Explain the contrapasso, also known as symbolic retribution or "how the punishment fits the sin" in The Divine Comedy.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Italian poet, Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), wrote the epic narrative poem Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) over a period from about 1308-1320. Divine Comedy is divided into three parts, and describes Dante's journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso).

In a notable departure...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The Italian poet, Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), wrote the epic narrative poem Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) over a period from about 1308-1320. Divine Comedy is divided into three parts, and describes Dante's journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso).

In a notable departure from literary tradition in the Middle Ages, Dante wrote Divine Comedy in the Tuscan dialect of Italian, rather than in Latin. Most texts written at this time were exclusively in Latin. However, Dante reasoned that writing the poem in vernacular Italian would make it more accessible to the general public; only highly educated people could read and understand Latin.

In Inferno, the first part of Divine Comedy, Dante is guided through the nine circles of Hell by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. Prior to Divine Comedy, the general belief was that Hell was a place of eternal regret and suffering for being excluded from God's love. In the Christian tradition, Hell is a "furnace of fire," and is known as "the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 13:50; 25:41). Later in the Bible, it is described as a "lake of fire and brimstone" where sinners will be "tormented day and night forever and ever" (Rev. 20:10).

In Inferno, Dante applies the principle of contrapasso. Sinners are punished according to the nature of the sins they committed.

The concept of contrapasso is widely believed to have originated with Dante, but it actually appears first in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

If a man should suffer that which he did, right justice would be done. (Ethics, Book 5, 5)

Aristotle himself disparaged the concept of contrapasso elsewhere in Ethics, but Dante incorporated it into Divine Comedy in what Aristotle considered its primitive form.

An example of contrapasso is the fate that Lucifer himself suffers. Lucifer attempts to rise above all and rule the world in God's place, but he's thrown into the deepest part of Hell. Instead of being able to rule the world, he's condemned to rule over the souls of the damned.

The term "contrapasso" occurs only once in Divine Comedy, in Canto 28. During this passage, an actual person, Bertran de Born, is forced to carry his own severed head for plotting to separate King Henry II of England from his sons.

Original:

Perch' io parti' così giunte persone,
partito porto il mio cerebro, lasso!,
dal suo principio ch'è in questo troncone.

Così s'osserva in me lo contrapasso.

Translation:

Because I divided persons so united,
Do I now bear my brain, alas!
Divided from is source, which is in this trunk.

So it is observed in me the suffering of retaliation. (Canto 28.142)

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team