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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
~~ Structure in the Inferno ~~
An alert reading of these early cantos helps us identify an underlying unity that turns out to be a unity for the work as a whole. There's a repeating structure that guides what tends to happen in each circle the travelers pass through. It's not a boring, repetitive structure; there's plenty of variation, and along with the repeating elements, we encounter many unique ones that keep the work fresh and surprising. By becoming attuned to this underlying structure, we become more able to notice interesting, subtle changes or differences within it, and it's these small (and big) variations which often help us identify key developments in character and theme.
Sometimes the order of these elements will vary, but they comprise most of what happens in each circle.
Description of the area
The three beasts in the dark woods are the first infernal creatures Dante meets, even though he isn't actually in the inferno yet. Virgil saves him from the she-wolf, who threatens to tear him apart. They leave the woods and eventually encounter Charon, the ferryman who shuffles boatloads of the damned on their way into the inferno. He is the first demon within the inferno who threatens the travelers. Virgil, invoking the higher power, deflects him without much difficulty; the same is true when they meet Minos outside the second circle. Minos' serpentine tail whips in circles around his body as the victim stands waiting to see how many loops it will make: where the tail stops determines the circle to which the sinner will descend. In Greek myth Minos is the wise judge of Crete; Virgil borrows him to perform as judge in Hades in the Aeneid. Dante transforms him further, turning him into a monstrous kind of beaurocratic functionary, assigning God's justice with a machine-like efficiency. Cerberus is another creature from antiquity, guarding the third circle where the gluttonous are punished. Virgil throws clods of earth into Cerberus' three mouths to placate him and the travelers move on to their encounter with Ciacco, from Florence. Plutus is yet another creature the travelers encounter as they enter the fourth circle, where they find the hoarders and spenders; the canto begins with his half-meaningful, evocative gibberish and ends with the indecipherable "gargle" of the sullen, whose only speech are the silent bubbles that pock the surface of the slimy muck under which they're completely submerged. Virgil silences the blabbering Plutus with a powerful reminder that their journey "is no causeless trek. It is willed from above, where Michael wreaked revenge on pride's rebellion." We are treated to a vivid simile to describe the way Plutus shrivels to the ground at Virgil's words ("Just as sails swollen with wind as soon as the mast is snapped collapse and plunge"). It's a little ironic for Virgil to evoke the angel Michael (who defeated the fallen angels), because in the next canto the fallen angels are going to defeat him-also because of "pride." After Plutus, the travelers encounter Phlegyas at the beginning of the fifth circle. Virgil fends him off, saying only, "Phlegyas, Phlegyas, you roar in vain this time…You'll have us in your boat only as long as it takes to cross the fen." Notice Virgil invokes no higher power here. He seems to be getting a little over-confident in his own power. And notice how Phlegyas reacts; he feels cheated, like the "butt of gross deception." He lets them board, but he's "bursting to complain." When Virgil meets the terrifying fallen angels and the furies at the Gate to Dis, he is suddenly powerless. Can you guess why? Is there a reason?
IN CANTO IX, Virgil suddenly becomes unexpectedly powerless. Why?
**As Virgil is losing his edge, Dante is gaining one. He's becoming stronger. By the end of Canto VII, he's "gazing intently" at the sinners; he's not intimidated anymore. He's curious, and he seems to be over his tendency to swoon and faint.
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