West Chester University

Spring 2006 and Fall 2005

West Chester University

Fall 2004and
Spring 2005

Spring 2003

Fall 2002

Spring 2002

Fall 2001






Course Syllabi and Announcements
  LIT 165 Syllabus
  LIT 165 Announcements and Assignments
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  WRT 120 Announcements and Assignments

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2008)
  A Reading of THE TEMPEST

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
  Goals of the Course
  Fundamental Questions about Literature
  Valuing Literature
  Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Literature as ART
  Approaching the Art of Fiction
  Defining the Short Story
  Evaluating Short Fiction
  Craft of Fiction: PLOT
  Craft of Fiction: CHARACTER
  Small Group Exercise
  ARABY by James Joyce
  A note about GIRL
  POE and the art of STORY OF A HOUR
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Assignment Sheet for Paper #1
  Fiction and Ambiguity - Your Questions
  Writing Workshop - Short Fiction
  Poetry Journal Project Assignment Sheet
  Defining Poetry
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry
  Drama and Tragedy
  Study Questions: DEATH OF A SALESMAN

Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
  Paper #4 Assignment Sheet
  Critical Thinking and Commentary
  Casebook: Evaluating Sources Worksheet
  Selecting Information
  Evaluating Arguments
  CASEBOOK PROJECT Assignment Sheet
  Approaching Persuasive Writing
  Topic Development - Profile Essay
  Generating Ideas for the Profile Essay
  Paper #2 Assignment Sheet
  Profile Exercise
  Objective Writing: Selected Readings
  Writing Workshop: Paper #1
  Expressive Writing in the NYTimes
  Writing Effective Introductions and Conclusions
  Paper #1: IDENTITY
  Expressive Writing
  Open Letter Exercise and Examples
  EMERSON on Individuality vs. Conformity
  Literature related to IDENTITY
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'

Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Writing Assistance on the Web
  Blackboard at WCU
  WCU Homepage
  WCU's Francis Harvey Green Library

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
  One Last Look at Imaginary Worlds
  Franz Kafka's BEFORE THE LAW
  Paper #3: Assignment Sheet
  Paper #4: Independent Project
  The Problem of Stability in BRAVE NEW WORLD
  Analyzing Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD
  Defining Utopia
  Embarking on Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD
  A Reading of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST
  From today's news (11/3/05)
  Assignment Sheet for Paper #2
  Goodbye to Dante's Imaginary World
  Stepping Through Dante's Inferno: Cantos 10-34
  Stepping Through Dante's Inferno: Cantos 1-10
  INFERNO: Questions/Analysis: Cantos 32-34
  INFERNO: Questions/Analysis: Cantos 18-31
  INFERNO: Questions for Analysis: Cantos 12-17
  INFERNO: Structure
  INFERNO: Questions for Analysis: Cantos 1-5
  INFERNO: Analyzing Canto 1
  Relating to Dante's Inferno
  Approaching Dante's DIVINE COMEDY
  A Little Help with Dante's INFERNO
  Assignment Sheet for Paper #1
  Responses to LEAF BY NIGGLE
  ON FAIRY STORIES: An Essay by Tolkien
  Notes on Axolotl
  Reading Ovid's Tales
  From Myth to Literature: Approaching Ovid's Tales
  Functions of the Genesis Tales
  Analyzing Mythic Tales
  Defining Mythology
  Filtering the Introduction to FANTASTIC WORLDS
  Commentary on LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI by Keats
  Commentary on DARKNESS by Byron
  Handout: Imagination Poems Set
  What is Imagination?
  Our Course Theme: Imaginary Worlds
  LIT 165 Assignments: Fall 2005
  LIT 165 Announcements: Fall 2005
  Imaginary Worlds: Course Syllabus

Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
  Paper #4: Independent Thinking/Reading/Writing
  Casebook Preparation Checklist
  Casebook Assignment Schedule
  Evaluating Sources for the Casebook
  Casebook Project Assignment Sheet
  Notes on Rational Argument
  Assignment Sheet: Objective Writing
  Reviewing Elements of the Profile Essay
  Writing the Profile Essay
  Readings: Objective Writing
  Assignment Sheet: Expressive Writing
  Rubric for Evaluation of Writing
  Emerson on Individuality vs. Conformity
  Mind-map: Identity
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Assignments Page
  Announcements Page
  WRT 120 Course Syllabus for Fall 2005

