Virgil and Dante continue down toward the Fourth Circle of Hell and come upon the demon Plutus. Virgil quiets the creature with a word and they enter the circle, where Dante cries out at what he sees: a ditch has been formed around the circle, making a great ring. Within the ring, two groups of souls push weights along in anger and pain. Each group completes a semicircle before crashing into the other group and turning around to proceed in the opposite direction. The souls condemned to this sort of torturous, eternal jousting match, Virgil explains, are those of the Avaricious and the Prodigal, who, during their lives, hoarded and squandered, respectively, their money.
Dante, as before, inquires whether he knows any of the souls here. Virgil informs him that most of the Avaricious are corrupt clergymen, popes, and cardinals but adds that the experiences they undergo here render them unrecognizable. He notes that the Avaricious and Prodigal share one essential characteristic: they were not prudent with the goods of Fortune. Dante asks Virgil to explain the nature of this “Fortune.” Virgil replies that Fortune has received orders from God to transfer worldly goods between people and between nations. Her swift movements evade human understanding; thus, men should not curse her when they lose their possessions.
Pondering this explanation, Dante follows Virgil down to the Fifth Circle of Hell, which borders the muddy river Styx. They see souls crouched on the bank, covered in mud, and striking and biting at each other. They are the Wrathful, those who were consumed with anger during their lives. Virgil alerts Dante to the presence of additional souls here, which remain invisible to him as they lie completely submerged in the Styx—these are the Sullen, those who muttered and sulked under the light of the sun. They now gurgle and choke on the black mud of the swampy river.
Continuing around the Fifth Circle of Hell, Virgil and Dante come to a tall tower standing on the bank, its pinnacle bursting with flames. Virgil and Dante encounter the boatman Phlegyas, who takes them across the Styx at Virgil’s prompting. On the way, they happen upon a sinner whom Dante angrily recognizes as Filippo Argenti. He has no pity for Argenti and gladly watches the other sinners tear him apart as the boat pulls away.
Virgil announces that they are now approaching the city of Dis—Lower Hell. As they near the entrance, a host of fallen angels cries out. They demand to know why one of the living dares to try to enter Dis. Virgil again provides a rationale for Dante’s presence, but, for the first time, he proves unsuccessful in gaining entrance. The demons slam the gate in Virgil’s face, and he returns to Dante hurt but not defeated.
Dante grows pale with fear upon seeing Virgil’s failure. Virgil, who appears to be waiting for someone impatiently, weakly reassures Dante. Suddenly, Dante sees three Furies—creatures that are half woman, half serpent. They shriek and laugh when they notice Dante, and call for Medusa to come and turn him into stone. Virgil quickly covers Dante’s eyes so that he will not see Medusa’s head.
An enormous noise from behind scatters the Furies. Virgil and Dante turn to see a messenger from Heaven approaching across the river Styx, with souls and demons fleeing before him like flies. He arrives at the gate and demands that it be opened for the travelers; he is promptly obeyed. Virgil and Dante pass through the gate of Dis and enter the Sixth Circle of Hell. Tombs surround them, glowing among fiercely hot flames; here lie the Heretics.
The symbolic correspondences between crimes and their punishments, visible here as in the other cantos, display Dante’s allegorical ingenuity and contribute to his exploration of the larger theme of divine justice. Justice in Inferno is continually portrayed as a matter of precise, almost mechanical, dispensation, as evidenced by Minos’s methodical curling of his tail, in Canto V, to assign each damned soul to its proper torment. Not only is God’s justice coldly impersonal and utterly without pity, it is meted out with extremely careful balance: in each level of Hell, damned souls suffer in both kind and degree, according to the type and extremity of their sins on Earth.
The concept of God’s retribution not only plays a thematically important role in Inferno; it also lends structure to the poem’s geography, as well as to its narrative form. The geographical settings through which the characters progress correspond to kinds of sin—the swampy Styx for the Sullen, for example, and the tempest for the Lustful—providing a sequence of powerful physical illustrations of Dante’s abstract messages.
