Welcome to my happy place…a short analysis of a few seemingly simple lines from Dante’s INFERNO

Ok, so here’s another teaching post. The thing I love about studying and teaching English is the ability to look deep within the text and connect the smallest detail to a paramount theme that is shared throughout the history of humanity. Usually this comes out as the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. My honors sophomores are reading and analyzing Dante’s Inferno. Nothing like a light reading to end the year with, right?! Seriously though, I love reading and analyzing this book so much! Here is something I wrote today to show my students that we can take a few lines and write pages of analysis. The assignment they are doing does not require them to go so far; rather, they do a precursor-type assignment that reflects something I do with my AP seniors — the beloved, er, rather, dreaded lit device journal (screams of terror can be heard in the background — kidding!).  I won’t bore you with the details of the assignment, but I will bore you with my analysis from a few lines from Canto III (really it’s a word and two lines, good ol’ enjambement):

“Blind,/ like one whom sleep comes over in a swoon,/ I stumbled into darkness and went down” (Dante 3. 132-134).

At the end of Canto III in The Inferno, Dante faints just before he is ferried over to the various circles of hell. At this point in the narrative, Dante experiences extreme fear and pity for those who have fallen into sin and must be eternally punished in hell. Allegorically, Dante’s hell exemplifies humanity’s willingness to forego God’s grace and, in turn, embrace their depraved nature of sin. Dante comes to a crossroads quite literally and figuratively at the Acheron River; there he must employ Charon to ferry him over to the official circles of hell, where as they descend, the suffering and punishment increases to match the severity of the sin — a concept Dante refers to as “Divine justice.” Herein lies a spiritual dilemma: in order to accept the grace of God and become sanctified, according to Dante (and the Bible), man must hate sin and no longer be sympathetic to it, or he will continue to go down the path of the “dark wood,” which is laced with beasts of malice, fraud, violence, and avarice among other atrocities. Dante, at the sight of Charon and the great chasm of hell, faints, which shows his weakness and sympathy for sin and those suffering from its effects. This swooning also shows fear. As the Bible explains perfect love (Christ) casts out all fear. Dante, at this point in his journey, is still grappling with his fear and lack of Christ’s love in his (Dante’s) life.
It is quite fitting that Dante compares this swooning at the end of Canto III to that of a blind man overcome with sleep who then stumbles into darkness and descends. This simile expresses more than Dante’s prowess and ability as a writer (we will see just how highly he thinks of himself when we meet the classic writers and great thinkers of yore in Canto IV). Entering hell is unlike anything that we can experience on earth, so Dante is almost forced into using similes to express his terror as he descends into the inferno. Therefore, entering hell or crossing Acheron must be relegated to a comparison of what is known and relatable to the readers. It is like being blind. It is like falling into a deep sleep. It is like fainting. It is like stumbling into darkness and falling down.The simile of the blind man connects to the deeper message and theme of The Inferno and the underlying effects of sin — namely that it (sin) blinds us from the truth. Therefore, Dante must become blind in order to enter the horrors of hell, but the fact that he swoons at the sight of Charon and the bowels of hell informs the reader that he physically and spiritually needs to be “toughened up.” It is with a blind spirit and with blinded eyes that he must begin his descent into complete darkness. It is also important to note his specific diction in that he “stumbles into darkness.” It is almost as if he is shifting the blame of this occurrence — that this was not by choice but rather an accident or rather a byproduct or a direct result of this sudden blindness. With closed eyes and eventually a closed heart, he ventures into the dark abyss.

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