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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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Most epic poems begin in medias res, in the middle of things,
and the Inferno is no exception. As a matter of fact, Dante is
in the middle of several things. One, he finds himself in the
middle of the Dark Wood-lost. Second, he is in the middle of
his life, "Midway this way of life..." This much he tells us
before it becomes clear that he's not just "lost" in any simple
ordinary sense. He turns to go back the way he came, up a
mountain, but his way is blocked by three animals: a leopard,
a lion, and a she-wolf. He flees from the animals back down
the mountain and comes across the shade of Virgil who offers
to take him by another path.

Animals? The ghost of a Roman poet? Where is Dante that he
can't go back the way he came? Why does Virgil, of all
possible people, happen to be there? Looking back for
evidence, we find that Dante gives us one more clue. He tells
us the reason why he was lost: he was drowsy and inattentive.

We can put it all together this way. Dante is lost in his quest
for salvation. He has strayed from the "right road" because of
his sin, acedia, or moral laziness. Because he has not been
attentive to the active pursuit of good, he has lost the way. He
can't go back the way he came because that is the way of sin.
He is in the middle of a moral mess. Virgil is there to help
Dante find his way out.

NOTE: The critics have many explanations for the animals.
Some think that the animals represent the three kinds of sin:
the leopard representing the sins of incontinence, the lion the
sins of violence, and the she-wolf the sins of fraud. Still other
critics think that the beasts represent the sins of pleasure,
ambition, and greed, respectively. Others see the beasts as
symbolic of the forces at work in the political world of Dante:
the leopard representing Florentine politics, the lion
representing the French desire to rule in Italy, and the she-
wolf representing the Papacy and its involvement in political
affairs. Whatever meaning is true (and it could be all of them),
the animals stand in Dante's way and Virgil is there to help.

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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes

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