Dante’s Inferno Canto III Summary and Analysis
The road to the underworld begins for Dante and Virgil from the gates of Hell with the inscription, that is well-known even to people who never read the “Divine Comedy”: “Abandon every hope, who enter here”. There is some more written at the gate: “Through me the way into the suffering city” is the next.
Then, the story of creation of Hell from Primal Love, Justice and The Highest Wisdom. Dante is scared and puzzled with the inscription, saying to his guide that he is afraid to go further and doesn’t understand the words written on the gates. Virgil explains the inscription to him, but his words are so vague that Dante’s questions are left unanswered. Though Virgil encourages Dante to go inside without hesitation, saying that he is under the divine protection and no dangers of Hell will threaten him. Dante shall leave behind not his hope, but his hesitation, fulfilling the divine will to go through Hell and see the suffering of people and other beings who were unfaithful to God.
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Regaining his courage, Dante follows Virgil. Inside the gate there is something resembling an enormous cave, where constant weeping and cries are heard. The dyssonance of the voices becomes louder and louder, turning into a pure chaos of pleads, threats, complaints and senseless screams. Dante is horrified to the point he starts weeping himself. He asks his companion about the people around, making this noise and Virgil explains that they are in the Ante-Inferno, the place that isn’t yet Hell.
It is the place for the souls who weren’t brave and proud enough to rebel against God or weren’t sinful enough to be condemned, but they also were not committed to God, not pure enough to be ascended to Heaven and they – again – didn’t sin so much for their sins to be atoned in Purgatory. With the mortal souls there are the spirits of “coward angels” – those who sided neither with God nor with Lucifer during his rebellion.
This neutral souls are still suffering for their ignorance, though their punishment isn’t so severe as for sinners in Hell itself. The countless crowds of them are running in circles under the huge banner, tormented by countless insects that bite them and then drink their blood and tears. Amongst the mass of people Dante sees the one familiar face, of Pope Celestine V, “the one who made a great refusal”, stepping out of his position and abandoning his duty.
Dante and Virgil proceed through the crowds of the souls further from the gates of Hell until they see the new crowds, now standing still along the bank of the dark river Acheron. They are also weeping and pleading for mercy, but, unlike the ignorant ones Dante saw before, there is no mercy for them. Dante asks why are they are gathering along the river, but Virgil explains that he will see the reason by himself when they come closer.
All the damned souls are waiting in the endless line until the boat of Charon the Ferryman will take them to the other side of Acheron. Charon mocks the souls, and enjoys telling them that there is no more hope for anyone here and they all will suffer forever without any chance of being saved from the tortures. When Dante and Virgil come to him, Charon is angered by the sight of the living man and grumpily refuses to take them aboard. Virgil replies that it is the direct order of God himself and after these words, Charon unwillingly allows them to board, complaining about it all their way to the opposite side of Acheron.
While they are moving, Dante observes the souls who wait for their turn for eternity. He poetically compares them to the fallen leaves in autumn, countless and unable to resist the cold winds that throw them to the ground. When Dante asks why Charon is so visibly displeased, Virgil explains that no one except the sinful souls travelled through Acheron before, so it is a violation of the natural order for Charon. Suddenly, the horrible storm starts and the flash of the blood-red light makes Dante lose consciousness.
There is a lot of metaphors in Dante’s Inferno Canto 3, and all of them are very important for understanding the real meaning of events happening in the story. In Canto 2 we hear that Virgil accuses Dante of cowardice and then repeats this accusation, though in milder variant, reassuring Dante that there is nothing to fear until he is under protection of Heaven.
The next thing we see inside the gates of Hell is the punishment for not having enough bravery to do at least something. We see that Virgil doesn’t even bother to describe these souls properly, considering them not worthy of his time and words. So, by forcing himself to pass through the gate Dante starts his road to Heaven, overcoming his first flaw – lack of determination.
Dante can’t understand the true meaning of the inscription on the gates of Hell and needs Virgil to explain it to him. Later Virgil says that the souls in Ante-Inferno aren’t only cowards – they are ones who lost or misused the divine gift of intellect. Instead of understanding the God’s plan they just ignored it and this is the second reason they don’t deserve neither Heaven nor Hell. Dante, as we saw before, is curious, he tries to understand and asks countless questions about everything he sees. He is shown as worthy to pass further and ready to understand the divine plan meant for him.
Also, here we see that the role of Virgil becomes more clear: he is the mentor, who explains anything to Dante. The personality of Virgil can also serve as a metaphor that opens up further, when the travellers reach Limbo. Virgil is a Pagan, the one who can’t enter Heaven (and he indeed leaves Dante at its gates, letting Beatrice guide him).
Still, Virgil is virtuous enough to have the protection of God for himself and Dante and important enough to be honored with such a task. We see that Virgil believes in God’s protection so fully, that he immediately argues with Charon, giving him orders like a superior (while technically the ferryman is right: a living man inside Hell is a violation of the eternal laws).
Charon the Ferryman is a minor character, but also a very interesting one. We see him not as a malevolent being (though he likes to remind the damned souls that there is no mercy for them), but as a worker, who thoroughly does his job. He looks very humane: grumpy and conservative, Charon wants everything to go in proper order. He behaves more like an old clerk who has to do an unpleasant job because of the order of the superior, than like the ominous psychopomp.
Later this theme of the big plan is developed and opened more, while the souls waiting for the ferry are portrayed as those who fear the divine justice but also desire it. The inhabitants of Ante-Inferno are shown as miserable and even more hopeless. When the sinners did at least something to be condemned and still be the part of the divine plan, the cowards are just forgotten and erased from it: their existence is meaningless and this makes them suffer even more than any physical tortures.
When Dante observes the souls waiting in the line, he notices that no one of them tries to escape or does something more than weeping. They look as devoid of will as autumn leaves thrown by the wind to the ground, one by one, but this metaphor has the other sense too: the autumn is natural law.
The leaves have to die and the sinners have to go to Hell. They know it, they also know that the fate awaiting for them is horrible, but still want to meet it. This is the visual explanation of one of the lines on the gates of Hell: Hell is Justice, not just the place of senseless pain. The second comparison of the souls with the hawks being called by their master only emphasises this idea. The souls aren’t free: they might have been doing anything they wanted to, while they were alive, but now it is time to return back where they belong.
Their master is still not Devil (the Devil is just the biggest sinner in the Hell), but God. God doesn’t hate them, He doesn’t abandon them. He still calls them back to get the punishment and the souls response. The next reason of creating the hell, the primal love, may oddly refer to this. The souls that are wait for their place in Hell look more content than the ones who are left and forgotten in Ante-Inferno, be they people or angels.
The crimson storm with a blinging blood-red flash that sets Dante unconscious is just the first of many times Dante faints. The author uses this to emphasise how unbearable the mere sight of Hell is for the mortal being. Sometimes the weird and horrifying events will cause him to fall, but sometimes the reason is just the heartbreaking scenes of suffering sinners.