Dr. Goldstein
ENGL 2200
Spring 2003

Study Questions for Dante's Inferno (trans. Mandelbaum)

Before beginning the poem, please read the separate page, Dante, Background (you only need to print the background page once).  As you work your way through the poem, please remember:
Canto 1 (Prologue to entire poem)
  1. As the poem begins, pay attention to details of time and space.  Where is he?  What is he trying to do?  What difficulties does he encounter on the way?
  2. Using the technique we have developed in class, analyze the simile at I, 22-27.
  3. What is the significance of the name for God used in I, 40?
  4. Study the details of Virgil's self-introduction (I, 67-75).  What aspects of his identity does he single out, and in what order does he arrange them?
  5. What does Virgil forecast at I, 112-29?
Canto 2 (Dante's Conversion)
  1. Who is Dante referring to at II, 13 (check note)?
  2. Who is Dante referring to at II, 28 (check note)?
  3. Study Beatrice's reported speech to Virgil (II, 58-69).  What is so special about Virgil that she chooses him to accomplish the task at hand?
  4. What does Beatrice say "prompted" (II, 72) her to come to Hell to send Virgil to Dante?
  5. Analyze the simile at II, 127-32.
  6. What does Dante say Virgil has "disposed" (II, 136) his heart to?
Canto 3 (Entrance to Hell)
  1. The famous first lines are the only significant written text Dante encounters in Hell.  Who is the fictional speaker of this text (the "me")?  Who is its "maker"?  After he reads the inscription, what does Dante say to Virgil about its meaning?
  2. What does Dante mean by describing this group of souls and angels as those "who never were alive" (III, 64; reread  34-39 if you are not sure)?
  3. What punishment does this group suffer?
  4. What is Charon's job?  How does he greet Virgil and Dante?  How does Virgil respond?
  5. How do the newly arrived damned souls react when they hear his words?
  6. What happens to Dante at the end of the canto?
Canto 4 (Circle One: Limbo: Unbaptized Infants, Virtuous Pagans)
  1. When Virgil says, "I shall go first and you will follow me" (IV, 15), can his words be interpreted in a double sense?
  2. How does Virgil correct Dante's mistaken belief that the Roman poet is "frightened" (17)?
  3. What is the other name for the First Circle? Why do the souls here "sorrow without torments" (28)?
  4. Lines 52-63 describe what in popular medieval theology was called the Harrowing of Hell. When did this event take place? Who participated? What occurred?
  5. Underline each occurance of the word honor or its derivatives in lines 70-102. What is its significance in this context?
Canto 5 (Circle Two: the Lustful)
  1. What is Minos's function?
  2. How does Dante describe the nature of lust (V, 37-39)? What is the relation between lust and its punishment?
  3. What emotion "seized" (72) Dante when encountering the damned lovers? What emotion leads him to faint at the end of the canto? How might this episode be interpreted in the light of the inner struggle St. Paul describes in Rom. 7?
  4. Who or what does Francesca blame for their falling into sin at lines 100-6? What activity does she describe as "the first root of our love" (125), i.e. what she and Paolo were doing that led to their carnal act?
Canto 6 (Circle Three: the Gluttonous)
  1. What is the relation between the sin of gluttony, its punishment by filthy precipitation, and Cerberus's behavior?
  2. What do Dante and Virgil tread on at lines 34-36? How might this detail be interpreted to shed light on Dante's poetics in Inferno?
  3. What events in Florence does Ciacco [CHAHK-koh] prophesy (see note)?
  4. What big event does Virgil prophesy at lines 94-99?
Canto 7 (Circle Four: the Avaricious and Prodigal; Circle Five: the Wrathful and Sullen)
  1. Fourth Circle: Explain the logic of the punishment of the avaricious and prodigal by drawing on Virgil's explanation of these sins at lines 55-66.
  2. Fifth Circle: Who "tore each other piecemeal with their teeth" (114)? Who is now "bitter in the blackened mud" (124)?
Canto 8
  1. (Still Circle Five): Why does Virgil commend Dante's indignation at the sinner (44-45; cf. 57)?
