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Sin And Punishment In Divine Comedy Essay, Research Paper

From the beginning of human history there have always been sinners, and people tried to give just punishments to them. It has always been a major issue whether or not the penalties for the criminals are just because unfair punishment can ruin somebody s life. It can also bring disasters to the society if criminals do not learn any lessons from the penalties. Dante s Inferno in the Divine Comedy suggests clear thoughts on the appropriate punishments for a variety of sins. Dante s ideas influenced not only other writers, but society s concept of sin and punishment as well. Dante describes images of hell and scenes in which sinners are being punished fairly. He puts himself in the story as a traveler of hell, and Virgil guides him. In Dante’s Hell, sinners are punished in a way that reflects what they did wrong while they were alive. All of the punishments that Dante sees are symbolic retributions; they either are similar to the sin committed or they are its opposite. These symbolic punishments not only help us visualize, but also amplify the meanings of all kinds of sins and punishments.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante uses symbolism in virtually every scene. These symbols aid readers in understanding his tale. For example, he makes hell into a cone and divides it into nine descending circles that get smaller as they approach the central point of the earth: So I descended from the first enclosure down to the second circle, that which girdles less space but grief more great (V. 1). Dante uses a circular image to represent hell to reflect the repetitive of sin. When a person commits a crime, if he or she understood what they did and do not commit the crime again, it can be counted as a mistake and it can be excused. However, people will get punished if they sin repeatedly. Another example of Dante s use of symbolism is that he and Virgil always walk around the circles from left to right. In doing so, he tries to amplify the meaning of hell. In Dante s time, people thought that the right stands for good, heaven and other positive things; on the other hand, they considered left as evil, bad, hellish. Dante also uses real characters to aid the readers understanding of the sins and punishments he describes.

Dante uses symbols to explain the penalties for each circle. These symbols are categorized in two ways: some directly reflect sins that the residences of each circle commit. In first circle, Limbo, there are virtuous non-Christians who were never baptized or were born before Christ. In this circle, people did not do anything wrong. The only thing for which they can be blamed is that they did not know Jesus Christ. That is why there is no agony, no guard, and no punishment: there was no outcry louder than the sighs that causes the everlasting air to tremble. The sighs arose from sorrow without torments (IV. 27).

In the second circle, Dante the pilgrim observes real sinners. In this circle of the lustful, Minos guards the place. He is the beast judge of Dante’s Hell. In mythology, Minos was a wise, though stubborn judge, but Dante twists his form into the shape of a bull. He now has a tail, which he uses to judge the sinners. Sinners entering hell appear before Minos, tell him what they have done, and he assigns them their proper place in one of Hell’s circles by the number of times he winds his long tail around his body. People in the second ring committed love related sins. Cleopatra is there and Helen of Troy as well. Sinners in this circle are punished by being whirled around forever in a gale: The hellish hurricane, which never rests, drives on the spirits with its violence: wheeling and pounding, it harasses them (V. 31). This punishment stands for the passion of love. When somebody is in love, that person loses control, just like when a hurricane comes. He or she does not care about anything preventing their love, just as a hurricane does not what it destroys.

The next circle contains the gluttonous, and is guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed Hellhound. Dante represents sinners in this circle by using a dog figure. Usually dogs get greedy before their meal, and they can even get angry when somebody tries to spare their food. Dante compares the gluttonous sinners to ironically, just as a dog that barks with greedy hunger (VI. 28). A greedy hound punishes these sinners. It seems that Dante uses the ancient philosophy of punishment: an eye for an eye. The sinners here wallow in the mud while a constant torrential downpour of rain, sleet, and snow falls on them. Their wallowing in the mud represents the living conditions of greedy animals such as pigs while the constant heavy downpour suggests endless.

Not all sinners punishments reflect their sins; some punishments are the opposite of the crimes committed. In the second and third pouches of the eighth circle where the panderers, seducers, and flatterers are, Dante creates a more realistic punishment. He even describes flatterers with humor. Dante locates flatterers in a ditch that is filled with dung: This was the place we reached; the ditch beneath held people plunged in excrement that seemed as if it had been poured from human privies (XVIII. 112). As they struggle not to drawn into the dung, Dante and Virgil heard them as they snorted with their snouts; we heard them use their palms to beat themselves, and exhalations, rising from below, stuck to the banks, encrusting them with mold, and so waged war against both eyes and nose. (XVIII. 104). Usually flatterers use all sweetness. However, in this place, exactly opposite image is used. Flatterers are confined in the most dirty and disgusting place of all and they flounder to escape. The images that Dante uses here oppose their worldly existence to that of flatterers: I saw one with a head so smeared with shit who scratches at herself with shit-filled nails (XVIII. 131).

In eighth circle, third pouch, Simonists receive their punishment. These are the people who buy church offices with their wealth, the people that ought to be the brides of righteousness (XIX. 3). Church officials should not buy their office or be bought by people, but rather chosen by God like Jesus Christ. However, these people merchandized the divine authority. So now they are buried upside down, the reverse image of Jesus crucified on the cross. Also, in Jesus time, washing the feet was one way of respecting and expressing hospitality. Now the Simonists feet are on fire: Both soles of every sinner were on fire (XIX. 25). They lost respect, hospitality, and glory.

In Canto XX, fortunetellers get punished. Their necks are twisted so that their face faces backwards, They can only walk slowly because they had their faces twisted toward their haunches and found it necessary to walk backward, because they could not see ahead of them (XX. 13). They also cannot make any sound: I saw souls advancing, mute and weeping. (XX. 8). These images, like those of the flatterers, stand for the opposite of the sinners behavior in their lifetime. They were always telling people that they could see ahead; they were the people who could foresee things. Now they are undoing what they had done in the world.

Dante s task, in creating nine worlds that no one has ever seen is not an easy task. Yet his epic about undiscovered worlds, hell and heaven, are riveting and persuasive. His description of hell is astonishing. It is so vivid, and realistic. He describes it geometrically: nine descending circles. In each circle, the sinners are punished either by guards or by some kinds of divine power, and each penalty relates symbolically to their sins. Some directly reflect what they had done in their lifetime, while others are totally the opposite. These two methods of symbolically describing the penalties aid Dante s readers as they picture the hell where they have never been. Dante s work continues to influence our literature and our culture more than 700 years after its publication due to his vivid, realistic descriptions that make readers feel as if they have visited the heel and heaven he describes.


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