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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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CANTO V

Everyone loves the story of forbidden love, including Dante
(who, remember, was denied even a private conversation with
his Beatrice). Giving in to the wrong love is Dante's idea of
the least offensive sin. Once inside of Hell, the Lustful are the
first sinners that Dante sees.

Virgil and Dante descend to the Second Circle and encounter
Minos, the judge of Hell. Minos wraps his tail around himself,
as many coils as the number of descents each shade is to
make, while the shade pours out a confession of all his
wrongs. When Minos sees Dante, he screams that they should
not be deceived by the wide open door and refuses to let them
pass. Virgil quiets Minos by telling him his hindrance is in
vain, and then he leads Dante past Minos to view the sinners
guilty of Lust, the first of the sins of incontinence.

Those shades are swept around on a whirlwind, driven and
wailing. As they whip past the poets, Virgil points out the
shades of the famous lovers: Cleopatra, Helen, Paris, and
Tristan among others. Dante, although stunned by the sights
and sounds, asks to speak to two shades who ride the winds
holding hands, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. How did they
come to be caught in this whirlwind?



NOTE: Dante's readers would have been familiar with this
story. Francesca was the wife of Paolo's brother, Gianciotto.
This marriage, like many of that day, was a political union not
a love match; Gianciotto was as deformed as Paolo was
beautiful. All that Francesca tells Dante is how she and her
brother-in-law fell in love. In innocence, Paolo and Francesca
spent one afternoon reading the romance of Lancelot and
Guinevere. Their eyes met, they kissed, and "they read no
more that day." Francesca's story so moves the tender-hearted
Dante that he faints.

No other canto of the entire Comedy has inspired such
attention and artistic interpretation as this canto has. The
lovers' story is very beautiful and very sad. Why are they in
Hell? They died when Gianciotto found the lovers together
and stabbed them both. Yet their love and the passion are so
understandable-is the punishment fair?

Francesca is not punished so much for the act as for the
failing. She fails a larger kind of love. In Hell, she is bound
forever to a shade without possibility of growth or change.
She could have chosen the love which leads to God and forms
eternal bonds with glory and perfection. But her love for
Paolo's beauty blinded her to the possibility of choosing love.

We should also look carefully at the excuse that Francesca
offers. It is naive but believable, In this first circle of sin, it
represents the first consent of the soul to sin. It is easy,
human, almost forgivable. Perhaps Dante is trying to
demonstrate how easy the first step into sin is. We are aware
of the consequences of the lovers' choice. But if we hadn't seen
them in Hell, we might not understand this step as a sin, as a
weakness of will, as a wrong choice of brief passion over
eternal glory.

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