Auerbach argues that in Inferno, Dante produces an ‘immediate and admiring sympathy’ with the damned; as a result, writes Auerbach, ‘the image of man eclipses the image of God.’ (Auerbach, Mimesis, p. 202). How does this statement reflect some of the basic tensions inherent in a descent text?

Erich Auerbach is concerned with how successfully Dante portrays reality; his conclusion is that in the Commedia Dante is too successful, with the result that the ‘tremendous pattern [is] broken by the overwhelming power of the images it [has] to contain.’ This success, Auerbach concludes, brings about a failure to achieve what appears to be one of the aims of the Commedia, that is, to bring glory to God. Dante’s brilliant portrayal of humanity is a result of factors of time and narrative in the text as well as his literary genius; nonetheless this celebration of the diversity and endurance of the human spirit cannot completely eclipse the presence of God.

The difficulty of being faithful to two subjects, the divine and the human, creates noticeable points of tension in any katabasis text, drawing out differences between the protagonist and the post-conversion narrator, between the immutable existences of the inhabitants of hell and the diachronic nature of the journey narrative, and between the self-discovery and creation of identity which occur simultaneously in the protagonist.

Much of this is exhibited in Dante’s ambiguous characterisation of the souls he meets in hell: the impiety of pitying those being justly and divinely punished is compounded by the distance between the sinful protagonist and the spiritually mature narrator. Some shades are represented sympathetically, a couple with empathy and many with contempt, but all are vividly portrayed. Barolini, like many other commentators, has noted the realism in Dante’s surreal experience: ‘The Commedia, perhaps more than any other text ever written, consciously seeks to imitate life, the conditions of human existence.’ It is the believable humanity of the souls encountered in hell that makes Inferno so affecting, and Barolini, unlike Auerbach, thinks this is a deliberate and successful decision of the part of the poet.

The best known example of the pilgrim’s interaction with the inhabitants of hell is his conversation with Francesca da Rimini in Canto Five. The pilgrim faints upon hearing her tragic story, which could be taken as a sign of his lack of spiritual development at this early stage in the journey; yet the poet also treats the encounter sympathetically. In contrast to the rather unattractive description of the Lustful flocking like starlings or cranes (lines 40 and 46) Francesca and her lover Paolo are compared to a bird with much more positive connotations: ‘doves, called by desire to return / to their sweet nest...’ (Inferno 5.82-3). Her attractiveness is further increased by her graceful salutation to Dante, and by one of the few pious and humble references to God to come from the damned: ‘if we could claim as friend the Kings of Kings...’ (Inferno 5.91). This, combined with the fact that their murderer is in Caïna in the lowest circle of hell for betraying them, implies that Paolo and Francesca were essentially good people, slain before they had a chance to repent. The seriousness of their sin of adultery is further undermined by the insistence on the love between them: the word begins the first line of three consecutive terzine, a powerful poetic reinforcement of Francesca’s words. The pilgrim’s (and reader’s) sympathy increases still more when she speaks emotively of how her body was ‘torn’ from her (Inferno 5.102) and confesses how much it pains her to tell her story:

...There is no greater pain

than to remember, in our present grief,

past happiness (as well your teacher knows)!

(Inferno 5.121-3)

So much sympathy is aroused, in fact, that the reader and the pilgrim seem to forget that the lovers are in hell for a reason – breaking the vows of God-ordained matrimony – and that though their affair may have begun innocently it continued beyond the bounds of innocence. It could be argued that the poet is laying a trap for the reader here; considered objectively, Francesca’s excuses are unconvincing, her speech overtly rhetorical and it is surely not a coincidence that earlier in the Canto Minòs warns the pilgrim, ‘be careful how you enter and whom you trust / it’s easy to get in but don’t be fooled!’ (Inferno 5.19-20). Perhaps the poet is trying, in this first exchange with the damned souls of hell, to illustrate the untrustworthiness of their testimony and the duplicitous appeal of carnality; however, for most readers the pitiable tale of Paolo and Francesca remains stronger in the mind than any of the more didactic episodes of the Commedia.

