Study Guide: The Inferno

by John Beall


As with other notes and texts you may bring this into class on Friday. From this list of I.D.'s I will cull those to appear on the test. Before a canto-by-canto listing, I group some I.D.'s by category. Be prepared to write on these in detail.
Allegorical Figures/Places: "pictures" of sin

  • City of Limbo (Canto 04)
  • City of Dis (Cantos 08 and 09)
  • The Old Man of Crete and the Four Rivers of Hell: Acheron, Styx, Phlegethon, and Cocytus (Canto 14)
  • Malebolge (Canto 18)

Guardians of Hell (Except for Charon, an aged man, these are partly beastial)

  • Within each group, think of contrasts/ distinctions/progressions.
  • The leopard, lion, and she-wolf (Canto 01)
  • The Centaurs: Minos (Canto 05), Chiron (Canto 12), Nessus (Canto 12), and the Minotaur (Canto 12)
  • The Bird-People: The Furies or Erinyes (Canto 09), the Harpies (Canto13), the Malebranche (Canto 21)
  • The Snake-People: Medusa (Canto 09) and Geryon (Canto 17)
  • The "dogs": Cerberus (Canto 06) and Plutus (Canto 07)
  • The ferrymen: Charon (Canto III) over the river Acheron and Phlegyas (Canto 08) over the river Styx. Nessus the centaur takes Virgil and Dante over the river Phlegethon, and the giant Antaeus lowers the two poets over the river Cocytus.

You might question these divisions. Minos has a tail, but (if my memory serves) is not clearly designated a bull in the text. Phlegyas is called "a solitary boatman" (VIII, 17). Plutus is called by Virgil a "cursed wolf", but the naming might be meant metaphorically and not literally.

Dante and Virgil Moments of Tension/Conflict Moments of Support/ Admiration/Harmony

  • Canto 09 (line 15) Canto 02
  • Canto 10 (127-8) Canto 04 (lines 73-81)
  • Canto 13 (25 and on) Canto 17 (81-96)
  • Canto 20 (19-31) Canto 19 (121 and on)
  • Canto 20 (103-105) Canto 21 (22-28)

These are just some examples to illustrate the Dante-Virgil relationship. Look at them. I.D.'s might be quotations from these lines. Especially if you want to write on Dante and Virgil's relationship, you might keep your eye out for other examples. Cantos 20 and 21 are rich veins to mine. Read carefully Virgil's description and story of Mantua (Canto 20) and contrast it to Dante's description and story of Malebolge (Canto 21). Think about differences in writing style, tone, subject matter, imagery, theme, and characterization. Notice Dante's response after Virgil tells him how his native city, Mantua, was founded (Canto 20, 100-105).I.D.'s from these may be quotations from lines to which I refer.

Canto 01

  • Virgil's explanation of the leopard, wolf, and especially the greyhound (93 and on)
  • Dante's first words to Virgil (65)
  • "His City" (126)

Canto 02

  • "I am not Aeneas, am not Paul..." (32)
  • Virgil's explanation of why he "first felt compassion for your pain" (51 and on, especially Virgil's report of Beatrice's speech about Love, 58-74 and 98-108)
  • Virgil's limitation as a pagan as reflected in his question to Beatrice: "Tell me why you have not been more prudent..." (82-84)

Canto 03

  • The inscription on the Gate of Hell and Dante's difficulty comprehending it.
  • "Strange utterances...like sand when a whirlwind swirls." (25-30)
  • The anonymous pageant in ante-Hell (52-69)
  • Charon's "cruel words" and the damned spirits' echoing execrations (84 and on); also, his "eyes like embers, by signalling to them..." (109)

Canto 04

  • Christ's harrowing of Hell--the pageant of Old Testament patriarchs (55-63)
  • "...echoes up above within your life..." (77)
  • The "splendid school" (86 and on)
  • Dante's "seemly silence" (103-105)
  • The pageant of heroes (121 and on)

Canto 05

  • Minos' words to Dante: "be careful..." (18-20)
  • Similes: words compared to hurricanes (28-36) and damned souls compared to birds (40, 46, and 82)
  • Francesca on love (100 and on)
  • Francesca's story about the chivalric romance and Paolo

