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Gate of Hell, canto 3
 
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Cowards
 
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Gate of Hell, Charon
 
Allusions
Terza Rima, Anaphora, "Great Refusal", Acheron
 
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Study Questions
 
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Cowards

 
Cowards/Acheron
 
This idea of a marginal place--inside the gate of hell but before the river Acheron--for souls neither good enough for heaven nor evil enough for hell proper is a product of Dante's imagination, pure and simple. Possible theological justification for Dante's invention may be found in Apocalypse (Revelation) 3:16: "But because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth." Included among these cowardly souls--also known as fence-sitters, wafflers, opportunists, and neutrals--are the angels who refused to choose between God and Lucifer. What does this original idea say about Dante's view of human behavior and its relation to the afterlife? What might Dante's conception of this region imply about hell proper and its eternal inhabitants?
 
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Gate of Hell
 
Gate of Hell Gate of Hell
 
It is not until the beginning of canto 3 that Dante finally enters hell-- at least its outer region--by passing through a gateway. The inscription above this gate--ending with the famous warning to "abandon all hope"-- establishes Dante's hell as a creation not of evil and the devil but rather of his Christian God, here expressed in terms of the Trinity: Father (Divine Power), Son (Highest Wisdom), and Holy Spirit (Primal Love).
 
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Charon
 
Charon Charon Charon
 
In the classical underworld (Hades), which Dante knew best from book 6 of Virgil's Aeneid, Charon is the pilot of a boat that transports shades of the dead--newly arrived from the world above--across the waters into the lower world. Like Virgil's Charon (Aen. 6.298-304; 384-416), Dante's ferryman is an irascible old man--with white hairs and fiery eyes-- who at first objects to taking a living man (Aeneas, Dante) on his boat. In each case, the protagonist's guide--the Sibyl for Aeneas, Virgil for Dante--provides the proper credentials for gaining passage on Charon's boat.
 
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Terza Rima
 
This is the rhyme scheme that Dante invents for the 14,233 lines of his poem. Literally translated as "third rhyme," this pattern means that the middle verse of a given tercet (a group of three lines) rhymes with the first and third verses of the next tercet. For example, in the verses of Inferno 3 describing the gate of hell, dolore (2) rhymes with fattore (4) and amore (6), podestate (5) rhymes with create (7) and intrate (9), and so on. Terza rima can thus be expressed with the following formula: aba bcb cdc ded . . . xyx yzyz. A mathematical consequence of this pattern is that the number of lines in any given canto is always a multiple of three with one left over.
 
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Anaphora
 
Dante occasionally repeats a word or phrase at the beginning of successive verses or tercets (units of three verses) to drive home a point. Inferno 3 opens with a striking example of this poetic device (called anaphora): Dante begins the first three verses containing the words written above the gate of hell with the phrase Per me si va . . . ("Through me one goes . . ."). How does this use of anaphora contribute to the overall tone and meaning of the inscription (Inf. 3.1-9) and to the reaction of Dante and Virgil to the ominous words (Inf. 3.10-18)?
 
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"Great Refusal"
 
From among the cowardly fence-sitters, Dante singles out only the shade of one who made "the great refusal" (Inf. 3.60). In fact, he says that it was the sight of this one shade--unnamed yet evidently well known--that confirmed for him the nature of all the souls in this region. The most likely candidate for this figure is Pope Celestine V. His refusal to perform the duties required of the pope (he abdicated five months after his election in July 1294) allowed Benedetto Caetani to become Pope Boniface VIII, the man who proved to be Dante's most reviled theological, political, and personal enemy. An alternative candidate is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who refused to pass judgment on Jesus. Why does Dante refuse to name any of the shades--including the notorious one--in this particular region?
 
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Acheron
 
Charon Ferrying the Damned
 
This is the first of the rivers and marshes of Virgil's underworld in the Aeneid that Dante includes in his topography of hell. Whereas Virgil makes no clear distinction between the locations and functions of these bodies of water (Charon seems to guard them all), Dante's infernal rivers are more sharply drawn. Here the Acheron functions as a boundary separating the cowardly neutrals from the souls in the circles of hell proper. Charon ferries these shades across the river. This attention to detail reflects Dante's desire to underscore the reality of hell and the protagonist's journey through it.
 
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Audio
 
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"Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" (3.9)
Leave behind all hope, you who enter
 
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"che visser sanza 'nfamia e sanza lodo" (3.36)
those who lived without shame and without honor
 
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Study Questions
 
How does the punishment of the cowards fit the vice? Looking closely at 3.52-7 and 3.64-9, express this relationship--what we call the "contrapasso"--in the form of a simile ("just as in life they... , so now in hell they...") or in an ironic, causal phrase ("Because in life they failed / refused to..., now in hell they...."). Try to identify several possibilities or levels for the contrapasso.
 
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