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...
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