ENG Q20: Basic Writing

Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Writing Assistance on the Web
  Blackboard at WCU
  WCU Homepage
  WCU's Francis Harvey Green Library

Lit 165: Imaginary Worlds
Stepping through Dante’s Inferno

Canto 1, 2
  • Dante escapes the dark wood (see the notes “INFERNO: Analyzing Canto I”) with Virgil’s help; he decides to go on this journey into the “eternal place”—out of time, out of mind—where he’ll witness the torment and despair of all those who’ve “lost the good of intellect.”  
  • He struggles with his choice; his weakness and confusion are not the only obstacles fear and doubt are also holding him back.  Virgil acts as a “persuader”—notice all the emphasis in these first two cantos on “choice”; no one is ordered to do anything—all action is chosen.  
  • The Virgin Mary (never named, only suggested) chooses to take pity on Dante because of his sweet love poetry—she sees the good in him; she persuades St. Lucia to get involved. (Her pity is appropriate, because pity is only appropriate for those who are alive and can be helped by it.  But pity has to lead to action; it can’t just sit idly by—that’s the mistake of the Neutrals in Canto III.)
    • St. Lucia persuades Beatrice to get involved
    • Beatrice persuades Virgil to get involved
    • Virgil persuades Dante (inspires him really) to get over his fear, to have some courage and make the journey.  
    • Dante decides to go; but then at the start of Canto 2 he “unchooses his own choice/and thinking again undoes what he has started,/so I became; a nullifying unease overcame my soul”
    • Virgil had persuaded Dante to go but Dante is really weak and lost and hesitant; he rides an emotional rollercoaster in these first few cantos, he seems ruled by negative emotions like fear and despair.  They’re in danger of consuming him.
  • At the start of Canto II, Dante the Poet (the narrator) addresses the muses by calling on the “genius” of art and of memory; but think about that: what’s this story going to be—truth or fiction?  A fictional tale artistically told, or the revelation of true experience?  What’s the difference?  Are art and memory different or the same?  Is Dante calling on his muse to help him express what he “remembers” more than what he’s inventing (“art”) because this text, this poem is “revelation” and not “imagination” (literature, an epic poem)?  Is Dante writing a mystical, mythic text or a literary text?  The question is raised about the difference between the two.  What’s the difference between an author’s (or mine, or your) individual “vision of truth” in a dream, in a flash of insight, in a sudden epiphany, and a “revelation”?  Is there really any difference at all, except what the teller and the listener choose to believe about it?  There are several interesting places in this poem (at the end of Canto XVI, for instance)  where Dante explores that line between “truth” and “fiction” and arrives at a profound understanding of “literary truth.”  What does it mean to say that a work of literature is true, when we know it has the “face of lies” (XVI.108)?
  • At the beginning of Canto II (line 5), we’re introduced to the “strife of pity” theme—Dante’s struggle with pity.  This is one of the major conflicts explored in the book—this is the WAR, the inner battle that will ensue when Dante has to face the unrelenting pain of “divine justice.”  He has to learn to appreciate that the painful punishments are deserved, and this means learning about the nature of evil in all its guises—in others but also in himself, because if you can’t understand a thing, you’ll never in a million years be able to transcend it.  To say he has to “lose his pity” for the sinners in the inferno sounds terrible at first.  It sounds inhuman, unsympathetic, uncompassionate!  But if you look at it another way, it also can mean to lose self-pity, which is the up-side.  When you lose self-pity, you’re accepting responsibility.  You’re holding others responsible and you’re holding yourself responsible.  Accountability replaces pity.  Which do you ultimately prefer?  You may think you want pity for your suffering, but if pity prevents you from taking responsibility and making better choices, which would you prefer?
  • Canto II characterizes Dante in various ways.  We’ve already seen some of his down-side; he’s lost, confused, weak, wishy-washy—we’ve already seen that line where he “unchooses his choice” and stands there paralyzed.  But he’s also humble.  He has humility instead of pride.  Virgil, by contrast, is a victim of pride a lot.  But also, by comparing himself to Aeneas and St. Paul, he’s cuing his readers to recall those other vivid trips to the underworld.  This will be a lot like those; but Dante will give it his own personal twist, don’t worry.
  • Fear is an emotion that’s explored in these first several cantos; it’s shown to be both a positive and negative emotion.  On the negative side, fear is one of those primitive, powerful animalistic emotions, an instinct that can threaten to control you if you don’t respond with some kind of noble emotion like “courage.”  Virgil calls Dante a coward, and compares him to a “shying beast.”  So on the negative side, fear can make us behave primitively; but on the positive side, there’s the “fear of God” which motivates us to act morally and which is a form of grace.  Fear is also a positive form of energy that compels Dante to want to get out of the dark wood.  Without fear he may have rotted there.  Virgil counteracts Dante’s fear with LOVE, a more powerful, noble, Godly emotion….  He inspires Dante by demonstrating how the three ladies in heaven all love him enough to be concerned about his welfare.  The presence of LOVE makes Dante (figuratively, in a simile) “bloom,”  it gives him renewed  courage and strength.  It’s like a steroid shot right to his veins.  Beatrice is Dante’s great love; to know that she loves him too is more powerful than fear.  
  • Beatrice is part of the chain of persuasion, as we noted before. But one other thing she says is noteworthy, too.  She says that her friend Dante is “no friend of fortune.” Disregard for a minute that “fortune” is personified, and this personified fortune has it in for Dante.  The message is that good fortune or bad fortune can’t begin to compare to the kind of heavenly help that the three ladies represent.  Who needs fortune when you have all of these angelic spirits taking care of you?  Who needs things to work out well here on this finite earth (fame and fortune) when heaven is eternal and favors you with good odds, 3 to 1?  Dante’s confusion stems partly from his wrong orientation, remember—he has his priorities all wrong.  But how many of us are just like Dante, defining our happiness by how “fortunate” we are—by how much we have or don’t have, whether that’s riches or respect?  When Dante learns (later) to disregard his “bad fortune”—he has his future told and finds out it’s all going downhill—he’s really made some spiritual progress.  When he accepts his “fortune” for whatever it is and doesn’t care, that’s really another way of saying he accepts his “fate” (because fortune and fate are almost synonymous in this context).  I may not control fate, but I control my reaction to it.  I’m in charge of how I respond, and I can respond with courage, faith, and fortitude rather than fear and despair.
  • The effect is that Dante is persuaded; he’s inspired to move on.  He expresses this through a simile; but notice how he’s still emphasizing his freedom.  He’s blossoming like one “set free.”
  • Dante tells Virgil that he’ll be the student and Virgil will be the teacher; he the pupil, Virgil the master, and that they’ll “share one will.”  Sounds like a good intention, but is it possible?  But the relationship is rocky, as we’ll see.  Is it possible for a teacher and a student to “share one will”?  
  • One psychological truth we’re left with when we consider the events so far: fear inhibits freedom.  It’s courage that sets us free, giving us the ability to fight through the paralysis of fear and take meaningful action.  But where does that courage come from?  In Dante’s case it comes from outside himself, from others who he imagines care about him, who are fighting for him, who want to save him.  When others believe in us, we become that much more powerful.  Without that kind of support, we are apt to feel inadequate or foolish.  But when others believe in us, we begin to believe in ourselves.  Dante is imagining the dead Beatrice alive again in heaven, a Beatrice who cares about him; and his hero, Virgil, also imagined, seems to think he’s worthy, too, so off he goes.  So even when there’s no one really there, as there was no one really there for Dante in exile, there’s still the power of the imagination.  Never underestimate it!

