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Assigned: Dante Alighieri. Inferno from The Divine Comedy.
1. In Canto 1 describe the spiritual state and time of life in which the narrator finds himself. To help do this, where is he -- how do you interpret the natural setting in the first 30 or so lines? The "dark wood," the "hill," and the path, the rays of light?
2. In Canto 1, why doesn't Virgil offer to help the narrator the minute the two meet? What is Virgil waiting for?
3. In Canto 2, what's your first impression of Beatrice? How does she explain (around line 94) what led her to make Virgil assist the narrator? What does Virgil say about Beatrice? How does the news that Beatrice is involved in his journey affect the narrator?
4. In Canto 3, what does the inscription on the gates of Hell imply about the divine perspective on the sinful and about the place of Hell in God's plan? Consider, for instance, the phrase "the primal love" -- in what sense does that kind of language on the gates of Hell seem strange to our modern ears? How does the inscription indirectly explain why the damned are so eager to cross the Acheron and receive their punishment?
5. In Canto 3, why is the punishment -- blindness, cacophony, etc. -- appropriate to those who refused to take a moral stand as Christians? How is the punishment of such souls another instance of God's "poetic justice" rather than a strict, dull "eye-for-an-eye" kind of punishment? In other words, how is God an "artist" of sorts -- not merely a strict judge -- in handing out the punishments that he does?
6. In Canto 3, what relationship is becoming established between the narrator and Virgil? Describe how they interact and talk to each other.
7. In Canto 4, around line 90 or so, the narrator is introduced to his predecessor poets: Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan. Virgil is already his guide, so Dante is the sixth among the greats. The narrator says that they all talked amongst one another -- why do you suppose he doesn't tell us what they said? What seems to be his attitude towards Classical literature and the pagan (pre-Christian) past here?
8. In Canto 5, how is the punishment of the lustful another instance of God's "poetic justice" rather than just a strict, dull "eye-for-an-eye" kind of punishment?
9. In Canto 5, the narrator is obviously filled with compassion for when he meets the lovers Paolo and Francesca. Why do you suppose that's the case? Also, is being compassionate the same thing as taking their side? Why or why not?
10. In Canto 5, what is the narrator interested in learning from Paolo and Francesca? When Francesca tells their story towards the canto's end, why does she keep it brief rather than expanding on it to satisfy the narrator's interest?
11. In Canto 6, how is the punishment (this time of the Gluttonous) again poetic rather than only strict and proportionate? Consider, for example, the physical setting at the opening of the canto: the rain and mud.
12. In Canto 6, from lines 103-115, Dante asks his guide Virgil what will happen to the sinners after the "last sentence" (the Last Judgment following the Second Coming of Christ to earth) is pronounced. What do you make of Virgil's response -- what is going to happen to the sinners?
13. In Canto 7, why is it logical that the avaricious or greedy and the angry should be condemned to the form of punishment that they now suffer?
14. In Canto 7, Dante asks Virgil about "Fortune. " How does Virgil explain the workings of Fortune -- how does that power operate in the world, and what is its relation to God's will? How does Virgil's answer differ from one you might expect from a pagan talking about the Fates?
15. In Canto 7, do you see any change in Dante's attitude regarding his perceptions and treatment of the damned -- i.e. any change that would prefigure the much greater change that will manifest itself in the next canto? If so, how?
16. In Canto 8, what allows Dante to show anger towards Filippo Argenti, aside from anything personal he may have against that sinner? If it isn't just Dante's personal spite, what must be happening within him to make him malign Argenti? This is an important point in the text.
17. In Canto 8, what effect on the pagan Virgil does the fallen angels' brazen resistance have? Dante and Virgil are trying to enter the City of Dis, but the angels fiercely guard the entrance. What important transition in the Inferno's structure and theme does the resistance mark?
18. In Canto 9, what use does Dante make of Classical mythology? Why, for example, would the narrator not be able to return if he looked at Medusa? What purpose do the Furies serve in this canto?
19. In Canto 9, around line 80 and following, a heavenly messenger arrives to help the narrator and Virgil enter Dis. What effect does the messenger have on the fallen angels? How is there a ceremonial or dramatic quality to the messenger's actions?
20. In Canto 10, how does Farinata behave, and how does Dante treat him in return? Some have said that Farinata's attitude breaks the unity of Inferno's treatment of the sinful -- what do you think, and why?
