners (and other people) have something important to say to him. Dante can learn from the sinners with whom he speaks, if he listens in the right way and does not allow himself to be scammed.

Here Dante can learn that he needs to take responsibility for his actions instead of blaming everyone and everything but himself.

Dante can also learn that he needs to carefully evaluate what sinners in the Inferno tell him. Here Francesca is spinning Dante by telling him only part of her story — she leaves out some details that incriminate her.

Of course, Dante the Pilgrim is still naive at this point. He feels sympathy and pity toward Francesca. However, as his journey continues, he will learn that the sinners in the Inferno deserve their punishment.

Dante the Pilgrim also needs to control his sexuality. Sex need not be bad (for example, sex between married people who love each other), but sex can be bad (for example, adulterous sex).

  • In the story that Francesca tells, she leaves out some things. What are the things that she leaves out?

Francesca leaves out three important facts:

1) She and Paolo are married, but not to each other.

2) She is Paolo’s sister-in-law.

3) Her husband found her and his brother in bed together, and he killed them both.

When reading the story of Francesca da Rimini, the reader must be very careful. Francesca is very charming, but she is also in Hell. Since God put her in Hell, and since God does not make mistakes, Francesca must belong in Hell.

Francesca tells a very charming story, but she is an expert at spin. Like other sinners in Hell, she does not accept the blame for being condemned to Hell. Instead, she blames other people and even things for her presence in Hell.

  • What is the fallacy of suppressed evidence?

When Francesca tells her story, she leaves out important facts. For example, Francesca and Paolo are married — but not to each other. Francesca’s husband found them in bed together, so he killed them both. In addition, Paolo is Francesca’s brother-in-law. These certainly seem to be important facts, but Francesca chooses to not mention them when talking to Dante the Pilgrim.

When Francesca tells her story, she commits the fallacy of suppressed evidence. In this fallacy, the arguer leaves out important information that is needed to reach an accurate conclusion. Francesca argues that she is innocent, but the reader who knows all the relevant evidence realizes that she is guilty.

Note also that Dante the Pilgrim is taken in by Francesca. He pities her so much that he faints. Dante the Poet — an older, wiser Dante — is not taken in by Francesca.

  • Francesca does not take responsibility for her own actions. What does she blame instead?

Francesca has blamed Love. Now she blames a book:

“One day we reading were for our delight

Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.

Alone we were and without any fear.”

(Longfellow 5.127-129)

Lancelot (this is the more common spelling) is the Knight of the Round Table who had an adulterous love affair with King Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere. That adulterous love affair ended the civilization that King Arthur had brought to Camelot and medieval England.

Francesca and Paolo read a book about an adulterous love affair, and she and Paolo began their own love affair. Francesca says, “Our Galehot was that book and he who wrote it” (Inferno5.137). Basically, Francisca and Paolo read about Lancelot and Guinevere kissing illicitly, and they did the same thing. Why? Because of the book. The book was their Galehot. Galehot was the go-between between Lancelot and Guinevere — we can look at Galehot as being a go-between or pimp who made the affair possible.

If Francesca and Paola were reading the book correctly, they would realize that committing adultery is a bad thing. The adultery of Queen Guinever and Sir Lancelot led to the destruction of King Arthur’s Camelot. For a brief time in the Dark Ages, Camelot arose, but because of an adulterous love affair, it soon fell back into the Dark Ages.

  • One of the ultimate consequences of saying Love did it, or the book did it, is that I have no freedom of the will.

Of course, if we have no free will, then we are not responsible for the sins we commit, including the sins of incontinence.

Francesca places the blame not on herself, but on Love or on a book.

She implies that she did not make a choice — this just happened to her. Of course, she made a choice — a choice not to use her intellect and will. Now that she is in the second Circle of the Inferno, she can make no choice about where to go — the winds simply blow her around the Circle.

  • Francesca says, “That day we read no further” (Musa, Inferno5.138). What did Francesca and Paolo do instead?

We can guess what they did. They hopped into bed and started having sex. Then her husband found them and killed them.

  • Francesca’s line is almost a quotation from Book 8 of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. However, Saint Augustine’s story has quite a different ending.

Saint Augustine’s Confessionshad a big influence on Dante’s Divine Comedy. We see an example of that here.

Paolo’s name means Paul, and Saint Augustine was converted to Christianity by reading Saint Paul. Like Francesca and Paolo, Augustine read a book. Augustine’s book was by Saint Paul, who told him to turn to Christ. Augustine did that.