Canto 3
  • Begins with the inscription.  Analyze it—it’s interesting what there.
  • The worst places in the Inferno are in a “city”—a “city of woe.”  Why is the image of the city an appropriate one for a place that punishes people?  The city is a place of human habitation.  It’s a human place.  These are human sins, human sinners.  The only right environment would be a city.  
  • The goal of the Inferno is JUSTICE.  That’s what fulfilled here.  The abstract concept of “justice” is a strictly human invention, a human aspiration.  We seek it and we crave it, especially when we’ve been the victims of “injustice.”  What is that need for justice that we have?  Why can’t we be satisfied with the “law of the jungle”—where the weak are devoured by the strong and that’s that?  The need for justice is an expression of our need for order and meaning.  What’s the meaning of the weak being devoured by the strong?  It’s brutal, brutish, animalistic—suitable for animals but not for us because we’re creatures of reason as much as we are creatures of muscle.  The only way to create justice is to exercise not muscle, then, but reason; to exercise wisdom (and a shot of love doesn’t hurt).  Real justice only exists outside of time, in the realm of the imagination, of myth.  Real justice is a myth.  It doesn’t exist anywhere, so to enjoy it, to feel the warmth of it, we have to create it ourselves, which is what Dante does in this book—and that is what the inscription helps him declare.  “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Famous words.  What do they mean?  Real Hell, the perfect justice of hell, is the total removal of hope.  When you are in a place of no hope, you are in Dante’s inferno.  
  • The journey begins at a portal, a gate.  The gate motif runs through the book (and through literature in general!)—the many gates that the travelers pass through help us mark where they are, help us understand their passage.  Sometimes they run into difficulties passing through the many gates they encounter, and these are usually the more dramatic scenes in the work.
  • The people in hell have no hope; they’ve “lost the good of intellect”—which means they’ve lost all ability to reason; they’ve lost all sense of what’s true, reasonable, rational, intelligent, sane, humane.  They’re “animals” in that sense; they’re able to retain their inward and outward wits (the 10 senses) but these are just used against them, to increase their suffering.
  • Virgil is a patient teacher…Q +A session goes well.  Virgil compassionately takes Dante by the hand to try to lead him, but Dante breaks down weeping as soon as he hears the cries.  This develops his character (he’s emotional, sympathetic) and he’s confused, placing his pity where it doesn’t belong.  He’s battling his pity from the start.
  • Dante’s graphic description is in strong evidence as this canto gets underway.  In this passage it’s sound.  Sound embodies emotion so vividly and Dante uses this to get us to feel the scene and not just understand it.  
  • Our first introduction to Dante’s system of “contrapasso”:
Contrapasso is Dante’s system of punishment in which the punishment poetically suits crime.  The punishments reflect the crime, sometimes by being extremely similar in nature to the crime, but sometimes because they are mirror images.