Canto 06

  • Dante's Cerberus as opposed to Virgil's in The Aeneid (I know you don't have the latter.)
  • Ciacco's renewed gluttony (88-89)

Canto 07

  • Dante about "Justice of God" (14-21)
  • Simile: The "dance" and "hymn" of the prodigal and the misers compared to Charybdis (22 and on--see also 125)
  • Virgil's speech about Fortune (70 and on)

Canto 08

  • Simile: Phlegyas compared to "one who ... anger" (21-24)
  • Filippo Argenti
  • Virgil's words at the end of the canto about the insolent guardians of Dis (121-130)

Canto 09

  • "a meaning worse--perhaps--than he intended" (1-15)
  • Medusa the gorgon
  • "observe the teaching. . .verses so obscure . . . " (61-63)
  • simile: angel from heaven compared to a snake and the damned compared to frogs (76-84)
  • "How full of high disdain. . . " and "his holy words" (88-105)

Canto 10

  • Farinata
  • Dante to Cavalcante: "One your Guido did disdain" (63)
  • Dante to Farinata, the great hearted one": "the carnage. . .temple" (85-87)
  • Dante to Farinata: "may your seed yet find peace" (94)

Canto 11

  • Nada: it' s an overview

Canto 12

  • Simile: The Minotaur compared to a bull that just sacrificed (22-24)
  • Phlegethon (46-48, 101-105, and see XIV, 135. Why Dante not recognize Phlegethon before?)
  • Chiron (70- 82)
  • Nessus (114 and on why Virgil defers to Nessus as tour guide through Phlegethon?)

Canto 13

  • Harpies and smelt (92-108)--note the lower-case "fortune"
  • Virgil and Dante's misunderstanding/ conflict about the damned souls turned into trees (22 and on)
  • Pier della Vigna (55 and on)
  • The anonymous suicide who hung himself (139-151)

Canto 14

  • "I saw so many flocks of naked souls..." (19 and on)
  • Capaneus (46-72)
  • "...which quenches every flame that burns above it" (88-90)
  • Old Man of Crete (94 and on)

Canto 15

  • Brunetto Latini (30 and on)
  • "you cannot fail to reach a splendid harbor..." (55-57)
  • "let the beasts of Fiesole find forage..." (70-78)
  • Dante: "you taught me how man makes himself eternal..." (85)
  • Dante: "...let Fortune turn her wheel...and let the peasant turn his mattock." (94-96)
  • Virgil: "He who takes note of this has listened well."
  • Brunetto: "Let my Tesoro. . . I ask no more." (118-120)
  • Simile: Brunetto compared to a racer in Verona (121-124)

Canto 16

  • Simile: Three Florentines compared to "champions, naked, oiled..." (22-27)
  • The Battle of Montaperti: see the note to lines 34-45
  • "Faced with the truth that seems a lie..." (124-136)-- allegory and fraud?

Canto 17

  • Contrast Dante's and Virgil's expressions of awe in viewing Geryon (1-27)
  • Simile: usurers compared to dogs in summer (49-51)
  • Scrovegni about "the sovereign cavalier" (70-73) and his gesture with his tongue (74-75)
  • Virgil to Dante: "Be strong and daring now..." (81-96)
  • Simile: Dante's fear on mounting Geryon compared to "one who feels the quartan fever near" (85-90)
  • Phaeton and Icarus (106-114)
  • Simile: Geryon compared to an exhausted falcon (127-136)
  • Consider why Dante might be relying so heavily on similes to convey his message in this canto. This would be especially appropriate if I ask a question about how Dante faces artistic/writerly/poetic problems. See also Canto XIX's similes.

Canto 18

  • The description of Malebolge (1-18, 109-114). Consider how Dante describes landscape in contrast to Virgil's description of Hell (back in Canto XI) or to Virgil's description of Mantua in Canto XX.
  • Jason (83-96 and look at the notes)
  • "exhalations...eyes and nose" (100-108)--the "exhalations" as speech?

