The Inferno

Author: Dante Alighieri, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (translator), Peter Bondanella (introduction)

Artist: Gustave Doré

Type: Fiction, poetry

Part of series: The Divine Comedy (#1)

Published: 968 (original), 2005 (Barnes & Noble Classics)

I read it: March 2008


So I finally read The Inferno. With epic scope and talent it wasn’t boring, but any book like this is a struggle when taken out of the classroom setting and left to its own presentation. Thankfully I read this good Barnes & Noble Classics version that had introductory segments and, more importantly, a thorough endnotes section that explains details and expounds upon Longfellow’s translation.

I can see why the series (of which Inferno is just the first part) is called The Divine Comedy. Dante’s description of hell and the punishments he places on sinners of his choosing are truly humorous. Not only is hell Dante-centric due to his arbitrary geography of it, but he describes the suffering state of people who lived in his lifetime, and some who hadn’t even died yet, including a pope. From farting demons to human souls stuck upside down in holes, the Inferno is a crazy and wondrous place. Oh, and at the center of the earth our main man Lucifer is surrounded by ice, not fire.

The Comedy of it all is highlighted by a discussion question at the back of the book: “Where would you place certain recent American public figures whom you consider sinners?” Indeed it is hard to avoid this thought when going through the endnotes that describe all the Italian characters Dante had sentenced to eternal damnation. But an even more revealing statement in the introduction by Peter Bondanella shows the true perverse pleasure of reading the poem: “It would not be difficult to compile a list of our acquaintances and colleagues and to place them in the appropriate places in Hell. More difficult, perhaps, would be a similar assignment of those we know to appropriate places in Purgatory or Paradise.”

That is the true fun of this classic work. Although Dante might have believed it really existed at earth’s core, we know hell is only a construction of our minds in which we arbitrarily place others because they committed sins that never existed in the first place.

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