The Neutrals: In life they never took sides; they never took a stand.  They only wanted to sit on the fence, be invisible, look out for number one instead of looking out for doing what’s right.  As a result they are spending eternity chasing a meaningless “whirling banner” in circles.  Not only that but they are continually swarmed by stinging wasps and flies, their blood, sweat and tears providing a “harvest” for maggots underfoot.  Nice!  

Paolo and Francesca: 
While alive they succumbed to their uncontrolled passion for one another, their adulterous lust. Their sin was illicit sex, and so they’re spending eternity having gained the very thing they sought in life, locked in that most intimate embrace eternally without pause or relief, blown about by the hurricane winds that represent the winds of passion which tossed them about in life.  All they wanted was to be together and now they’re together.  

Count Ugolino: 
This is one of the more gruesome characters we meet towards the end of the book.  On the way into the 9th circle, Dante finds “Count Ugolino straddling his former friend and co-conspirator, whose brain he now and then rips into with his teeth. After all, it was this particular friend who betrayed, arrested and then starved him, along with his sons, to death.  Ugolino ate his children to survive just a short while longer. Now he tells Dante, “I am the perfect contrapasso.” And it’s hard to argue with him.

 At the bottom of the pit, in the very center of the Inferno, the King of Hell is himself a contrapasso, spouting three heads that contrast his former glory as a majestic angel representing all of heaven's cardinal virtues: Love, Divine Omnipotence, and Wisdom.
 His battle with God has left him the mirror image of his former self.  His hairy, frozen body is covered in scales instead of feathered wings, his three heads (one red for Hatred, one yellow for Impotence, and one black for Ignorance) contrast the three highest virtues of heaven.