Canto 19

  • Simile: "As flame...from heels to toes." (28-30)
  • Simile: "I stood...death." (49-51 and see note about the Florentine punishment for hired assassins).
  • Simile: "And I ...can't respond." (58-60) Why is Dante so stunned by Pope Nicholas II's question?
  • Virgil's words: "Tell this to him at once: 'I am not he--not whom you think I am."' (It's an important moment--despite the translator's, or Dante's, pronoun case error. "Whom" should be "who" as the predicate nominative in the subordinate clause "whom you think I am". Forget about the pronoun error; think about the line.)
  • Pope Nicholas II (especially 66-88)--see the notes for information about him.
  • Dante's "song" about simony (90-117). This is also a very important moment in The Inferno--perhaps Dante's longest, most impassioned speech to one of the damned. Read it carefully.
  • Virgil's "applause" (121 and on)

Canto 20

  • Dante defending himself to the reader against Virgil's scolding (19-31)--another exceptional, important moment--the first time Dante has explicitly cultivated the favor of his reader in an explicit conflict with Virgil? If so, why?
  • Virgil's tour through the classical (mostly Greek and Roman) soothsayers--don't worry about the names but look at the style of identification. The notes explain that, in his account, Virgil is relying on the Latin poets Ovid, Lucan, and Statius. (31-57)
  • Virgil's story of his home city, Mantua (especially 82-99). Contrast this to his tone and style in identifying the various prophets and note Dante's request after Virgil's story: "But tell me...my mind is bent on that alone." (103-5)

Canto 21

  • Simile: the "pitch" of Malebolge compared to the arsenal at Venice (7-18)
  • Dante's curiosity about the Malebranche vs. Virgil's warning (22-28)
  • Similes: The Malebranche compared to cooks (55-57) and dogs (67-71)
  • Virgil: "Can't you forget your savagery?" (72-74) Despite the fact that he sung "Of arms and the man" (warriors), why do the tone and style of this question to the Malebranche seem so characteristic of Virgil?
  • Simile: Dante compared to trembling prisoners from Caprona (94-105 and see the note on this)
  • Malacoda's reassuring words--fraudulent in tone and content (105-117 and 124-126). E.g.: consider what is falsely comforting in his words to Scarmiglione (105) and to the Malebranche appointed: as "guides" (118-125).
  • Contrast Dante's fear and Virgil's reassurance (127-135). Remember why Virgil is (or may be interpreted as) overconfident?
  • Barbariccia's trumpet (138-9) as language.

Canto 22

  • The Navarese--how he repeats the sin of barratry (48-132)
  • The sadism of the Malebranche, particularly Dante's apparent fascination vs. Virgil's probable reaction (55-7, 60, 70-72, 94-96)

Canto 23

  • "...were I a leaded mirror, I could not gather..." (25-30)
  • Virgil as Dante's mother (37-51)
  • The hypocrites' cowls of lead: and see the note (64-66)
  • Dante's praise of Florence on the sweet Arno--hypocrisy?
  • "O Friars, your misdeeds..." (109)--why Dante cuts himself off
  • Virgil's response to Caiaphus vs. his response to the Malebraches' fraud

Canto 24

  • Dante's comparison of pilgrim to peasant (1-27)
  • Virgil's pep talk (46-57)
  • Snake/man metamorphosis: why apt as punishment for thieves?
  • Vanni Fucci's angry prophecy: how akin to his crime of thievery? (140-151) Note also his obscene gesture at the beginning of the next canto.

Canto 25

  • The transformation of Agnello into a serpent (49-138)
  • The poet's claim to have outdone the classics (94-102). Bonus: compare Dante's transformation with one of Ovid's (the notes will tell you where to look). Xerox the Ovidian passage and be sure to discuss it in adequate detail, in contrast with Dante's. Is Dante's claim justified?

Canto 26

  • "Be joyous Florence" (1-3)--for the full impact of Dante's sarcasm, see the note. The poet's resolution to "curb my talent" (19-24)--why at this point?
  • Again: Dante's self-image as peasant--lyrical description of summer's fireflies (25-33)
  • Dante's self-comparison to Elisha's seeing the chariot of Elijah (34-42). Bonus: discuss the significance of this Biblical allusion. (See II Kings 2: 23-24)
  • Dante's notation of his vulnerability--almost falling off a rock (43-45)--significance?
  • Virgil's version of the Greek's pyrhhic victory at Troy "...let Rome's noble seed escape"--and of Ulysses' grief (55-63)
  • Virgil's resumption of authority over Dante in speaking to Ulysses--why? (Compare 70-75 with Canto XXVII, 20, which suggests that Virgil spoke "Lombard"--not Greek--with Ulysses. So it's not language alone that's the rationale.)
  • Virgil's high courtesy in addressing Ulysses (79-84)
  • Ulysses' narrative of his final voyage (90-142) is representative of what tendency in Dante that might call for such an important story? Where do we see signs of Ulysses' unrepentant pride?
  • Note the parallel between the barrier to Ulysses' journey and Dante's--the mountain "dark because of distance" (133-135).

