Teaching Approaches

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Dante’s Conception of Divine Justice: As a devout Catholic, Dante’s imagination was profoundly influenced by the doctrines and metaphysics of the church. One of Dante’s central preoccupations in The Divine Comedy is the nature of divine judgment and justice. In the view of Catholicism, God perches above humanity, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. When a human dies, God judges that individual on the basis of his actions and selects his proper fate for the afterlife. Those who commit unpardonable sins go to hell; those who sin but do so out of love go to Purgatory, where they have a chance to atone and ascend to heaven; and those who properly devote themselves to divine deeds go to heaven. Because mortal existence is so short and the afterlife so long, the topic of divine judgment was of tremendous interest to Dante and his fellow Catholics. To avoid hell and earn a place in heaven was of the utmost importance. The story of The Divine Comedy is exceptional in part because Dante gains access—imaginative though it may be—to those realms of the afterlife while still mortal, reporting his findings through verse. Inferno is thus a field guide to hell, documenting the grievous fates awaiting sinners so that living humans may avoid those fates. 

  • For discussion: How does Dante’s Catholic vision of divine justice and the afterlife pertain to a modern secular world? Are ideas of hell, purgatory, and heaven outmoded, or do they continue to carry weight? 
  • For discussion: How effective is Dante’s fictional ruse—his claim to have visited the afterlife as a mortal? Is the story more compelling because Dante himself serves as its protagonist, or less so? Why? What effect could a different perspective have had on the story? 
  • For discussion: How morally compelling do you find Dante’s depictions of hell in Inferno? Do those terrible punishments and stories affect your notions of what is moral and immoral? Why or why not? 

Making a Map of Dante’s Hell: Dante brought his sweeping visual imagination to bear on the composition of The Divine Comedy, crafting each volume into a detailed depiction of the afterlife. In Inferno, Dante conceives of the underworld as a kingdom composed of nine descending circles. Each circle corresponds to one category of sin, revealing the variations of the sin, the often-famous sinners therein, and the punishments forced upon them. Encourage your class to create their own maps of Dante’s Inferno, either individually or in small groups. Students should feel free to structure their maps as they wish, though they should label key information, such as the relevant circles, sins, and characters. When the students are done, have them share their maps of hell with the class. 

  • For discussion: Which creative decisions did you make in producing your map of Inferno? What challenges did you face in illustrating Dante’s text? What did you learn about the text as a result? 
  • For discussion: Reflect on Dante’s hierarchy of sin—for example, do you think treachery is truly the gravest sin, and lust the mildest? In what ways do you agree with Dante’s ordering of hell? In what ways do you disagree? 

Dante’s Eclectic Allusions: In Inferno, Dante’s allusions cover a formidable swath of history and culture. Dante’s three primary sources of allusion are the Bible, Greco-Roman mythology, and contemporary Italian history. One rewarding avenue into a deep analysis of Inferno is the pursuit of allusion. Consider dividing the class into three groups, with each group assigned to track one of the main categories of allusion as they read the text. Because there is so much rich contextual information to Dante’s allusions, students may learn more by specializing, focusing in on a single area—be it the Bible, classical myth, or medieval Italy. Students can then bring this expertise to class discussions and even share their findings in a series of group presentations on the topic of allusion. 

  • For discussion: What effect does Dante produce by including well-known figures from history, myth, and literature? Would the text have been as compelling if he had used fictional characters of his own invention? Why or why not? 
  • For discussion: What is the result of Dante’s eclectic blending of different cultures, traditions, and time periods? Why does Dante fill the Christian hell with figures from non-Christian traditions, particularly those from Greco-Roman history and mythology? 

Inferno as Allegory for the Soul’s Journey: While Dante’s Inferno is a deeply Christian text, the story appeals to readers of all backgrounds because its concerns and themes extend well beyond the scope of Christian faith. In a broadly humanistic sense, The Divine Comedy is an allegory of the soul’s journey through life. At the beginning of Inferno, Dante tells us, “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost.” This story is about all of humanity, for the experience of losing the “right road” is a reflection of the struggle to lead a moral life. Dante’s language expresses this inclusive breadth, referring to the cammin di nostra vita—“our life’s journey”—rather than merely his own. Along the way, Dante meets and learns from individuals whose lives were consumed with lust, gluttony, greed, and the other sins. The key for modern readers is to see that Dante’s aim of finding “the right road” in a realm of possible wrongdoings is a basic human task, not a specifically Christian one. In this sense, Dante’s The Divine Comedy is a metaphysical and moral roadmap to guide humans away from lives of debasement and inanity towards a nobler existence. In Dante’s time, the stakes of such salvation were access to heaven. Today’s readers need not understand this salvation so literally; rather, it can be viewed as a metaphor for leading a moral life and serving some transcendent value, such as goodness, beauty, or truth. 