  • But here in Canto III, the Neutrals’ contrapasso is the first that Dante witnesses.  He hears their incredible agony (the graphic wailing music that assails his ears when he steps through the Gate are the cries of the Neutrals, the nobodies, the nameless, faceless multitudes who just conformed without giving their conformity an ounce of real thought). They went along because that was the easiest thing to do; even when they knew what they were doing might be wrong, they did it anyway, because it was easier. Their only  real goal in life was to be invisible, to sit on the fence and never declare sides, never stand out.  Now they really are identityless; Virgil explains that all memory of them is extinguished.  The world is completely deaf to their cries.  (Though he’s wrong, because Dante hasn’t been deaf.) Virgil urges Dante to ignore them.  To move along and leave them.  But Dante is too fascinated to immediately move on, and he notices that they are being punished. they are spending eternity chasing that meaningless “whirling banner” in circles, going nowhere.  The wasps and flies and the maggots continually prick them.
  • Why are the Neutrals so guilty?  What are they guilty of?  Why is it such a “sin” to refrain from taking sides?  Why these harsh (medieval) punishments?  What if there weren’t a side to take?  What if both sides had good points, or both sides were wrong, or they were equally right?  Dante insists that you can’t live in a morally relative world; you can’t close the shutters and stay out of the fray.  You have to decide on right and wrong.  In this world that’s absolute and consequential and meaningful, there is always a right and a wrong and it’s every person’s responsibility to define what that is.  The opposite would be to remain complacent or, worse, paralyzed with indecision, or worse yet, hunkered down in a self-serving, blasé relativism.  To know what’s right and what’s wrong and to hide behind relativism, to “play it safe,” would be a sign of great moral and spiritual and intellectual and psychological cowardice.  To rationalize doing the wrong thing is a form of cowardice, too.  Punishable by wasp and maggot.  If your conscience never pricked you hard enough while you were alive, then here’s a few pricks to welcome you to eternity.
  • A scene in the teacher/pupil drama:  around line 63 (p. 21, bottom), Virgil tells Dante to stop asking questions and observe.  If he’s going to learn anything, he has to look for himself and not always expect things to explained to him.  
  • Elsewhere we noted how in the structure of the work, Virgil frequently moves to protect Dante from the various demons and monsters that threaten him along their journey.  These are simple scenes on the surface, but beneath the surface everywhere in this book one cares to look, there is more going on than meets the eye, more levels of meaning to explore.  For instance, when Virgil moves to protect Dante from Charon (who looks pretty demonic with his “grizzled jaws” and the “red wheels of flame” circling his eyes) he invokes the higher power and says “Charon, do not rage:/ Thus is it willed where everything may be /Simply if it is willed” (lines 77-79).  That’s a fancy way of saying, “you are powerless, move over and stop wasting our time.”  But this fancy way has a very subtle message sitting there like a little mental time bomb between the lines.  Perhaps without intending to, though Dante the Poet certainly intends us to discover it, Virgil is expressing the significant difference between divine will and human “free will.”  Human will, guided by reason, may intend whatever noble thing it pleases, but it’s pathetically corruptible, vulnerable to an overthrow at any moment by the force of powerful emotional drives we lose control over.  The Divine will, by contrast, as Virgil tells us here, is carried out as simply as it is willed; there is no struggle at all.  There are no energies of the body to suppress; there’s just pure, simple will followed by right, reasonable action.  We can aspire, can’t we?
  • Dante uses one of his vivid similes to describe the souls flocking to Charon’s boat.  He’s struggling to understand why they seem so eager to get to the Inferno.  What makes this simile so powerful?  It is really evocative because in addition to being graphic and vivid, it underscores the work’s theme that that sinners in the Inferno are substandard human beasts (who’ve lost the good of intellect, remember).  The image of the souls falling like leaves, inevitably that is, into Charon’s boat comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, but Dante deepens it, enriches it, gives the pagan source its new Christian spin.  Here in Dante the “fallen leaves” are connected to Adam’s “fall” to earth from Paradise. These are fallen souls, “Adam’s evil seed.” They are transformed, devolved, into plant life with vegetable soul in this image—and accordingly, their movement is involuntary, the result of someone else’s will, not their own.  The falcon image emphasizes another devolution to animal soul—a little higher than a plant, but still no free will of their own; these are “trained falcons” responding to their master’s command.  
  • When Dante recalls how the ground began to shake violently, he shudders to remember it.  Dante the Poet has the full benefit of the full experience behind him; he’s got the fear of God and the proper respect—he’s the one shuddering and shaking just remembering it.  Meanwhile Dante the Pilgrim is, at this point in the journey, literally and figuratively “all shook up.”  As the earth shakes him good, he faints away, “as though seized by sleep”—but it’s not “sleep,” it’s shock and awe.  He shuts down.