Canto 27

  • Read the note about the Sicilian bull and note how the "language of the fire" (15) might not just be that of the next sinner--Guido de Montefeltro.
  • "You speak; he is Italian." (33)
  • Don't worry about the details of Dante's report about Romagna, except to note parallels between Guido's Romagna and Dante's Florence--and the unusually respectful tone in Dante's answering the sinner's question. (36-57)
  • Given Guido's initial address to Dante and Virgil (19-30), why can't Dante recognize him--whereas he clearly recognizes Brunetto (Canto 15, 30)?
  • Note Guido's equivocations in beginning his confession-these lines will be the prologue to Eliot's "Prufrock" that we'll read later. (61-66)
  • On reading Guido's confession (67-111) keep in mind that Dante's Commedia is in part about the pilgrim's need for conversion to holiness. Guido confesses of a conversion gone awry that is relevant to Dante's quest. Note that the "Highest Priest" whom Guido advised is Boniface, whose scorn for his predecessor Nicholas is noteworthy.
  • The struggle between St. Francis and the black cherubim: "Perhaps you did not think that I was a logician." (112-123)

Canto 28

  • The historical Dante's subsuming Virgil (7-21) vs. the graphic, dramatic, pictorial Dante (22-45)
  • "...perhaps to slow your going to the verdict/that was pronounced on your self-accusations?" (44-45)
  • Virgil's reply to Muhammad--"that he may gain..." (46-51)
  • Mosca--his appearance and the irony of his words, "What's done is at an end." (107) See the note at the back, which refers to the Guelph/Ghibelline feud.
  • Bertran de Born's appearance and speech (118-142)

Canto 29

  • Virgil's rebuke of Dante (4-7)--why here and not back at canto 22?
  • Dante's justification for intensely staring (13-21 and 31-36)
  • The simile of the hospital at Maremma--to what is speech being implicitly compared? (43-51)
  • Given Virgil's rebuke at the beginning of the canto, what is shown about his teaching style in his asking if "there are some Italians"? (88)
  • "I am/one who descends; I mean to show him Hell." (96)
  • What's so wrong with an alchemist counterfeiting coins ("aping nature") that merits such treatment? (137-139) Bonus: see also XXX 73-75. What's the basis of Dante's distinction between alchemists and counterfeiters?

Canto 30

  • Bonus--explicate the epic similes used to evoke the fury of Gianni Schicci. Why the comparisons to Troy and Thebes? (See 1-33 and notes). Master Adam and Sinon (49-129)--what does Dante the pilgrim see and hear that attracts such scrutiny?
  • Another rebuke from Virgil (131-132) and Dante's response.
  • The dream simile (136-141)--what show about Dante?
  • Virgil's "absolution" (142-148)--what show about Virgil?

Canto 31

  • "Then lovingly he took me by the hand..." (28)
  • The Montereggioni simile (34-45)
  • Dante the poet's "conclusion" to Malebolge (55-57)
  • Nimrod's chant (67)--see the note.
  • Why Virgil is so caustic towards Nimrod (70-81)
  • Ephialtes (85-96)--see note and consider relevance to Dante.

Canto 32

  • "Had I the crude and scrannel rhymes..." (1-12)--an invocation to the muses--shows what about Dante the poet?
  • Camiscione's idea of "absolution" (69)--contrast to Virgil at the end of Canto 30. (See the note to XXXII, 68-9)
  • Dante's violence--verbal and physical--with Bocca (87-111)
  • "What devil's at you?" (108)
  • The bestial feeding--its motivation? (124-132)
  • Dante's equivocal "bribe"--"I shall repay you..." (138)