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The Sinners In Dante's Inferno

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The use of symbolic retribution, a punishment that is symbolized by the crime that was committed, is found throughout Inferno, by Dante Alighieri. Dante, who is led by Virgil, a Roman poet leads the reader through nine layers of hell. Each circle of hell represents a different group of sinners. As Virgil and Dante venture further into the layers of hell, they see the crimes committed and the punishments given become more severe with each circle. Readers are able to understand Dante’s religious and moral beliefs based on this writing. The reader recognizes that Dante believes in an afterlife and that sins committed on earth receive varying degrees of punishments he believes best fit the crime. In Inferno, Dante uses symbolic retribution to allow readers a glance into his religious beliefs by punishing gluttons in circle three, wrathful people in circle five, and treacherous people in circle nine.

In the third layer of hell, people who give into their physical desires to eat and drink no matter the outcome are found. As Dante is traveling through the third layer of hell with Virgil he describes the people he observes: “Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black, / And belly large, and armed with claws his hands” (Alighieri). This group of sinners, who were gluttons before death, are punished by becoming bloated and being immersed in filth while it rains down from the sky. Gluttons worship food and drinks because of their uncontrollable appetite. According to The Divine Comedy: The Inferno: Notes by Luisa Zamboni Vergani the gluttons “punishment is a reversal, and instead of eating the fine delicate foods and wines of the world, he is forced to eat filth and mud. Instead of sitting in his comfortable house relishing all of the sensual aspects of good food and good wine and good surroundings, he lies in the foul rain” (Zamboni 31). This certain sin causes a person to turn food into a god, so now instead of eating the fancy foods of the world and living a luxurious life, they are punished by being made to eat and live in mud. The guardian of the gluttons constant hunger “is a fitting guardian for the circle of gluttons, who transformed their lives into a continual feast and did nothing but eat and drink and now lie like pigs in the mire” (Zamboni 31). The hungry and bloated sinners in this layer of hell resemble pigs living in filth, similar to their guardian. Gluttony is considered to be one of the less vicious crimes of incontinence found in the nine circles of hell.

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Another sin of incontinence that Dante encounters is anger, which he finds in the fifth circle. The sinners found here are confined to the Styx, a muddy swamp. The ones above the water are “the souls of those whom anger overcame” (Alighieri); while the ones beneath the water say “‘We sullen were / In the sweet air, which by the sun is gladdened, / Bearing within ourselves the sluggish reek” (Alighieri). The two different groups in this layer of hell are those that were overcome with extreme anger and those that were sullen and did not believe in God. The sinners punished to live above the water show “open and violent hatred, and the punishment is that they strike out at each other in almost any fashion” (Zamboni 33); however, the ones below the water display “slow, sullen hatred. The punishment for this type is that they are choking on their own rage, gurgling in the filth of Styx, unable to express themselves as they become choked on their own malevolent hatred” (Zamboni 33). The wrathful people manifested such great anger, that it could have led to violence; so, their punishment was to be covered in grime and constantly fighting with one another. The sullen sinners were punished by being exiled to underneath the Styx where they would be smothered by their own rage and emotions. The Styx, the river these sinners occupy, is considered to “[serve] a double purpose. It separates the upper Hell from the nether Hell, and it also functions as the circle for the wrathful. As the wrathful people were hateful during their lifetime, they are now in a river of hate” (Zamboni 33). Similar to the separation of the wrathful and sullen, the Styx is split into two different sections. The sin of wrathfulness is considered to be one of the worst sins of incontinence.

The ninth, and final, layer of hell is reserved for the treacherous. Here Dante observes “a thousand faces, made / Purple with cold; whence o’er me comes a shudder, / And evermore will come, at frozen ponds” (Alighieri). The sinners found in this layer of hell are all punished by living in a frozen lake, and as they travel closer to the center the sins committed get worse. These people long “to be forgotten on earth because of their vicious crimes, unlike those in the upper circle, who ask to be remembered” (Zamboni 72). The occupants of this circle of hell are miserable and regret the sins they committed while living on Earth. This layer of hell is split into four different sections, called rounds: round one is treachery towards kin, the second round is treachery towards country, the third round is treachery towards guests and hosts and the fourth round is treachery towards their masters. Satan resides in the center of the four rounds of treachery. Each round is named after a person who embodies these sins. In Critical Insights: The Inferno by Patrick Hunt the names of each round is explained: the first round is “named Caina (for Cain)” (Hunt 11), the second round is named “Antenora (for the Trojan Anteno)” (Hunt 11), the third is “Ptolemea (for Ptolemaeus)” (Hunt 11) and the fourth circle is named “Judecca (for Judas Iscariot). In Judecca are the most heinous human traitors” (Hunt 11). As they venture towards the center of the lake, the treacherous crimes that have been committed become more deplorable.The wrongdoers found in this layer of hell are considered to be the worst of the worst.

Throughout the entirety of Dante’s Inferno, Dante Alighieri uses symbolic retribution to express his religious beliefs. From his experiences exploring the nine layers of hell, readers are able to understand what Dante assumes will occur after death. In the third circle of hell, the gluttons lie in mud and resemble pigs. People who were overcome with extreme anger in life are found in the fifth layer of hell. Here, those who were wrathful were left above the Styx where they constantly tore at one another, and those who were sullen were enclosed beneath the river and left without being able to express their emotions. The evil-doers found in the final circle of hell were believed to have performed the most terrible crimes known to mankind. They live in an icy lake, and as Dante and Virgil venture towards the center the wrongdoings become worse. From Dante’s Inferno, readers are able to better understand his religious and moral beliefs.

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