Book Reviews: The Inferno

Thursday, July 8, 2010

For more discussion about the book visit Caravana de recuerdos who hosted a read-along for the whole Divine Comedy, including The Inferno.

The Inferno
by Dante Alighieri

This famous book is really a poem, a really long poem. Our narrator is the author himself and the year 1300. Guided by Virgil, Dante travels through the nine circles of hell and describes what he sees in each one. Here's a rundown of what sin imprisoned the individuals in each of the nine circles.

First Circle - Limbo
Second Circle - Lust
Third Circle - Gluttony
Fourth Circle - Avarice and Prodigality
Fifth Circle - Wrath and Sullenness
Sixth Circle - Heresy
Seventh Circle - Violence
Eighth Circle - Fraud
Ninth Circle - Betrayal

One thing that surprised me was the order of the sins. I would have expected violence to be considered worse than fraud. I also would have expected lust to be worse than gluttony. It was interesting to see how Dante ranked them in his version of hell. The "active" sins, like intentional betraying someone, were considered much worse than "passive" sins, like sullenness. The premise being, if you're intentional doing something to hurt or take advantage of someone else than you are more evil than someone who just lets life happen or focuses on the wrong things. It makes sense and I still wouldn't want to suffer the punishments for the passive sins.

I thought it was interesting to read about all the different people he runs into in hell. There are historical figures, like Cleopatra, literary legends like Medusa and people like Cain, from the Biblical. It was such a diverse group representing each of the circles of sinners.

The thing that was the most fascinating to me was the method of pain and torture inflicted in each circle. The crime definitely fits the punishment and is described in disturbing detail. In a section of the 8th circle flatterers are covered in human excrement, which represents the words they spewed on others during their life. How fitting is that! The souls in hell are trapped in a perpetual cycle of torment that they have selected by their choices in life.

The writing and descriptions in The Inferno are intense and often hard to follow. I found myself re-reading many sections to make sure I understood everything. It's absolutely worth reading, but it's heavy material and I can't say it was exactly enjoyable.

Here's an example of one of the beautiful sections of the Inferno...

For flames I saw, and wailings smote mine ear:
So that all trembling close I crouch'd my limbs,
And then distinguish'd, unperceiv'd before,
By the dread torments that on every side
Drew nearer, how our downward course we wound.

As a side note I found out that one of the most famous translations of The Inferno was done by Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote The Nine Tailors, which I just finished.


Jenners said...

I suspect that this is one of those books that are better in concept and the ideas than the actual reading of it.

And how ballsy to list actual people being in hell! that takes nerve!

Avid Reader said...

I know! I guess it was pretty controversial at the time because he put some pretty famous people in hell.

Richard said...

Avid Reader, I too was interested in the range of people Dante put in hell (real ones and strictly literary ones) and those awful punishments he described. "Intense" is the perfect word! I know you said that you probably wouldn't have time to carry on with Purgatorio and Paradiso, but please drop by for the discussions if you do and thanks for reading along for Inferno. It was nice meeting you through your blog!

bkclubcare said...

wow - I'm impressed. Did you ever read The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl? I have never even wished to read The Inferno. My mom read it so I figured that was almost good enough. (Eek!)

Avid Reader said...

bkclubcare - I haven't read that, but I read his book The Poe Shadow earlier this year. Was Dante Club good? I was so intimidated by The Inferno I decided I just needed to tackle it.

Jeanne said...

Part of the fun (and the takeoff in The Dante Club) is how each punishment fits each crime, as you say with the excrement example.