Canto 4 … Circle 1, Limbo
  • When Dante “wakes up” at the start of this canto, does that seem at all connected to the his waking up from sleep in first canto?  Is there any sign of progression?  This time he’s “startled” from sleep, awoken “as though by force” by a loud peal of thunder. It’s not by force, though.  Any significance to that?  Is there any significance to his “rested eyes”?
  • He’s in Limbo, the eternal “waiting room” for the virtuous but unbaptized, which includes all of those unfortunate to have been born and died before the birth of Christ and so, though they may be good people, missed out on salvation by being born too early (oh well!)—and also babies who weren’t yet baptized before dying.  The souls in Limbo are not “punished”—their only punishment is that they know they’ll never leave and they’ll never see God or paradise.
  • Virgil tells him they’re going to descend into the “sightless zone”—the sightlessness is a kind of non-enlightenment, an anti-enlightenment.  These are the people who have refused or who have been denied sight of God. It’s not a painful place, just a hopeless one.
  • Dante misreads Virgil, which seems to tick him off a little.  But notice how Dante mistakes and confuses the two tragic emotions (according to Aristotle) of pity and fear.  They have the same countenance, ironically.  What is pity looks like fear.  But it is pity.  Worse it is self-pity. Virgil’s self-pity and his lack of fear pretty much demonstrate his appropriateness for Limbo, which he implicitly challenges because he doesn’t have the self-awareness to see this himself.  Dante the Poet sees it clearly enough to present Virgil in an unflattering ironic light, however; remember, he’s instructed Dante to leave all pity at the gate, and here he is the grips of self-pity.   
  • Although he understands it all now, at the time it was devastating to discover that the great Virgil, his hero, should have to suffer so.  He carefully floats the question: is this fair?  Virgil describes Jesus’ harrowing of hell (without naming names) and leaves it at that.  I guess it’s fair, he seems to say, but I wasn’t taken up, so I’m really not so sure.  You decide for yourself.
  • Dante goes on to welcome himself into the circle of great poets, who with aspects “neither sad nor joyful” all embody, even in Limbo, rational soul.  They represent the control of emotion by reason.
  • This area gives Dante the opportunity (p. 33) to provide his readers with an extensive reading list, a detailed bibliography.  I know all of these guys, he tells you, so if you want to keep up, you’d better know them, too.

Canto 5 … Circle 2, Lust
  • Another gate signals we’re moving to a new level, another area.  This is the first real place of punishment, not counting the Neutrals, who were outside the entrance.
  • At this Gate, Minos acts as “examiner”; he’s the functionary, the “judge” who is forced into the role of “connoisseur of sin.”  He’s, I think, the closest Dante can come to representing something that seems a little ahead of his time: the machine.  Not that there weren’t medieval machines, but this one functions without error.  It’s notable that this is how Dante represents the “judge” (the gatekeeper of justice)—in a system of perfect justice, you have to have judges who are flawless.  It’s an important position.  This is the gatekeeper for the whole system.  If Minos makes a mistake, justice is no longer perfect, no longer served.  To Dante’s world (of corrupt judges)?  To our own world (of corrupt, or inadequate, judges)?  In this system there’s no fuzzy interpretation, no human error.  Minos just gets it right every time.  I find it a little ironic to see justice dispensed in so machinelike a fashion.  Would we want this or not?
  • Virgil dispenses with Minos’ threat easily, almost off-handedly.  Contrast this to his difficulty in Canto 8 and 9.  Why is it so easy here and so difficult there?  [The answer to that is traced elsewhere, in the “Structure” notes.]
  • More graphic auditory description greets us in lines 23-34.  Anti-harmony evokes the misery of the atmosphere; and Dante uses synethsesia—the mixing of sensory descriptions (i.e. “I am where/All light is mute”) to achieve some interesting effects.  The mute light is followed by the bellowing ocean…but in other respects his description is straightforward and realistic, designed to make you feel like this place really exists and you are right there.  The hurricane winds are described as rending, twisting, tormenting—pretty realistic.
  • The carnal sinners’ contrapasso: those swept by the figurative winds of passion (“their reason mastered by desire”) are doomed to be tossed in these literal winds for eternity.  Seemingly, it’s not the sex itself that’s being punished here; just the fact that it was so out of control, out of bounds.
  • Semiramis changed the law to suit her needs (very much the same way the Republican controlled Congress changed the law in an attempt to keep Tom Delay from being indicted, but it didn’t work—he was indicted anyway.)
  • Dido betrayed her husband’s memory; tried to keep Aeneas from founding Rome
  • Cleopatra’s wantonness made her a “slut”
  • Helen’s lust for Paris sparked evil war
  • On down the line to the courtly love poets who wrote the medieval romances
  • Dante can’t take this too well.  He was love poet himself.  He takes pity on all these figures of passion and romance.  But notice how Dante the Poet emphasizes that at this point Dante the Pilgrim is lost in pity’s “coils” which is highly connotative.  The serpent of pity?  The labyrinth of pity?  The tempter that is pity?
  • Listening to Francesca, you’d think she was completely innocent of anything.  Her speech is masterful sophistry, persuading Dante despite himself.  The whole speech is self-serving; she makes excuses for herself, subtly suggesting it was all Paolo’s fault.  The buck-passing could be the Garden of Eden all over again, where Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent.  
  • •    Dante is overwhelmed with guilt and pity; he swoons once again—he feels himself go slack, an interesting choice of words, since it could have moral overtones; he’s overcome by spiritual slackness as well as physical slackness.  This time he swoons less like one who sleeps and more like a “dying body.”
  • •    This scene represents one of the book’s mini-climaxes: in his struggle to understand “divine justice, Dante swoons.  He has a long way to go.
  • •    Readers interpret this scene, one of the most famous scenes in the book, and very widely depicted in paintings from many parts of Europe, in different ways.  Some interpret the scene as Dante’s sympathy for passionate love.  The scene demonstrates that true love never dies, that it survives even in Hell, and that that “moral lesson” about the sin of lust is overwhelmed by the humanity of the lovers.  Others see Dante cleverly demonstrating how seductive and dangerous Francesca really is.  She equates lust with love…how could she?  Then there’s Paolo.  Why is he silent?  Was he the seducer or the victim in all this? All he can do is weep.  It’s interesting to note that in the translation of Lancelot that Dante’s readers would have known, it is Guinevere who initiates the kiss—it’s Guinevere who kisses Lancelot, not the other way around as Francesca tells it (Lancelot kisses Guinevere; Paolo kisses her).  Francesca even blames the author of the book—anyone but herself.  This is Dante’s indictment of her: she refuses to accept responsibility for her own actions.

