What in the Hell is Dante Doing?

18 March 2019

 

Dante’s Inferno is not exactly what I expected it to be. I thought it was going to be more Hell Raiser and less Pilgrims Progress. I should have been tipped off by The Inferno being only the first of the three books of The Divine Comedy, but somehow I still expected a harrowing experience of pain and torture. Instead, The Inferno reads more like a guided tour through Walt Disney’s wax museum version of what might look like. The residents of Hell seem not to be in torment but to be resigned to whatever absurd fate that poetic justice deems fit for their crimes. And the monsters of Hell seem little more than carnival barkers dressed up in Halloween costumes ready to back down from their frightening playacting the second a five year old begins to cry.

The reason that this representation of Hell holds such little terror for the reader is the distance at which the terrors are happening. While it is true that Dante does travel deep into the midst of the terrors of Hell, he is never in any sort of danger as none of the torments are even threatened to be leveled against him. And to add more distance between Dante and any danger he may be in, he is led around by Virgil who points out the sights to Dante then explains the poetic significance of the torments that the souls suffer. Over and over again Virgil reminds Dante, the monsters of Hell, and the reader that no harm can come to Dante as they are “on a mission from god,” as the Blues Brothers might say. All in all the story reads like a Sunday school lesson aimed at teaching children not to sin. But I think that is the point; The Inferno is written as an allegory to teach the reader what to avoid if he or she wants to live a good Christian life.

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