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

Dante is very confused by Virgil's rejection at the gates of Dis
and asks, tactfully, whether Virgil actually knows what he is
doing. Virgil assures Dante that he has made the trip before.
Dante loses track of what Virgil is saying when he sees above
him the horrible shades of the Furies. The Furies, or the
Erinyes, were, in Greek mythology, the avenging goddesses
who haunted and tormented those who had committed great
crimes, particularly murder in the family. The sight of the
snake-haired beasts and the sounds of their shrieking make
Dante clutch Virgil in fright. They scream, "Fetch Medusa,"
the legendary Gorgon whose face turns men to stone. Because
Dante is still alive, he could literally be petrified by this sight.
Virgil cries instructions to Dante; he should turn and cover his
eyes. Not trusting Dante, Virgil places his own hands over
Dante's hands and eyes.



Thus blinded momentarily, Dante hears and feels what seems
to be an earthquake. Virgil bids him to look across the marsh.
Through the mist, Dante sees a Messenger of Heaven coming
forward. The angry messenger reaches the gate, opens it with
a touch and chastises the Fallen Angels for trying to prevent
what has already been ordained in Heaven. The messenger
leaves without speaking to Virgil or Dante. The poets enter the
gate and find themselves in a strange cemetery. The
tombstones are all upturned, and the graves are filled with fire.

NOTE: Again, reason, in the figure of Virgil, is not enough to
fulfill Dante's quest. As the two poets pass through this gate,
they are entering a deeper, more powerful realm of sin. The
sinners in the Nether Hell are not those souls who have a
weak will, little self-control, or a limited vision. The souls here
have actively chosen sin. They are violent and threatening to
Dante because that is the condition of the spirit of one who
chooses violence, destruction, and perversion. Dante must see
this condition of the spirit for what it is if he is ever to fully
understand sin, thus saving himself from it. Virgil is uncertain,
so, it will take everything Dante's got to make it through.

Most critics agree that the Furies are the image of fruitless
remorse that does not lead to repentance. Medusa can be seen
as the power of the irrational, which can freeze the free will
and even separate the will from reason. She can also be seen
as the image of the despair which hardens the heart, making
repentance impossible. Literally and symbolically these are
formidable adversaries.

The Divine Messenger steps in to assist reason (Virgil) in the
face of the irrational in much the same way that Virgil helps
Dante physically and intellectually in the places that are
tough going. Students should notice here that those inspired
by Heaven-Virgil, Beatrice, the Messenger-are very ready to
assist Dante's quest, while the sinners and those who are the
images of sin only inhibit Dante's progress and do damage to
each other. This motif will become even clearer as Dante
descends farther into Hell.

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