  2. Literally, what is the crisis situation that occurs at lines 82-130?
Canto 9 (Descent to Dis/Lower Hell)
  1. What literally is the danger posed by Medusa/the Gorgon that leads Virgil to cover Dante's eyes? Given this literal danger, how might we interpret what Dante (the poet) is hinting when he addresses the reader at 61-63?
  2. Who or what literally rescues Dante and Virgil at lines 73-105?
  3. What category of sinner is buried in the stone tombs?
Canto 10 (still in Circle Sixth: Heretics)
  1. What heretical doctrine do the Epicureans hold (line 15)?
  2. What mistake does Cavalcante, father of Dante's friend the poet Guido Cavalcanti, make that leads Dante to ask Farinata about the inability of the damned to see "present things" (99)?
Canto 11 (pausing in Sixth Circle)
Canto 11 is what I like to call the roadmap to Hell, where Virgil explains to Dante the wayfarer the design of Hell. It deserves careful study, in conjunction with the diagram on p. 343.
  1. Why does God find fraud "more displeasing" (26) than force?
  2. Lines 28-51 discuss the varieties of "violence" (force) the travelers will encounter in the next circle, which is subdivided into three parts, some of which are further subdivided. As Virgil explains the distinctions on which each subdivision is based, note the reasons for the divisions. Since (as the fictional voice on the gate of Hell reminded us in Canto 3) Dante portrays Hell as God's creation, you might ask yourself: What aspect of God's nature does Dante the poet wish the elaborate, architectural structure of Hell to imply?
  3. Lines 52-66 discuss the punishment of fraud in the two lowest circles (Eight and Nine): What principle distinguishes the two kinds of fraud, justifying two separate circles?
  4. What is the Christian name for the ultimate traitor whom Virgil calls Dis, who sits at the center of the universe at the bottom of the pit of Hell (65)?
  5. Lines 67-90 return us to the portion of Hell that the travelers have already crossed. Dante doesn't understand why the sinners in the first five circles are not being punished in the city of Dis (lower Hell). Virgil replies by reminding his student of Aristotle's Ethics. What are the three "dispositions" that Aristotle distinguishes? Which of the three does Virgil say "least offends God" (84) that corresponds to circles 2-5?
  6. In lines 91-111 Dante asks a question that leads Virgil to introduce a philosophical conception of a hierarchical relation among Divine Intellect and Divine Art, nature, and human art ("art" being used in its older sense: any productive activity, not limited to "fine arts"). What does Virgil mean when he tells Dante that "your [that is, human beings'] art is almost God's grandchild" (106)?
Canto 12 (Seventh Circle, Ring One: Violent against "neighbors")
  1. The landscape has evidently changed since Virgil's previous trip through Hell (see 9, 20-27). According to Virgil's reasoning (37-44), what event and what motive force caused the "mass of boulders" (36) to collapse?
  2. What extraordinary characteristic does the centaur Chiron notice about Dante?
Canto 13 (Seventh Circle, Ring Two: Violent against self and own possessions)
  1. What does Dante do to the thornbush (31) that causes the soul of the suicide, Pier della Vigna, to cry out in pain? What are the implications of Virgil's explanation of why he encouraged Dante's to do this deed (46-51)?
  2. What does the suicide explain happens to their souls upon death (93-102)? What does he explain will happen to their bodies when their corpses are resurrected preceding the Last Judgment (103-8)?
Canto 14 (Seventh Circle, Ring Three: Violent against God: Zone One: Blasphemers)
  1. Explain what Dante the poet refers to when he records the "dread work [orribil arte in Italian] that justice had devised" (6).
  2. Consult the note to the reference to Capaneus (51-75): Who was he? What was his deed of "arrogance" (63)? How might we interpret the appearance of this mythological figure and his crime in an ostensibly Christian poem?
  3. Compare the intiguing figure of the Old Man of Crete to Hesiod's story of the different generations of human history (Mandelbaum's note cites Dante's two direct sources, the book of Daniel and the Roman poet Ovid; Ovid's source is Hesiod's earlier version that you read in Works and Days)
  4. In Virgil's explanation of the river system of drainage in Hell, he mentions one river from classical mythology, Lethe, that the wayfarers will not encounter in Hell. According to Virgil, where will they cross it (136-38)?