Augustine wrote, “No further would I read; nor needed I.” Instead of reading further, Augustine converted to Christianity.

Augustine’s reading leads him to turn to God, but Francesca and Paolo’s reading turn them away from God.

This is the relevant passage, as translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey:

So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.

  • How did Francesca and Paolo die?

Francesca’s husband came home and found Francesca and Paolo in bed. He killed them both.

  • How does Francesca regard her own husband?

Francesca says about her husband:

“Love has conducted us unto one death;

Caina waiteth him who quenched our life!”

(Longfellow 5.106-107)

Caina is the place in the Inferno where are punished those who betray loved ones. Francesca tells us that her husband, who killed her, will end up there.

Of course, Francesca has been talking about Love. Apparently, her husband killed her because he loved her. If he had not loved her, he would not have cared with whom she slept. Francesca thinks that it is OK if Francesca is led to do something wrong by Love, but not OK if her husband is led to do something wrong by Love.

  • Does Dante the Pilgrim believe Francesca’s version of her story? Does Dante the Poet?

Dante the Pilgrim is so overcome with pity for Francesca that he faints. Dante the Poet knows that Francesca is scamming Dante the Pilgrim.

Dante the Pilgrim is allowing himself to be scammed here. He is naïve, and during his journey through the Inferno, he needs to learn not to be naïve. God placed Francisca and Paolo in the Inferno. God does not make mistakes; Francisca and Paolo deserve eternal punishment.

  • What is a good phrase to use when speaking of Francesca da Rimini?

Alexander Woollcott was a famous theater critic who was excited about meeting famous opera singer Mary Garden. Unfortunately, he was tongue-tied when meeting her and so she was unimpressed by him. However, she did tell a magnificent story about finding overnight success in Paris. She had loved the opera Louiseand had studied it thoroughly, including marking out the places the person singing the title role would have to stand on stage. She was in the audience when the person singing the part of Louise took ill. Mary Garden took the singer’s place, sang magnificently, and the next morning she was famous throughout Paris. Unfortunately, Mary Garden told Alexander Woollcott, “You do not have my permission to print that story!” Too bad. It was a magnificent story, and Alexander Woollcott wanted to print it, but he did not dare to go against Mary Garden’s wishes. Later, he said about Mary Garden, “She was the most charming bitch I ever met.”

Francesca da Rimini can out-“charming bitch” Mary Garden any day.

  • If you do research, you can find out other facts that can help excuse Francesca’s behavior. How should readers of Dante’s Infernouse those facts?

If you do research, you will read the story that Francesca meant to marry Paolo, not Paolo’s physically handicapped brother. A switch was pulled so that Francesca would marry (without her knowledge) the physically handicapped brother. This can seem to excuse Francesca, but I think that we should ignore those facts. Dante the Poet has put Francesca in the Inferno, and in this imaginative work of art we are meant to believe that God put Francesca in the Inferno. God does not make mistakes, and so Francesca is exactly where she belongs. Apparently, adultery is always wrong, even for someone who was tricked into marrying a man whom she did not intend to marry.

In addition, the story about Francesca being tricked into marrying Paolo’s brother may have been made up after their deaths to excuse their actions. In reading Dante’s Inferno, it is best to completely ignore this story; it plays no part in Dante’s Inferno.

  • Some critics believe that Francesca and Paolo have triumphed because they are in love and are together for all eternity. Is this interpretation correct?

No. God knows what He is doing. The two are being punished. Francesca never refers to her lover by name but instead refers to him impersonally as “this one” (Musa, Inferno5.101 and 5.135). In addition, Paolo, who never speaks, is weeping (Musa, Inferno5.140).

Francesca is so charming that she is able to convince even good critics that she is not responsible for her sins.

  • Why do you suppose the word “Heaven” is never mentioned in Hell?

Hell is not an appropriate place for Heaven to be mentioned, so it is never mentioned there.

  • Do you know of anyone who is guilty of the sin of Lust?

Former President Bill Clinton comes to mind. Many other politicians, both Democrat and Republican, also come to mind. So do the names of some preachers.

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

You need to avoid inappropriate sexual behavior. Don’t commit adultery, and make sure that the sex you engage in is consensual sex. Of course, in Dante’s society you should have sex within marriage only.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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