Patrick Sheperd

Is Dante's version of Hell a representation of society as a whole? In other words, is it possible that he viewed our world as being just as disgusting and torturous as Hell?

Edward A simple "yes" would do some disservice to the poem, because it's more complicated than that. He's certainly criticizing the society he lived in, and with reason--he was exiled from his homeland, subject to several assassination attempts, and he watched a good many of his old friends and colleagues either get killed, suffer exile like himself, or betray their old comrades.

But also, you must keep in mind that the Inferno is one-third of a larger work, and that Dante saw fit to call the whole thing "the comedy." That's mostly in the old sense of "story with a happy ending" although there is some humor here and there, especially in the Inferno.

And keep in mind, also, that Dante ends the Comedy by having his narrator come back to earth and continue to live his life.

So. Always keeping in mind that Dante is approaching this as a story with a happy ending, his hell certainly is a representation of the society he lived in, and in particular it is a representation of the parts of society that he didn't particularly like. There are a few people whose names we only know because Dante put them in hell, in fact, and a few others who are known elsewhere in history as relatively decent people--but Dante didn't like them, so he stuck them in Inferno.

However, Dante's version of hell is MORE than just a representation of his what's wrong with society. He spends a lot of time asking us, as readers, to think about the very nature of justice. The word he uses is "contrapasso." The punishment fits the crime, symbolically.

Moreover this is a poem about repentance. Yes, evildoers suffer disgusting, torturous punishments in this poem, but several times Dante goes out of his way to say, in effect, "This is terrifying, but they DESERVE this. They're sinners, and they're NOT sorry." He shows us people in hell, yes, people in torment, yes. But when they talk to him, they almost always blame their predicaments on other people, or make some kind of excuse. They're in hell because they're incapable of repentance. And finally, he gets down to the ice field at the center of hell, and promises one of the damned that he'll break the ice off of his eyes if he talks. And then, after the shade DOES talk, Dante breaks his word and says, basically, "Showing kindness to the damned is evil, because everyone in hell deserves infinite suffering."

The difference is clearer when you read the Purgatorio, because then you encounter some other sinners, and they also are going through some really horrific torture. The difference is that they blame themselves. They say they're sorry for what they did in life to deserve their punishments.

As modern readers, this is all rather a hard pill for us to swallow. Eternal damnation is not a prominent fixture of modern Christian teaching.
Mukui That's an interesting theory, and can see where bits and pieces of that may be true. It's definitely possible that Dante meant to reflect the deepest sins of society, however I have a hard time reconciling the large part of the work to that notion.

For starters, the Shades clearly had earthly histories, the sins they committed for their own selfish gain is how they live their lives in hell. However, they are punished by being on the receiving end of their sin rather than on the giving end as they were on earth. There are also earthly characters in Purgatory and Paradise who, much like the Hellish Shades are in Purgatory/Paradise due to how they lived their lives.

There is hell on earth because we have either made it hell for ourselves (sins committed against nature and to ourselves), or made it hell for others (our sins committed against one another). By the same token do we make it heaven for ourselves and heaven for others.

I hope I've given a different perspective. As I stated it's an interesting notion. However, I think even Dante would say it's unfair to just focus on the Hell on earth and disregard the Heaven as well. The only proof I have of that is the existence of Purgatorio and Paradiso.
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