21. In Canto 10, why is the heretics' form of punishment fitting? What is the nature of any heretic's offense, and how is that offense reflected in the punishment of being partially or entirely entombed in a burning receptacle?
22. In Canto 11, what does the narrator ask Virgil about God's design or purpose in structuring Hell as he has done? How does Virgil explain and help us understand the stages of the remaining journey in the process? Why is fraud such a terrible, unnatural offense, so that a species of it is punished all the way down at the bottom of Hell?
23. Given Virgil's explanation of the Inferno's structure in Canto 11, why should Minotaurs and Centaurs here in Canto 12 be the guardians of the regions Dante is about to enter?
24. In Canto 12, how does Dante react when he gets his first look at lower Hell? This canto marks another transition point in the story.
25. Why are the suicides turned into trees in Canto 13? Why do you suppose suicide would be a mortal sin -- what is the logic in punishing people who commit suicide?
26 In Canto 13, why are the squanderers pursued by hunting dogs -- why is the punishment appropriate, in Dantean terms?
27. In Canto 14, what sin is Capaneus guilty of? How does Virgil explain his punishment?
28. In Canto 14, what is the source of Hell's rivers? How does Virgil explain this matter?
29. In Canto 15, what future does Brunetto Latini predict for Dante around lines 55 and following? How does he describe Florence?
30. In Canto 15, how does Dante take the news of his future troubles? What does this reaction reveal about him?
31. Discuss Dante's descriptive powers in Canto 16 -- how does he make things memorable for us?
32. In Canto 16, characterize the way Dante talks about Florence, the city of his birth, from line 58 and following.
33. In Canto 17, how does Dante describe the usurers' punishment? How do their actions reflect the nature of their earthly sins?
34. In Canto 17, how does Dante call attention to the perilous ness of his transition to lower Hell? Discuss this question by paying attention to the ride that Virgil and Dante take on the monster Geryon.
35. We have seen many awful predicaments for the sinners in Inferno so far. In Canto 18, what is worse than those earlier punishments about the punishments of ordinary fraud?
36. In Canto 18, how is Jason's bearing around line 82 and following reflective of his special sin?
37. In Canto 19, what is Dante's attitude towards the simoniacal popes? Is there anything unusual in his interaction with them, around lines 64 and following?
38. How does Dante's reaction in Canto 20 comment on his spiritual progress up to this point in the epic? What does he say has caused him to be sorrowful in this canto, after he showed so much anger at the popes in the previous one?
39. In Canto 20, why are astrology, divination, and magic a violation of God's plan or "Providence"? Is what Dante the poet does -- writing an epic detailing a fictional journey -- liable to be considered divination? If it is, how might Dante justify his poetic task?
40. In Canto 20, why is Virgil more lively and talkative than usual, around lines 58 and following, where he discusses the founding of Mantua, his native city? Discuss also Virgil's rebuke of Dante for pitying the damned souls in this canto -- what accusation does he level against Dante?
41. Describe the "comic" atmosphere of Canto 21. Why is it hard to take the goings-on seriously here?
42. The devils' behavior in Canto 21 nonetheless amounts to a serious attempt to hinder Dante on his way to salvation -- characterize that attempt, and explain why it's appropriate that it should take place in a pouch where "barratry" ("the purchase or sale of ecclesiastical preferment, or offices of state"; also more generally vexatious, dishonest litigiousness) is punished. Hint: -- how common is "barratry," in its general sense, in human affairs?
43. In Canto 22, how are the devils similar to the sinners they are tormenting? What are the devils constantly doing to one another?
44. In Canto 22, how does the barrator from Navarre take advantage of Virgil and Dante and the devils?
45. At this point in the poem (Canto 23), what would you say the interaction between Dante and Virgil reveals about Dante's progress and Virgil's limitations?
46. In Canto 23, describe the predicament in which Dante and Virgil find themselves, and the reason why they are in that predicament. What allows them to get out of their present location and continue on their way?
47. In Canto 23, we see that Caiaphas is being eternally crucified. What has he done to deserve his fate, and why is his punishment -- a grotesque parody of Christ's crucifixion -- appropriate as "poetic justice"?
