Punishments In Dante

’s Inferno Essay, Research Paper Cindy Kenney English 355 Burn in Hell The Comedy, later renamed The Divine Comedy was written by Dante Alighieri of Florence, Italy. In the early 14th century,

’s Inferno Essay, Research Paper

Cindy Kenney

English 355

Burn in Hell

The Comedy, later renamed The Divine Comedy was written by

Dante Alighieri of Florence, Italy. In the early 14th century,

while in exile, Dante wrote this epic poem which is broken down

into three books. In each book Dante recounts his travels through

Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven respectively. The first book of The

Divine Comedy, Inferno, is an remarkably brilliant narrative. He

narrates his descent into and observation of hell through its

numerous circles and rings. One extraordinary way Dante depicted

hell is in his descriptions of the various punishments that each

group of sinners has received.

In a prior college course I took we learned about medieval

torture practices. This knowledge led me to see similarities in

the punishments given in Inferno. The diverse punishments that

Dante envisions all the sinners in hell receiving are broken down

into two types. The first he borrows from many gruesome and

severe forms of medieval torture. The second type is often less

physically agonizing. It is Dante?s creative, very clever forms

of punishment. Although all sinners in hell are souls, Dante

gives each one a physical attribute so that the reader can

envision the entire atmosphere clearer. The borrowed medieval

forms of torturous punishments create physical pain for the

different sinners in hell, and thus intended to be interpreted

literally. The creative punishments are conceived to deliver

mental and psychological pain to be understood metaphorically.

Creative punishments in many cases can, however, inflict both a

mental pain and a physical pain upon the sinner.

Many of the severe punishments that Dante foresees for the

sinners are borrowed from practices of medieval torment and

imprisonment. The medieval dungeons were usually gloomy and dark,

and inundated in disgusting stenches. Dante used this depiction

to describe the overall atmosphere in the inferno. Unbearable and

unavoidable extremes of cold or hot temperature, which are

portrayed in the Inferno, are also representative of Medieval

times. Prisoners of Medieval jails were provided with little or

no ventilation to protect them from the extreme cold or hot

weather, they could easily freeze to death or die of heatstroke.

Throughout Inferno images of cruel punishment adopted from

the ideas of medieval torture are seen to inflict physical pain

upon the sinners. The eighth circle, called Malebolge, contained

the sinners known as the Flatterers. The sin of flattery was

punishable through torture intending to create physical anguish.

As Dante travels over a bridge he sees that ?the ditch beneath/

held people plunged in excrement that seemed/ as if it had been

poured from human privies? (167). The sinners were obviously

condemned to live in ?*censored*? because of all the ?bull*censored*? that

ran across their tongues while they were living. Dante meets up

with a sinner who informs him of this: ?I am plunged here because

of flatteries–/ of which my tongue had such sufficiency? (167).

The irony is intentional that the sinners sit immersed in the

crap that originally came from their mouths in the form of

flattery. This punishment is quite vile and repulsive. It is

designed to inflict physical agony upon the sinner. Dante, as a

visitor to this place, is questioned by a sinner, ?Why do you

stare more greedily at me than at the others who are filthy??

(167). Although Dante feels depressed for the sinners he has seen

throughout his journey, in this ring among the flatterers he

seems to be nonchalant about meeting them. He is not as moved by

their condition as he is in other rings, maybe because he thinks

they deserve this sort of punishment, however disgusting it may

be. Dante, the visitor, leaves the ring having had his sights

fill of it.

The second form of punishment Dante uses in Inferno is very

interesting to analyze. These are his metaphorical punishments

which are quite creative and more original than any physical

torture. In Canto XX Dante, the visitor, travels with his

companion through the eighth circle where the souls of the

Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians have been sent to suffer.

Dante describes a procession of ?mute and weeping? (179) souls

who ?found it necessary to walk backward? (179) because they had

their heads turned all the way behind them. These souls, when

living thought they could see the future and are now damned to

only see behind them.

This description of these pathetic souls is an example of

one of the psychologically painful punishments invented by Dante.

It is obviously uncomfortable to have one?s head turned

backwards, but the mental anguish is far greater. For Dante who

was raised in a religious background, telling the future was a

form of blasphemy because only God knew the future. Dante has

angrily punished the sinners to forever look behind them and walk

backwards as well. The punishment for blasphemy in Medieval times

was often death by burning in a fire, instead of using some sort

of physical torture such as this Dante creates a rather sensible

and creative punishment for the sinners.

While traveling through the eighth circle we read that Dante

breaks down in tears, ?May God so let you, reader, gather fruit/

from what you read; and now think for yourself/ how could I ever

keep my own face dry/ when I beheld our image so nearby? (179).

He speaks of the sad, contorted figures surrounding him and feels

very sorrowful. Dante?s guide berates his sadness explaining that

if God has judged these souls this way, sorrow should not be

felt, they are deserving of their punishment, ?Are you as foolish

as the rest?/ Here only pity lives when it is dead:/ for who can

be more impious than he who links God?s judgment to passivity??


Through these two types of punishments, physical and

metaphorical, Dante has clearly illustrated how horrible hell

truly is. His physical tortures are horrifying in their

disgusting and excruciating extremes and his creative tortures

are psychologically vicious and cruel. The differences in the

forms of punishment add to the poem?s complexity and its

unexpected qualities. Dante wrote Inferno with the mission of

naming his peers in an objective manner and succeeded in doing

so. His poem is a masterpiece and will continue to stand the test

of time.

Work Cited

Alighieri, Dante (1980). The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

Inferno (Allen Mandelbaum, Trans.). California: University

of California Press.