The narrative form of Inferno unfolds in accordance with the degree of sin: the degree of evil and torment that Dante the character encounters escalates as the story progresses, enabling Dante the poet to create increasingly intense episodes. These episodes help him to make his moral points with added force, and to develop Dante the character. Their evenly spaced gradations of torment allow Dante to build psychological and emotional tension at an impeccably controlled pace.
This extraordinary correspondence between narrative, setting, and theme remains one of Inferno’s most remarkable aspects, and has helped to secure the work’s position in the Western canon. In the scene of the Avaricious and the Prodigal in Canto VII, we see a particularly vivid instance of this correlation. Dante thematically joins these two sins by placing them within the same physical space and temporal episode. Seemingly opposite, Dante notes the similarity of these sins: both involve imprudence with money or material goods. The text’s notion of the value of prudence stems from Aristotelian philosophy, to which Dante adheres throughout The Divine Comedy with few exceptions.
Aristotle praised the virtue of moderation, or what he called the mean; in his view, one should avoid the extremes of passion and guide oneself by reason. This restraint, however, is not to be confused with the noncommittal nature of the souls in the Ante-Inferno, who avoided extremes not out of reason but out of cowardice; indeed, reason often calls for us to take sides on moral issues.
Whereas the Second through Fifth Circles of Hell contain those who could not hold fast to the Aristotelian mean, the Sixth Circle of Hell seems to be of a different type: the Heretics have committed a sin not of indulgence or excess but rather of rejection. Fittingly, the poem marks a significant geographic separation between the Fifth and Sixth Circles of Hell, which represent the border between Upper Hell and Lower Hell. Lower Hell stands apart as the city of Dis, a sort of subcity within the city of Hell.
Virgil’s helplessness at the gates of Dis signify that he and Dante have now entered into a new, more insidious and dangerous kind of sinfulness. Up to this point, Virgil has confidently protected Dante. As Virgil and Dante pass into Lower Hell, the sense of physical and spiritual danger to the travelers grows in proportion with the sin and suffering of the damned souls.
Dante’s reaction to Filippo Argenti in these cantos marks a sudden departure from his previous pity for the damned. This shift could be seen as illuminating both Dante the poet and Dante the character. Argenti was a Black Guelph in Florence, and his brother may have taken the poet Dante’s property after the latter’s exile. Though Homer, Horace, Dido, and Aeneas are well known to modern audiences, they receive significantly less treatment than Argenti, with whom readers would otherwise be unfamiliar.
Apparently, the poet’s desire to vent his personal anger here overwhelms his desire to reference the larger culture. Perhaps more important, this scene furthers the development of Dante the character. For his departure from sympathy proves a permanent one, as he begins to grow ever more intolerant of sin and less inclined to pity the sinners’ torments. Virgil condones this growing contempt, and Dante the poet seems to advocate it. He implies that, on an ultimate level, sin is unacceptable and not to be pitied. The scenes in Upper Hell witness a tension between the main character’s human sympathy and the objective impersonality of God’s justice; as the poem progresses, divine justice wins out.
Finally, these cantos include two notable references to beings from classical mythology; in typical fashion, Dante seamlessly incorporates these beings into a Christian Hell. Virgil describes Fortune as a minister of God and yet gives her all of the pagan characteristics that normally accompany her in ancient myth. The Furies and the legend of Medusa’s head come straight from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the favorite sources of mythology for medieval writers and thinkers. The Furies seem a bit out of place here, as they do nothing to advance the plot—they simply threaten Dante before being scared off. In part, Dante uses this passage to flex his poetic muscles, as if declaring that anything worthwhile in the poetry of the ancients falls within his territory as well. Dante’s deft incorporation of various traditions contributes to the creation of his own distinctive style.