I had never read Inferno until several days ago. Since reading it, I have been thinking about it quite a bit. I have been comparing some of Dante’s writings to some of the beliefs about hell that I grew up with in my faith community. I find it interesting to think and wonder about just how much Inferno has likely and further influenced (for better or worse) my ideas, beliefs, and mental images of hell beyond that of what I might have only drawn from Scripture.
Obviously, Dante vividly sees, feels, and smells – with his own senses – the result of sin after it has separated man from God. In Canto 1, Virgil tells Dante that Dante will see “ancient suffering spirits” (Alighieri 33). In Canto 33, Dante feels the cool from the frozen ice and wind (519). At the end of Canto 10, Dante speaks of a smell and “stench that was displeasing” as the travelers descended (161). Dante is physically and outwardly repulsed by some of what he sees, feels, and smells.
But Dante changes inside, too. When Dante begins his descent, he seems to slightly judge the people that he sees. He does so vocally with fair regularity, it appears. It’s almost as if he, while concerned and interested, seems almost smug in his standing versus the standing of those he is seeing. The deeper the travelers go, however, Dante seems to talk less. Seeing Satan tear away and devour liars, traitors, and cheaters in the depths of hell and as described in the last Cantos, maybe Dante senses that sins of intentional deceit are even worse than sins of killing. Perhaps Dante begins to understand the enormity of sin’s result and, too, maybe Dante is truly beginning to fully empathize with the sinners who are stranded in eternal torment.
After this journey and what Dante sees, he is led to the changes that come along inside of him – maybe this is how faith and belief works sometimes. Whereas Dante begins his descent as a confused and desperately selfish man, he finally climbs out of the cavern into sunlight as a man of selfless potential and understanding.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno – The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Ed. Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez. Trans. Robert M. Durling. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.