It is not merely the poet’s often compassionate depiction that causes the shades to stand out above any theological concerns; it is also a consequence of the existential disjunction between the dead souls and the living pilgrim. The most prominent split in Inferno is between the overall narrative, which progresses through time and space, and the very episodic nature of the pilgrim’s encounters with the shades. The pilgrim, and even more so the reader, have a transitional and piecemeal experience of hell which is certainly not conducive to an understanding of the eternal nature of God. The inhabitants of hell, however, ought to be fully aware of the Christian schema in which they have failed, but rarely make reference to God, Christ or any divine plan; Ugolino, for instance, cries out in anger against the ‘pitiless earth’ (Inferno 33.66), rather than his maker or Lucifer. Instead of communicating to Dante the pilgrim the need for repentance and salvation, the souls display a preoccupation with humanity; while Dante wants access to synchrony and the universal truths it holds, the dead are intent on trying to grasp diachrony once more. Their telescopic knowledge of events in the earthly sphere fails in relation to the present, depriving them of any immediacy of experience and forcing them to beg news from Dante, as Jacapo Rusticucci does:

tell us if courtesy and valor dwell

within our city as they used to do,

or have they both been banished from the place?

(Inferno 16.67-9)

As Auerbach observes, the shades possess their own histories despite their static, synchronic existence in hell. The passions that drove them in life persist but without any opportunity for release; Capaneus the blasphemer puts this into words: ‘What I was once, alive, I still am, dead!’ (Inferno 14.51). His defiant cry is a summary of the condition of the souls in hell, who are frozen in a reification of their sinful lives. Their recognition that Dante is on a journey and in a process of change only increases their desire to speak to him. The effect is that a concentrated form of each individual shade appears to Dante in that one chance he presents to them to connect with the world of living and once again achieve a moment of historicity. This is why the reader may come away from Inferno more intrigued with its larger-than-life personalities than the godliness of its design. The need to counter the inevitable fascination and allure of evil with pious influence is a problem for all descent texts, and it seems that Dante may fail in Inferno; however, Purgatorio and Paradiso more than redeem him for this.

The fact that Inferno is only one part of Dante’s overall vision is important when considering its portrayal of God, or lack of it. The terrible splendour of hell could be seen as a perverse reflection of the glory of God; it is an essential part of his creation, ‘God’s design in active fulfilment.’ The silent inaction of Lucifer at the centre of Cocytus could be seen as an echo of the silence and absence of God, but it could also be a sign that he is defeated and God is now in charge. It is perhaps unsurprising that the image of God should be more or less absent from Inferno: hell should be, after all, a godless place, and part of the punishment of the damned is to be eternally separated from God’s love.

Auerbach notes in passing that, ‘Beatrice, as the mouthpiece of divine wisdom, has much to say that is dark and difficult.’ This is in itself an answer to the problem of the apparent overshadowing of God in Inferno. Firstly, he does not need to be manifestly present because he can speak through divinely appointed mouthpieces like Virgil and Beatrice. Secondly, even God cannot prevent there being disturbing aspects to his kingdom: if sinners do not take advantage of his forgiveness they must suffer in hell.

The poet’s fascinating depictions of the sinners, the reader’s sympathy for some of their circumstances and the intensity of being they achieve in their synchronic state all combine to give a very strong impression of humanity. However, this potent image of the souls in hell ultimately reinforces the power of God in creating and controlling it. Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim both progress beyond Inferno, rejecting the meretricious allure of the damned for the over-arching glory of God, and it is surely the poet’s intention that his readers do the same.


Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, tr. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 1953 (1946)

Barolini, Teodolinda, The Undivine Comedy: Detheologising Dante (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 1992

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, tr. Mark Musa, in The Portable Dante, ed. Mark Musa (London: Penguin) 1995

Freccero, John, The Poetics of Conversion, ed. Rachel Jacoff (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) 1986

Pike, David L., Passage through hell: modernist descents, medieval underworlds (London: Cornell University Press) 1997

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