Cantos 6,7,8
  • The measure of any great work of art is the way it masters form; the structure of a great work of art can be as impressive as its content.  We’ve noted how the structure of the Inferno follows certain patterns, that certain things repeat.  In each circle Dante meets a demon who has to be fended off; there’s a description of the area; there’s the description of the contrapasso; there’s the interaction with the sinners; there’s a transition to the next canto.  But Dante does not bore us with repetitiveness.  He adds variety to this structure while preserving its essential characteristics.  While we’re enjoying the variation, we’re still perceiving the underlying unity of form.  The result is something that resembles the “theme and variations” forms produced by musicians like Hayden, Mozart, and Beethoven.
  • When Virgil assures Dante that Plutus is no real obstacle at the beginning of Canto 7 (p. 53), that’s a subtle change, but it foreshadows another subtle change; Virgil prevents Dante’s request to speak to the Hoarders and Wasters in this circle.  The emphasis is shifting slightly to Virgil’s lesson about “Fortune” (from Aristotle) (lines 70-96).  The arrangement is further varied by the inclusion of sinners and contrapasso (still no intervention) before the transition which brings us to the tower of Dis.
  • In Canto 8, the subtle imbalance in the formal structure continues, yet the elements are still the same, just shuffled.  There’s still the transition to the new area; the demon Phylegas is encountered and rebuked; Dante interacts with Fillipo Argenti.  But there are interesting variations to notice.  This is the first time Dante expresses no pity for the sinner he meets.  On the contrary, he things the punishment should be tougher.  Virgil gives him the equivalent of a big high-five for this progression.  Also, for the first time, Virgil takes an active role in the discussion, speaking directly to both Dante and Argenti.  When Virgil praises Dante for his reaction to Argenti, this takes the place of the “strife of pity” conflict we’ve been seeing—and it represents a progression in that conflict.  The major alteration comes when not one but many demons (a thousand!) appear to block their way.  When the fallen angels threaten the travelers, Dante and Virgil, for the first time are stopped.  For the first time, Virgil seems has to leave Dante alone to parlay.  It’s a crisis point.
  • It’s at this crisis point when Dante makes his first address to the reader.  These addresses are rare and when they appear they are usually significant.  Here Dante merely asks the reader to imagine how terrified he was, how he immediately lost all faith in his guide and their journey.  In this state, he turns to Virgil looking for protection, begging him to stay by his side, showing how he can be turned around.  Virgil’s reply is ironic considering the action that follows!  He promises never to leave him, then he leaves him. You can imagine Dante was not pleased; he was left in a state of fear and doubt, with “yes and no vying in his head”—what was the question he was asking himself, do you think?
  • That Virgil loses is significant.  The fallen angels have blocked their way.  This is a difficult crisis for both teacher and pupil.  Virgil is shaken but determined as he tries to reassure Dante.  Unfortunately, he is also overly proud, declaring that he will “conquer this crew.” 
  • Notice how in this canto the emphasis has fully shifted from the sinners to the demons in charge of the sinners.  The demons have become as primary a focus as the sinners.  Also, Dante’s growing strength in the battle against pity (his encounter with Argenti) is counterbalanced by Virgil’s diminished strength in rebuking the demons.  The allegorical message behind this becomes clearer in Canto 9.  But notice how Dante uses the structure of the work to become a vehicle for meaning.

