Review: ‘The Inferno’


The Inferno

by Dante

  • Date finished: Jan. 9, 2013
  • Genre: Epic poetry
  • Year: 14th century
  • Project: Big Books Project
  • Reading list: Winter 2012-13
  • Grade: B
  • Thoughts upon finishing:

Ever since Joel and I combined our libraries upon moving to Michigan, The Inferno has just been sitting on our shelf. Staring at me. Hanging out with The Odyssey and The Iliad. It’s originally Joel’s but I’m not sure if he ever read it. All I know is that it was there, it was free, it’s important, and gosh darnit, why hadn’t I read it yet?

The why is probably because after four years of English majoring, I never took any class on the “classics.” I read The Iliad, after all, “for fun.” (Yeah, I’m one of those people.) While I’m sure I avoided those classes while actually in college, I do sorta wish I had some kind of background in the classics. I mean, I’m not sure how useful it is besides cocktail hour banter and Jeopardy, but it’s one of those things it seems smart people ought to know. One hundred, 200, 300 years ago, these were the books people read to be “learned.” These are “the great books.” Why aren’t I as eloquent on these subjects as I am on, for example, Victorian literature or the life and work of Virginia Woolf (both worthy subjects, by the way)?

All that aside, I’m afraid this reading didn’t do too terribly much for me. Well, I take part of that back. No reading is completely worthless, especially if you try. And I tried. When I started, I was reading the poem out loud and annotating in the margins, just like in college! I was determined to “figure it out” on my own (or partly my own). Eventually, I became used to the style and, short on time, stopped writing in the margins. I still limited myself to six cantos a day so as not to overwhelm myself, but I even stopped reading out loud at the end.

Overall, I took quite a bit from The Inferno. There were questions about the literary representation of Hell (What was Dante drawing from? How is our modern conception of Hell influenced by Dante’s artistic latitude?) I found it interesting to see how Dante (and society in the Middle Ages) conceived of evil, particularly in the order of sinners in the nine circles — fraud was, in Dante’s view, considered a worse sin than violence.

However, I feel I could have appreciated The Inferno better were I in a class, or had someone to guide me as I read. I could have read some sort of companion, but I just didn’t have the time. I did read up on The Inferno in a literary reference book I have, which helped clear up A LOT of confusion. But I still wish I could have learned more. Oh well.

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