Canto 15 (still Circle Seven, Third Ring: Zone Two: Violent against God [Nature]: Sodomites)
  1. Analyze the two similes at lines 16-21. Compare the first adjective that Brunetto Latini (Dante's friend and mentor) uses to describe the Florentines at line 67 to see what it has in common with the two earlier similes. This is an example of an extended pattern of imagery that we should interpret in class discussion.
Canto 16 (continues Zone Two)
The end of this canto presents one of the most important poetic/rhetorical moves that Dante makes in Inferno: he discusses the issue of the truth of his narrative. What does he literally mean when he describes the figure who answers the signal of dropping the rope as "that truth which seems a lie" (124)? By what authority does he swear (128) that what he is about to relate to the reader is true?
Canto 17 (Seventh Circle, Ring Three, Zone Three: Violent against God [Nature and Art]: Usurers)
  1. What does Geryon look like? How does his appearance provide a suitable symbol for entering the circles of fraud?
  2. Be sure you understand what usury means, and why it defies both nature and art (see XI, 106-11).
Canto 18 (Circle Eight, Pouch One [Panders and Seducers] and Pouch Two [Flatterers])
  1. Who whips the panders?
  2. Which famous king of Greek legend used "polished words" to seduce Hypsipyle (82-96)?
  3. What logic might explain the punishment of the flatterers?
Canto 19 (Circle Eight, Third Pouch: Simonists)
  1. Comment on the significance of lines 10-12.
  2. Scholars have debated the significance of Dante's story about his breaking the baptismal font in the Baptistry of Florence (see images from the Baptistry). Given that simony is a sin unique to ecclesiastics, how might we interpret the story of a layman breaking the font to save a drowning person?
  3. Who does Pope Nicholas III incorrectly believe Dante is (52-53)?
Canto 20 (Circle Eight, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, Magicians)
  1. What does Dante (the poet) hope his reader will "gather" (19) from what he is about to describe? What causes Dante (the wayfarer) to weep? What is Virgil's reaction to Dante's weeping? (Note: Mandelbaum's translation of line 30 makes poor sense; a better translation might be: "who sorrows/feels pain at God's judgment."
  2. Feel free to skip Virgil's long disquisition on his home town, Mantua (57-99).
Canto 21 (Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: Barrators)
  1. What "art" of the Venetians (7) does Dante recall when he describes the "art of God" (16)? What human "art" does Dante recall when he describes the demons plunging the barrator/grafter in the pitchlike substance (55-58)?
Canto 22 (Eighth Circle, still Fifth Pouch)
  1. What sound does the poet compare to a strange "bugle" (12)?
  2. How might we interpret the story of the Navarrese grafter who tricks the demons, who then fight among themselves?
Canto 23 (Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch; Sixth Pouch: Hypocrites)
  1. How do you interpret the relation of the sin of hypocrisy to its punishment (64-67)?
Canto 24 (Eighth Circle, Sixth Pouch; Seventh Pouch: Thieves)
  1. Study Virgil's advice to Dante at 46-57. What portion of it seems most similar to St. Paul's theological argument? What portion seems less like that argument?
  2. What literally happens to Vanni Fucci [FOOCH-chee] as punishment (97-118)?
  3. The phoenix, the legendary bird that dies in flames and is reborn from its own ashes, was traditionally read by medieval Christians as an allegorical symbol for Christ. How do you interpret the image of the phoenix used to describe what happens to the soul of Vanni Fucci (106-8)?
Canto 25 (Eighth Circle, still Pouch 7: Thieves)
  1. What is Dante's point about the Latin poets Ovid and Lucan (94-102)?
Canto 26 (Eighth Circle, Pouch 8: Fraudulent Counselors)
  1. Study Ulysses's account of his final journey, which Dante invented (90-142), esp. the speech he made to his men (112-120). What values does Ulysses advise his men to cultivate? What does it tell us about Dante's values that he would assign Ulysses a place in the eighth circle for this advice?
Canto 27 (Still Circle Eight, Pouch 8)
  1. Explain the irony in Guido da Montefeltro's opening statement (61-68).
  2. What did Pope Boniface VIII ask Guido to do? What is "the law of contradiction" (120) that leads Guido to his damnation?