Canto 9
  • This is one of the major climaxes of the work. The journey has been stopped completely.  The focus on sinners has given way to focus on the demons.  More demons are introduced: the Furies, who are worse than the fallen angels.  When they threaten, Virgil again moves to protect Dante.
  • At the climax of fear and despair, Dante addresses the reader directly once again: “O you whose mind is clear:/Understand well the lesson that underlies/The veil of these strange verses I have written”  (lines 61-63).  What’s Dante getting at here?  Why this injunction to “figure it out”?  We’re invited to unravel the allegory; Dante wants us to get beyond the narrative action to its meaning: have faith, and don’t be proud; this is the result.
  • The anonymous messenger from Heaven that blows the enemy away with tornado force is pretty dramatic!  This was beyond Virgil’s power, beyond the power of Reason.  Divine intervention was necessary…and the force of Dante’s poetry rises to the task of describing this supernatural power that sweeps the threat cleanly away.  Notice the vivid simile on p. 73 (top)—the demons scatter like so many frogs jumping into a pond. 
  • The Messenger lectures the demons about trying to twart “fate”—it can’t be done.  You can almost hear Dante lecturing himself here about accepting his bad fortune as an exile.  It’s human nature to “butt against fate” because we have free will, but here in the inferno, the sinners have forfeited all of that.  Once you give up your humanity, the Divine Will takes over, there is no free will.  Divine Will is master in the afterlife.
  • The canto takes into the city of Dis, where we meet the heretics, and the structure begins again, with a description of the area, interaction with the sinners, etc.  In Canto 10, Dante meets Farinata, one of the Inferno’s more infamous, unforgettable characters.

Canto 10
  • Virgil has been demoralized by his failure before the gate of Dis; Dante isn’t too happy with him either.  At the beginning of this canto, Dante is really sarcastic as when he addresses Virgil, “O matchless power.. who lead me through evil’s circles at your will...” There’s a serious rift between them; Dante flatters him ironically, sarcastically; they are both being dishonest with one another. Virgil is literally and physically pushing Dante around at the beginning of the canto.  What will restore them?  The interaction with Farinata in Circle 6, the Heretics, seems to smooth the ruffled feathers. 
  • Francesca was the challenge to understanding and judgment in Canto 5, and Farinata poses the same kind of challenge here.  Farinata is a heretic (a follower of Epicurus), and worse, a leader of heretics; Virgil explains the sin, but we have to see it in action to really understand its nature and its contrapasso.  The open tomb recalls Christ’s escape from death; these sinners, who denied the importance of death by denying the existence of life after death, are trapped in that which they should have escaped (contrapasso). 
  • His chest swells with pride (p. 79)—the political warrior whose will to power kills a lot of innocent people
  • He’s more concerned with life on earth, still (the earthly fate of his descendants)
  • He’s stubborn, “stiff-necked” both intellectually and in his demeanor; this destroys him.  He despised Hell (and God) in life so he must despise them in death; he can’t repent
  • Farinata’s conversation with Dante is about Florentine history and politics.  Dante is led into a discussion that, veiled in courtesy, is really combat.  Dante almost lets his patriotism degenerate into political factionalism, the same as his concept of love was challenged by Francesca’s description of lust in Canto 5.
  • Farinata recognizes Dante’s speech as “courteous”—they meet as sophisticated gentlemen…

Canto 11
  • A static canto; much is explained about the layout of the land, what’s to come; the intriguing medieval philosophy behind it all…






Questions? Contact me.

All materials unless otherwise indicated are copyright © 2001-2008 by Stacy Tartar Esch.

The original contents of this site may not be reproduced, republished, reused, or retransmitted
without the express written consent of Stacy Tartar Esch.
These contents are for educational purposes only.