The thirteenth canto of Dante’s The Inferno clearly depicts several of the different themes that can be seen throughout the poem. Some of these themes are the idea of contrapasso, or the notion that the punishment dealt fits the crime committed, the portrayal of Hell as being devoid of hope, and the importance of fame. The images and language Dante uses to describe his experiences in the middle ring of the seventh circle of Hell, which houses the suicides, provide the reader with the feeling of despair and hopelessness present throughout the text, while also serving to show the idea of contrapasso and the underlying importance of fame.
The seventh ring of Hell is occupied by the souls of people who took their own lives. Their punishment is that they become trees and shrubs on which the harpies feed. As the harpies tear their leaves and branches, the souls suffer pain and bleed. But on the other hand, they cannot speak unless they shed blood. The Harpies “give pain and to that pain a mouth” (101-102). Dante, when seeing this for the first time, describes it “As a green log, burning at one end, that blisters and hisses at the other, with the rush of sap and air, so from the broken splinter oozed blood and words together” (40-44).
The reader learns from the soul of Pier della Vigna that when an individual kills themselves, their soul falls into the seventh circle and roots itself, from there growing into a “wild thicket” (100). But this is not the full extent of their punishment. We learn from Pier’s soul that among all the souls in Hell, the suicides will not be able to reclaim their bodies on judgment day. The justification is that those who so freely gave up their bodies should not be allowed to gain it back. They denied their God-given gift, and this wish to reject their bodies will be carried out even in death.
They will go to claim their corporeal forms, but rather than gain it back, Pier states each soul will “drag it, and in this dismal wood our bodies will be hung, each one upon the thorn-bush of its painful shade” (106-108). Instead of being able to return to their former state, the shades of the suicides will have their bodies hung from their own branches and they will remain as rooted trees. Throughout the poem, this may be the most symbolic and powerful portrayal of contrapasso. In other circles of Hell, there is a more literal interpretation of the term.
For example, the schismatics such as Mohammed in the eighth circle are split down their middle, symbolic of the divisions they caused. Mohammed caused the separation of a religion into two, and therefore suffers the splitting of his own body as a result. Another example is the hypocrites, who must walk beneath the burden of lead cloaks painted gold, a symbol of the gilded word they told when they were alive. Along with this potent depiction of contrapasso, the reader also gets the distinct feeling of hopelessness that is associated with Hell.
Hell is a cold, barren place to be. Loss of hope is the very first punishment of Hell; in the first circle, Limbo, the inhabitants are damned to live without hope. Yet even for the other damned souls, there is still the comfort of regaining their earthly bodies on Judgment Day; this may be their only condolence. But for the shades of the desperate individuals who took their own lives, they are denied even this sliver of hope. They cannot regain what they rejected.
Along with this, the trees they have become deny them the ability to move, and therefore the ability to avoid further pain than that already inflicted by the Harpies. Other souls like Jacopo, the soul who tore the leaves of the nameless bush in trying to hide in its branches, have the ability to run and at least try to avoid the pain they are damned to suffer. In the fifth bolgia of the Malebolge, the fraudulent politicians reside. They are damned to be submerged in boiling pitch, and if one dares to rise above it he is tormented by the hooks of the Malebranche.
But still “to ease his pain, one of the sinners would show his back” (XXII, 22-23). One sinner, Ciampolo, who was caught above the pitch eve manages to trick the demons into turning their backs so he could dive back into the pitch; which although painful, still was more desirable than being torn apart by the Malebranche. But the suicides have no control of their bodies even in death. They are condemned to remain trapped in their arboreal forms, and endure pain without hope of avoidance or respite. Another of the recurring motifs in the Inferno is the importance of fame.
Time and again, Dante coaxes shades to speak by promising he will return to the world above and revive their names among the living, thus granting them fame or even clearing their name. The idea is that the moment one’s name is no longer remembered, one truly ceases to exist. Dante depicts the belief that fame and earthly glory, if earned honestly, has the power to improve the afterlife of an individual. For the souls in Hell, their last hope of living on past death is the continual remembrance of their names.
Being forgotten is the true meaning of death. Your story is your life blood, and there is no clearer depiction of this than the suicides; they can only share their name through their blood. This idea of the importance of earthly glory is one of a few times Dante strays from Christian ideals. Christianity stresses the idea of abandoning earthly glory in favor of the glory of God. Dante instead shows that he holds to the belief that earthly fame can help you in the afterlife. But this only applies if your reputation was gained honorably.
Otherwise, fame will not help you. Holding to this belief, as Dante and Virgil travel farther into Hell the souls in the deepest rings refuse to tell Dante who they are. They do not want their names revived and remembered; they all know that their crimes were so heinous as to only bring shame to their names, as seen in the interaction with the shade of Bocca degli Abati. Like earlier in the poem, Dante tries to offer fame in return for his story, but Bocca refuses telling Dante that he “longs for just the opposite.
Take yourself off and trouble me no more- you ill know how to flatter at this depth” (XXXII, 94-96). The tactic that worked for the committers of lesser sins will not work at this depth. Often the reader sees Dante use fame as a bargaining chip; it is the only thing he has to offer the souls in Hell in return for their knowledge. Virgil is also seen using glory as a way to persuade a soul to speak when addressing Ulysses in the Canto XXVI. He tells him that “if I have earned your favor-in whatever measure-when, in the world, I wrote my lofty verses, then do not move away. (81-83). He is referring to how he had written about Ulysses when he wrote the Aeneid, and even if it was unfavorably, Ulysses still owes some of his fame to Virgil. Thus Ulysses owes Virgil his tale. Fame can even be used to bribe the monsters that guard certain rings of Hell, as seen when Dante and Virgil are requesting the aid of the giant Antaeus in canto XXXI. Virgil and Dante need the giant’s aid to reach the next circle of Hell, but Virgil is not held in high favor with the giant, as he never wrote about him in his poems and thus never brought him any fame.
Virgil tells the giant that “this man can give what everyone here longs for” (125), referring to the fact that Dante can give Antaeus what he did not. Throughout the Inferno, several common motifs can be seen in the language and depictions that Dante uses to tell of his experiences in Hell. This includes the idea of contrapasso, which is the common factor of the different punishments each sinner is damned to suffer. Punishments are not given without reason, but are a reflection of the sin committed. Another common concept seen in the poem is the absence of hope.
From the very first circle of Hell, the deficiency of hope is the one retribution that all the occupants of Hell suffer. Lastly, the concept that fame and how one is remembered is the true way that one achieves immortality is seen. When one’s name is forgotten, that is when one truly dies. Dante’s depiction of his experiences in the seventh ring of Hell, which is inhabited by those violent against themselves, provide a clear example of these themes. The suicides are perhaps the most moving and powerful scenes of the poem.