Summary: Canto III

[A]bandon all hope, you who enter here.

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Virgil leads Dante up to the Gate of Hell, upon which they read a foreboding inscription that includes the admonition “abandon all hope, you who enter here.” As soon as they enter, Dante hears innumerable cries of torment and suffering. Virgil explains that these cries emanate from the souls of those who did not commit to either good or evil but who lived their lives without making conscious moral choices; therefore, both Heaven and Hell have denied them entry. These souls now reside in the Ante-Inferno, within Hell yet not truly part of it, where they must chase constantly after a blank banner. Flies and wasps continually bite them, and writhing worms consume the blood and tears that flow from them. The souls of the uncommitted are joined in this torment by the neutral angels—those who sided with neither God nor Satan in the war in Heaven.

Virgil leads Dante to a great river called Acheron, which marks the border of Hell. A crowd of newly dead souls waits to be taken across. A boat approaches with an old man, Charon, at its helm. Charon recognizes Dante as a living soul and tells him to keep away from the dead, but after Virgil informs him that their journey has been ordained from on high, Charon troubles them no longer. He returns to his work of ferrying the miserable souls, wailing and cursing, across the river into Hell. As he transports Virgil and Dante across, Virgil tells the frightened Dante that Charon’s initial reluctance to ferry him bodes well: only damned souls cross the river. Suddenly, an earthquake shakes the plain; wind and fire rise up from the ground, and Dante, terrified, faints.

Summary: Canto IV

A clap of thunder restores Dante to consciousness. When he wakes, feeling as though he has been asleep for a long time, he finds himself on the other side of the river, apparently having been carried off the boat by Virgil. He looks down into a deep valley that stretches in front of him: the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo. Virgil informs him that this circle, which contains the souls of those who led virtuous lives but either were born before the advent of Christianity (and thus could not properly honor God) or were never baptized. Dante asks if any souls have ever received permission to leave Limbo for Heaven, and Virgil names a number of Old Testament figures—Noah, Moses, and others. Christ granted these souls amnesty when he descended into Hell during the time between his death and resurrection (an episode commonly known as the Harrowing of Hell).

Many other notable figures, however, remain in Limbo. Virgil himself resides here, and has been given only a brief leave to guide Dante. Dante watches a group of men approach and greet Virgil as a fellow poet. Virgil introduces them as Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan—the greatest poets of antiquity. They lead Dante to a great castle with seven walls, wherein he sees the souls of other great figures from the past: the philosophers Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato; Aeneas, Lavinia, and other characters from the Aeneid; the mathematician Euclid and the astronomer Ptolemy; and many others. Virgil guides Dante out of the castle and again off into the darkness.

Analysis: Cantos III–IV

In the first line of the inscription above the Gate of Hell in Canto III, “through me you enter into the city of woes,” Hell is described as a city. This description gains support in the portrayal of Hell’s architecture: it is walled and gated like a medieval city. The idea of cities figures significantly in Inferno, and Dante’s treatment of them situates his poem both historically and theologically. Historically, large cities had begun to play an increasingly important role in European social and economic life in the high Middle Ages, particularly in Italy, where city-states such as Dante’s native Florence had become important bases of social organization. Dante portrays Hell as a city in large part because, to a thinker in the early fourteenth century, any substantial human population would almost necessarily have suggested a city.

Read more about the inscription above the Gate of Hell.

In the theological sense, however, Inferno’s treatment of cities belongs to the great tradition of St. Augustine’s City of God, written in the early fifth century a.d. Augustine posited that all human cities center around love either of man (“the City of Man”) or of God (“the City of God”). In the City of God, the forces of charity, kindness, and love bind people together; in the City of Man, each citizen acts only in his own self-interest and thus preys on his neighbor. In his various portrayals of Rome, Dante describes it as both the ultimate temporal power, a City of Man, and the spiritual center of Europe, a City of God.

This dichotomy corresponds to spiritual states within the individual: after the Judgment, those who have lived metaphorically in the City of God go to Heaven, while those who have lived in the City of Man go to Hell. The city of Hell in Inferno—whose inhabitants have died and been beset by divine justice—functions as a sort of phantasmagoric, supernatural representation of the City of Man. John Freccero has written that Dante’s Hell, like Augustine’s City of Man, represents the negative consequences of sinful desires, not just on a theological level but also on a social one.

The fourth line of the inscription raises another thematic issue, also highly visible throughout Inferno: the notion that God created Hell out of a concern for justice, a desire to see sin punished and virtue rewarded. One immediately notes that the punishments in Dante’s Hell invariably fit the crime, in accordance with a grand sense of ultimate justice. In the Ante-Inferno, the sort of hellish suburb portrayed in Canto III, we receive our first taste of this justice. The souls of those who would not commit to either good or evil in life now must remain at the outermost limit of Hell—closest to Heaven geographically yet undeniably still a part of Hell.

Dante’s punishments very often have allegorical significance: the blank banner that the uncommitted souls chase symbolizes the meaninglessness of their activity on Earth (for moral choice is what gives action meaning); because these souls could not be made to act one way or another on Earth, hornets now sting them into action. Throughout the poem, this retributive justice reigns: like the souls of the uncommitted, many of the other souls in Hell are made to act out a grotesque parody of their failures on Earth.

Read more about the perfection of God’s justice as a theme.

While the punishments suffered by the damned may be “just,” the text nevertheless emphasizes the pity and fear felt by the character Dante (as opposed to the poet himself) when witnessing them. Indeed, this tension is quite deliberate on the part of Dante the poet, who notes the frequent incompatibility of the human tendency to feel sorrow or pity with the relentlessly impersonal objectivity of divine justice. This tension begins to dissipate as the story progresses and the sins presented grow more heinous, for Dante gradually loses his sympathy for these increasingly evil sinners, firmly condemning their crimes as an inexcusable impediment to the fulfillment of God’s will. But many of the most moving and powerful moments in Inferno come when Dante portrays the damned with human sympathy rather than divine impartiality, illustrating the extremity of the moral demands that Christianity makes on human beings, who are invariably fallible.

Read more about the distinction between Dante the character and Dante the poet.

Through Canto III, the geography and organization of Dante’s Hell generally conforms with medieval Catholic theology, particularly the views voiced by the thirteenth-century religious scholar Thomas Aquinas. As the characters descend into Limbo in Canto IV, however, Dante departs somewhat from these notions. Aquinas held that pagans who lived before Christ and led virtuous lives could have a place in Heaven. As the architect of his own imaginary Hell, however, Dante shows less sympathy, automatically damning those who failed to worship the Christian God, regardless of their virtue.

The punishment that Dante creates for them is to know finally about the God of whom they were ignorant while they were alive. Dante seems to insist on administering justice to these figures despite his personal esteem for the great authors of antiquity, especially Virgil. With this display of unbiased judgment, he again emphasizes the immitigable, mechanical objectivity of morality and divine justice.

Read more about why Dante wrote the Inferno.