Canto 28 (Circle Eight, pouch 9: Sowers of Scandal and Schism)
  1. What problem as a poet does Dante address at the opening of the canto (1-6)? How effectively do you think he addresses this problem in this canto?
  2. Explain the principle of contrapasso, or "the law of counter-penalty" (142) as it seems to operate in this canto and the poem in general.
Canto 29 (Eighth Circle, still Pouch 9: Sowers of Scandal; pouch 10: Falsifiers, first group: Alchemists, who falsify metals)
  1. At the end of the canto, the alchemist Capocchio describes his counterfeiting of precious metal as "aping nature" (139). How might this provide a clue to interpreting the logic of this group's punishment?
Canto 30 (Eighth Circle, Pouch 10, group 2: Counterfeiters of person; group 3: Counterfeiters of coin; group 4: Falsifiers of words or liars)
  1. What are the stories of the two liars placed together at 97-99?
  2. Why does Virgil scold Dante (130-148)? How might this passage be interpreted allegorically to implicate the reader?
Canto 31 (entering Ninth Circle: Frozen River Cocytus and Giants)
  1. What mistake of perception does Dante make at 22?
  2. How might we interpret the sin of Ephialtes (91-96)?
  3. How do Virgil and Dante get down to the ninth circle at the end of the canto? Who does the poet tell us is down there (143)?
Canto 32 (Ninth Circle, First Ring: Caina, Traitors to Kin; Second Ring: Antenor, Traitors to Homeland or Party)
  1. What does Dante do to Bocca (97-105)?
  2. What comparison comes to the poet's mind as he describes one soul chewing on the head of another (127-29)?
Canto 33 (Ninth Circle, still Ring 2; Ring 3, Ptolomea, Traitors against Guests)
  1. What was the new name of Eagles' Tower in which Archbishop Ruggieri imprisoned Count Ugolino and his sons (22)?
  2. What did Ugolino's sons ask their father for (39)?
  3. How does Ugolino describe his reaction when the guards nailed the door shut (49)?
  4. What offer do his sons make (60-63)?
  5. What is unique about the status of the souls in Ptolomea (122-35)?
Canto 34 (Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring: Judecca: Traitors against Benefactors; completion of journey through hell)
  1. Who is the three-headed figure making a cold wind?
  2. Who does the figure have in each mouth?
  3. Why does Dante get confused when he and Virgil reach the half-way point of Lucifer's body, and how does Virgil's explanation resolve the confusion (88-115)?
  4. What literal "point" (XXXIV, 76, 93, 110) in the central part of Lucifer's body do you believe Dante the poet has chosen as the symbolically significant place furthest from God in heaven, the point of "the universe's center, seat of Dis," as Virgil described it earlier (XI, 65), the "melancholy hole" (XXXII, 2) and "base of all the universe" (XXXII, 8)?
  5. What does Dante glimpse when he looks up right before they reemerge on the surface of the earth (139)? What is the symbolic significance of the noun "beauty" (138)?

Review and Consolidation
In studying Dante's Inferno our priority has been on following the literal narrative, the story of Dante's journey. But we have also had frequent occasion to think about the poem's allegorical or spiritual significance, often identifying symbolic "figures" (or "types") that mean themselves but also point toward spiritual matters. A statement affirming that the poem was intended to be read in this way appears in a famous letter to Can Grande della Scala, one of Dante's patrons during his exile. The letter claims to be written by Dante himself while he was composing the third part of the poem (though some scholars dispute its authenticity, many accept it as genuine). Please study the following excerpt from that important letter:

[I]t is clear that the subject [of the Comedy] . . . must be twofold. And therefore the subject of this work must be considered in the first place from the point of view of the literal meaning, and next from that of the allegorical interpretation. The subject, then, of the whole work, taken in the literal sense only, is the state of souls after death, pure and simple. For on and about that the argument of the whole work turns. If, however, the work be regarded from the allegorical point of view, the subject is man according as by his merits or demerits in the exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice. (Cited from Minnis and Scott, eds., Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism, c.1100-c.1375: The Commentary Tradition)

Page created: 3-04-03
Page last revised: 4-10-03

Copyright © 2003 R. James Goldstein