  • For discussion: In your own life, have you ever found yourself “in dark woods, the right road lost”? If so, how did you get lost? Did you find the right road again? 
  • For discussion: Which of the sinners in Inferno remind you of figures and events in the modern world? In what ways do the sins in Inferno continue to characterize human behavior? In what ways are Dante’s depictions outdated, if any? 
  • For discussion: What do the concepts of sin—and salvation from sin—mean to you? Taken from their historical and religious contexts, can these concepts still be useful? 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • Who exactly is the Dante who appears in Inferno? Is the Dante who traverses the underworld with Virgil the same as the Dante who retrospectively narrates the tale? Is the Dante who narrates the tale the same as the historical Dante who wrote it? 
  • How would you characterize the relationship between Dante and Virgil? How does Dante view Virgil, and vice versa? How does their relationship change over the course of the poem? 
  • Which canto or episode of Inferno do you find most personally affecting? Why? 
  • How do speech, poetry, and storytelling aid Dante and Virgil, as well as those they meet in hell? What powers does Dante attribute to language? For what purposes should language’s power be employed, according to the lessons Dante has learned in hell? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Inferno contains graphic depictions of violence and human suffering. Even though the events, characters, and punishments in Inferno are largely fictional, Dante’s evocative writing makes his scenes of gruesome violence and torture convincingly vivid and lifelike. The seven centuries since Dante’s time have little dulled the gruesomeness of Inferno, and many of today’s readers find certain scenes in the poem upsetting. 

  • What to do: Remind your students that Dante depicts violence and suffering as part of his larger artistic aim. The gruesome scenes are never in service to mere gruesomeness, but rather to Dante’s vision of morality and divinity. By keeping the big picture in mind, your students may be less prone to becoming overwhelmed by the grim particulars. 
  • What to do: Remind your students that the violence and suffering in Inferno are both fictional and allegorical. Even though Dante often succeeds in summoning up details that make the wretched reaches of hell seem real, the punishments he describes are largely symbolic. If ever your students become overly disturbed by a given episode, encourage them to find the symbolic resonance below the surface; this practice can alleviate some of the grimness. 
  • What to do: Assign Inferno to older students. The sophistication of Dante’s poem alone makes it a work for adults. The violence and suffering in it only augment that fact. The best course of action may be to assign Inferno to students who are mature enough to handle it. After all, if one were to read the poem while constantly trying to allay and distance its grimness, one would be better off not starting. 

Dante’s language and style are often difficult. His use of metaphor, symbol, and allegory is at play at all levels of the poem, from the minutest visual description to the essential structure of the story. Dante’s highly figurative language takes work to begin to unfold and perhaps several lifetimes to completely understand. The same is true of his allusions, which range across numerous traditions and call upon a dizzying array of characters and historical figures. Finally, Dante’s diction and syntax are dense, formal, and melodic, giving rise to idiosyncratic turns of phrase. 

  • What to do: Discuss the most important metaphors, symbols, allegories, and allusions as they come up. For most classes, it is impossible to cover all of Dante’s symbolism, so focus on the passages that pertain to the themes your class is exploring. 
  • What to do: Choose a good, clear translation. Allen Mandelbaum’s translation is excellent, as is Robert Pinsky’s rhymed rendition. Try reading Canto 1 in several translations and select the one that conveys the movement of the story while maintaining a compelling tone and atmosphere. The right translation can open up Dante’s world to your class; the wrong translation can seal it shut. You may even consider showing your class excerpts from several translations to give them a sense of the breadth of possibilities. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Dante's Inferno

While the main ideas and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving Dante’s Inferno, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the epic. 

Reconstructing the Underworld: In Inferno, Dante situates the major sins across the geography of hell according to their gravity. In Dante’s view, the pagans in Limbo and the lustful in the Second Circle are less guilty than the fraudulent and treacherous souls in the Eighth and Ninth Circles. If your students enjoyed Making a Map of Dante’s Hell, have them place the nine categories of sin into their own versions of the correct order. If time and courage permit, have students think of new penalties to correspond with the sins, as well as additional figures from history or literature to place in the different circles of hell, according to their respective misdeeds. 

  • Note that asking students to imagine new penalties for sins requires consent from all involved since such a task has potential to include unpleasant material. Only pursue this course if you know your students to be mature enough to have a productive discussion on such topics. 

A Character Study of Dante: Open up a discussion about Dante’s character in Inferno. Ask students to describe Dante’s personality, highlighting both his strengths and weaknesses. Encourage students to offer examples of moments when Dante behaves nobly as well as when he behaves poorly. One trait of Dante’s that could provide fruitful discussion is his pride; ask students whether his march among the company of the classical poets in Canto 4 is arrogant or appropriately confident. Ask students, too, whether Dante’s outburst at Filippo Argenti in Canto 8 is a just curse or an expression of Dante’s own wrathfulness. Finally, encourage students to consider whether and how Dante changes over the course of Inferno

Dante in the 21st Century: As a homework assignment, ask students to find a contemporary work of art or cultural artifact that alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Encourage each student to write a one-page report that describes both their chosen artifact and how it engages with Dante’s work. In class, have the students share their findings and then open up the discussion to a broader conversation about Dante’s legacy today. Fruitful topics to discuss include—but are not limited to—the following: 

  • the extent of Dante’s influence in art and literature 
  • the ways in which Dante is understood and misunderstood 
  • the similarities and differences between today’s world and Dante’s world 

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