Major Themes: Punishment

In this section we consider:

  • the general principle of punishment in Hell, described in the Inferno as ‘contrapasso’
  • what the punishments in the Inferno tell us about Dante’s understanding of the nature of the various sins.

In Canto XXVIII we have what seems to be the most lucid explanation of how Dante’s system works. As you will recall, Bertran de Born explains how he caused discord between the king of England, his son and his brothers. In Hell he is decapitated, and he carries his head with him. As he explains:

Perch’io parti’ cosi giunte persone, 
partito porto il mio cerebro, lasso!, 
dal suo principio ch’e in questo troncone. 
Cosi s’osserva in me lo contrapasso. 
[Since persons so close-linked I put apart, so I, alas, apart now bear my brain, thus severed from its root in this great trunk. In me, then, counter-suffering can be seen.]

The word contrapassum – counter-suffering – would have been known in Dante’s day through Thomas Aquinas, who explained that ‘contrapassum denotes equal suffering repaid for previous action […] this kind of justice is laid down in the Law: "He shall render life for life, eye for eye"’. This definition helps to explain Bertran de Born’s punishment: because he divided people in life, he has himself been physically divided in the afterlife.

This understanding of contrapasso sets out a straightforward principle – ‘the punishment fits the sin’ would be one way of paraphrasing it – and indeed there are occasions in which the relationship between the sin and the punishment in the Inferno is clear. For example, the punishment of the ‘neutrals’ in Canto III, those who in life refused to take a stand, is to be pursued by a swarm of flies and wasps as they run behind a banner. They are forced to run first one way then the next, never able to define their own direction.

These two examples actually show slightly different applications of the idea that ‘the punishment fits the sin’. Betrand de Born’s punishment is fitting because it is similar to the sin: he divided people, so he is physically split. The ‘neutrals’’ punishment is perhaps more complicated. On the one hand, it is – like Betrand de Born’s punishment – similar to the sin: just as they did not choose direction in life, they are forced to run in different directions in death. But on the other hand, the punishment is close to being the opposite of the sin: the ‘neutrals’ refused to take a stand in life, yet in death they are forced to run behind a banner.

Moreover, if you consider some of the punishments in the Inferno more closely, you find that the relationship between punishment and sin is not always immediately obvious.

Discussion point: Canto V

One early example of a less obvious relationship between punishment and sin comes in Canto V, in which lust is punished. The sinners are punished by being constantly blown around in a whirlwind. Dante-poeta says that as soon as he saw this, he understood which sin was being punished (37–39). Given what we have said about sins of ‘incontinenza’ as being driven by passions rather than by reason, how might the whirlwind of Canto V relate to Dante’s idea of the sin of lust?

There is, however, a further aspect to the punishment as it is presented to the reader. We are told in line 135 that part of Paolo and Francesca’s punishment is that they should never be separated from one another. How do you think this part of the punishment might fit the sin?

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame