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Free Study Guide-The Divine Comedy-The Inferno by Dante Alighieri-Notes
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CANTO SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

CANTO III

Summary

The two poets reach the vestibule (entrance-hall) that leads to Hell. This inscription says that Hell is a creation of Divine Justice and all those who enter it are forever doomed to stay in it.

Virgil tells the pilgrim he must leave distrust and fear behind him. For now he will see souls who suffer because they didn't follow the ideal of "Supreme God" in their lives on earth. It is important for the reader to remember that the two poets aren't in Hell proper as yet but in the vestibule that leads to Hell.

As they advance, Dante hears many noises of souls expressing anguish. This grief, carried by these sounds, melts the Pilgrim's heart and he cries. The noises are so immense and continuos that the poet feels he is in the midst of a storm.

The pilgrim asks Virgil about these souls. Virgil tells him that these are people, who on earth, lived neutral lives. They sided neither with God nor with evil. They performed neither good acts nor evil acts. Among these are included those angels who supported neither God nor Lucifer when the latter revolted against God. All these souls are banned from Heaven and even denied entrance by Hell itself. They are considered even lower than sinners, who find a place in Hell.


The Pilgrim asks Virgil the reason for their anguish. Virgil tells him that these souls will not truly die but are doomed to exist in the most unenviable state. Their name does not live after them on earth. And Heaven denies them mercy. He advises the Pilgrim to stop discussing them and to just look upon them and move on.

The Pilgrim sees a banner in motion and following it are innumerable souls. He recognizes a few of them and starts to understand why they are denied and are being continuously stung by hornets and wasps. Their blood and tears fall to their feet where maggots form in the pus.

They move on and beyond these souls the pilgrim sees many people gathered at the shore of a river. Virgil informs him that the river is called Acheron. The pilgrim notices that the souls are very eager to cross the river. Beyond this river is Hell proper and the Acheron forms an entire circle around all of Hell.

Virgil stops further questions by telling the pilgrim that he will be told everything once they reach the shore of Acheron. The pilgrim is shamed into silence, fearing that he has spoken out of turn. He says nothing more till they reach the river

Once there, he sees a boat coming towards the shore. On the boat is an old man, with white hair. He addresses the souls on the shore and tells them to give up hope of ever seeing Heaven, for he is going to take them to the shores of Hell. The boatman recognizes the fact that the pilgrim is still alive. He tells the pilgrim to move away from the others. He prophesizes that the pilgrim will reach the destination by another way, carried there by another boat.

Virgil addresses Charon, the boatman, and tells the latter that the pilgrim is there because of God's will. This information silences Charon. The other souls, having heard their fate from Charon, curse their situation. At Charon's signal they climb the boat. The ones that lag behind are prompted to move by a blow from Charon's oar. One by one they all climb aboard the boat and are ferried to the other shore while this is happening s new group of soul starts collecting on the shore again.

Virgil tells the pilgrim that all those who earn God's anger gather on this shore. Divine Justice makes them eager to cross the river. It converts their fear into a desire to get to the other side. A good soul never has to cross this river that leads to Hell. Hence Charon assumes, at first, Dante the pilgrim to be a damned soul and includes him in the bitter words that he directs at the gathered souls.

When Virgil finishes this speech, the terrain around them starts to shake violently and this frightens the pilgrim. Then a wind starts blowing and takes on a red color. This wind knocks the pilgrim unconscious.

Notes

The two poets enter the vestibule that leads to Hell. The pilgrim reads the inscription above the gate. This describes Hell as a place of "eternal grief" for a "forsaken race" (sinners). It also explains how and why gate of Hell was created. Its creation was prompted by Justice. Justice acted upon the Trinity, as represented by Divine Omnipotence, Highest Wisdom, Primal love; and Trinity created these portals to Hell as a result.

The gates bear the warning "Abandon Every Hope, All You Who Enter". This is in accordance with the Christian view of Hell. Unrepentant sinners are the ones who are consigned to Hell after they die. And once a soul enters Hell it is doomed to stay there for Eternity. Such souls can never earn God's forgiveness and thus are forever bared from entering Purgatory and Paradise. When the pilgrim reads then he empathizes with the hopelessness of those souls who enter through these gates. Hence he describes them as "cruel". Perhaps he feels fear himself, as he is about to enter Hell. Virgil understands this and advises him to leave his fear behind and move on with trust (since God's grace is with him and he need have no fear). Virgil is very accurate in understanding what his protegee is feeling at a given moment. And thus he can ally the Pilgrim's fear and when necessary give him the needed encouragement.

Virgil explains that here they will encounter suffering souls "who lost the good of intellect". These souls during their lifetime were blind to God. They did not pursue the path of "Supreme Good" or God. Before proceeding the Roman poet his hand on the Pilgrim's to further reassure him.

The first impression the pilgrim has, when he enters the Vestibule of Hell, is of an auditory nature. He hears the cries of the souls suffering in this region. The noise is so overwhelming that he is reduced to tears. Sounds of anguish, anger, groans along with the sounds of hands made by these souls all have joined together and taken the form of a storm. The storm wind continuously whips in and around this region.

The pilgrim, surrounded by this horror, turns to his guide seeking an explanation. Virgil informs him that these are the souls, who during their lifetime held no convictions and were neutral in their actions. They performed no evil deeds but they didn't perform any good ones either. Also punished here are those angels who supported neither God nor Lucifer, when the latter rose against the former. They are rejected by Heaven and Hell alike. For even the sinners in Hell are considered better than such livings (human souls and angels) who had no loyalties anywhere (to good or evil). These being stood only for themselves, they had no other ideal or loyalty.

Virgil explains the nature of their punishment to ‘Dante the pilgrim’. They are even denied a true death (which involves going to Hell, Purgatory or Paradise). Instead of that they are doomed to this "blind life" where they have no identity, no purpose and which they can never escape. Virgil says that even in the world of the living their name will not be recorded. Since they stood for nothing and lived directionless lives, they are entirely forgotten. Heaven shuns them and Virgil tells the Pilgrim they do not merit discussion. The only thing to do is to look at them and move on.

The pilgrim observes them and notices that all these souls are running after a banner. This banner is in constant motion and the souls follow it wherever it goes. In "Inferno" divine retribution takes the form of Contrapasso ( a sin is punished by a process either similar to or contrasting with the sin itself). These souls are punished by a process contrasting with their sin. During their lifetime they were neutral and inactive, they had no "banner" (leader, ideal) to follow. So, now they have to rent for eternity after a banner. Moreover, wasps and hornets sting them. This contrasts sharply with the life they lived - untroubled and untouched by any care. Now their state has been made pathetic by this punishment. They drip blood and tears which gathers on the ground and breeds maggots.

The Pilgrim sees innumerable souls in this region and even recognizes a few. But these remained unnamed. The implication is clear - just as they've been forgotten on earth, they deserve no recognition in the region of the dead either. This assignment into oblivion is a pard of their punishment. One of these shades is referred to as the "coward who had made the great refusal". There are many hypotheses regarding the identity of this figure. The two most popular ones suggest Celestine V or Pontius Pilate. Celestine V was elected to become the pope. But in 1294, five months after the election, he renounced the papacy. However he resigned out of humility, he considered himself unfit to the task, not out of cowardice. Moreover he was canonized in 1313 and so it is possible that his refusal may have been taken as a pious act. Pontius Pilate seems to be more likely of the two candidates suggested by the various critics. Pontius Pilate had refused to pass sentence on Christ. His neutrality resulted in Christ being crucified.

Further on, the Pilgrim sees a river with a crowd of people gathered at its shore. They are all waiting eagerly to cross this river. Virgil tells him that it is the river Acheron and says the rust will be explained when they reach its shore. The pilgrim fears he has spoken out of turn and shame-stricken walks quietly towards the river. The two poets see a boat approaching the river's shore. And in the boat is an old man who is shouting curses at the souls gathered on the shore. He recognizes the pilgrim to be a living man and asks him to go away from there. He prophesizes that Dante will reach his salvation "by other ports", carried by a "lighter skiff". He means that the pilgrim will go to Purgatory and eventually to Paradise.

The boatman is Charon, who ferries the dead across the river into, Hell proper. Thus the river Acheron forms the outer boundary of Hell proper.

Charon refuses to carry the Pilgrim across the river because the latter is still alive. But Virgil intervenes to inform the boatsman that God himself has sanctioned the Pilgrim’s journey. This has the needed effect on Charon and he stops protesting.

The souls gathered on the shore are all naked and on hearing their fate from Charon (he is leading them into eternal punishment) they become afraid. They curse God and all of his creation and under Charon's fierce gaze they all climb aboard the boat. Charon ensures that every sinner is on board the boat. The readers have to assume that all the sinners in Inferno are naked. You except the Hypocrites in Canto XXIII all these souls are certainly unclothed. But only occasionally does Dante the poet point out this fact.

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