48. Why is there so much emphasis in Canto 24 on the labor, the intense effort, required if the travelers are to continue downward to the center of hell? How does this concentration reflect upon Dante's task as a writer of epic poetry?
49. In Canto 24, what does Vanni Fucci predict will soon happen in Dante's home city of Florence? Why is it valuable for Dante to keep hearing what will come to pass in Florence?
50. In Canto 24, why is Vanni Fucci's punishment for stealing from the Church appropriate as another of God's "poems" of justice? How does Vanni perpetually relive the common sentence on fallen humanity, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust"?
51. In Canto 25, how does Dante react to Vanni Fucci's obscene gesture at God?
52. In Canto 25, Dante describes an astounding metamorphosis of one set of beings into another -- what strategies does he employ to establish authority for the tale he tells?
53. In Canto 26, what does Virgil say has caused Ulysses (our Odysseus) to end up in hell as a fraudulent counselor? How is Dante refashioning Homer to suit Christian ends?
54. In Canto 26, if we already know why Ulysses is damned, what purpose does making him tell of his own adventures and death serve? How is Dante positioning himself with regard to the values Ulysses promotes?
55. Here in Canto 27 Guido da Montefeltro, a fraudulent counselor in the service of Pope Boniface VIII, tells his story -- how is the tale an indictment of the Church's temporal (i.e. "worldly") power?
56. At the end of Canto 28, Bertran de Born, French troubadour poet and false counselor to King Henry II of England, explains that he is punished with the usual "law of counter-penalty" ("contrapasso" in Italian). How does "contrapasso" work, and how do the other souls in this canto suffer in accordance with it?
57. In Canto 29, Dante spots an ancestor of his, and pities him. Is he making a mistake here, or do his explanation and conduct excuse his pity, which at some points in the Inferno has earned him a just rebuke from Virgil?
58. In Canto 29, why should alchemy -- the attempt to turn ordinary metals and substances into precious ones -- be punished so far down in hell, even in the tenth pouch of the eighth circle?
59. In Canto 30, Master Adam is a falsifier of coinage -- how is his economic sin a deep offense against his community?
60. In Canto 30, what is the point of Dante's dramatizing for us the argument that Master Adam engages in with Sinon the Greek liar?
61. In Canto 30, why does Virgil reproach Dante towards the canto's end?
62. In Canto 31, why is it significant that at first, on his passage with Virgil down to the Ninth Circle, Dante sees an optical illusion -- i.e. he mistakes the Giants for towers? How would you generalize from this incident to make a point about perceiving evil accurately and in proportion?
63. In Canto 31, concentrate on Dante's presentation of Nimrod -- how is this giant (who commanded the building of the Tower of Babel) punished? Why is it significant that his speech is now unintelligible and that he is immobile?
64. In Canto 31, by what descriptive techniques does Dante "cut evil down to size"? Why is it important for him to do that as he descends further and further into the depths of Hell?
65. In Canto 32, why does Dante fight with the traitor Bocca degli Abati? Does the narrator's violent behavior -- seizing Abati by the hair -- seem appropriate? Why or why not?
66. In Canto 32, how do the traitors repeat their earthly sins?
67. In Canto 33, consider the case of Ugolino, a Pisan leader who treacherously cut a deal with the Ghibelline Archbishop Ruggieri, and was then betrayed and imprisoned by this cleric. How does Ugolino describe his damnable crime? What connection does Dante make between family, party, and state in this example?
68. In Canto 33, how does Dante assume the role of a prophet in this canto? What does he say about various Italian cities?
69. In Canto 33, Branca Doria is not even dead yet, but Dante places his soul down in Circle 9! How does this unusual gesture reinforce the moral immediacy of the Inferno?
70. In Canto 34, How does Dante's presentation of Satan render the archfiend absurd? Why is it necessary to do that, rather than make him seem grand and awe-inspiring?
71. In Canto 34, Satan is immobilized in ice and chomps eternally on Brutus and Cassius (Julius Caesar's murderers) and Christ's betrayer Judas Iscariot. How might Satan's predicament be Dante's ultimate comment on the consequences of human sinfulness?
72. In Canto 34, what is the significance of the change in perspective that Virgil and Dante go through when they traverse Satan's body and find that the way down has become the way up? How might this perspectival change amount to a comment on the necessary path to salvation?
Edition: Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam, 1982. ISBN-13: 978-0553213393.