In which I sum up a 700 year-old masterpiece in 10 words:
The worse you behave here,
the lower you'll sink there.
Two bonus thoughts:
1. It was interesting to read this after Pale Fire and its deranged annotator. There are so many references to contemporaries of Dante in Inferno that annotations are essential to comprehending the story; if you don't know Francesca da Rimini*, you can't understand her presence among the lustful in the second circle of Hell. Mark Musa, who translated my Penguin Classics version, is very opinionated and even goes so far as to say, on several occasions, something to the effect of, "Other critics all agree that Dante meant such and such, but they're all wrong." Had I read Inferno before having pondered truth and literary interpretation questions in Pale Fire, I probably wouldn't have noticed the translator's own voice, or distrusted it nearly as much as I did.
2. The Divine Comedy is the ultimate "should have read it" classic. Every canto, at some point, I thought, "Oh! This is like in (insert name of other literary work here). That author must have read Dante." For 700 years, other writers have been referencing Dante. I could cite lofty examples like Shakespeare, but we are a bit Wizard of Oz obsessed these days.** So the whole time I read Inferno, I kept thinking, "This is just like The Wizard of Oz." I mean, Dante/Dorothy is all, "Dude, I had the strangest dream. I woke up somewhere totally trippy and I was confused until Virgil/Glinda the good Witch explained it to me. All I wanted was to get home, but I had to make a long journey past all sorts of weird people like munchkins/usurers on burning sand to find Oz/God and get to Kansas/Heaven. And you were there! But you were a scarecrow/your head was on backwards!"
I know, ladies and gentlemen. It is just this kind of in depth literary analysis you have come to expect here at Jacqui's Room. Somewhere, Harold Bloom is
trying to figure out how to get Yale to rescind my degree quaking in his boots.
* According to Musa (p. 119): "daughter of Guido Vecchio da Polenta, lord of Ravenna, and Paolo Malatesta, third son of Malatesta da Verrucchio, lord of Rimini. Around 1275 the aristocratic Francesca was married for political reasons to Gianciotto, the physically deformed second son of Malatesta da Verrucchio. In time a love affair developed between Francesca and Gianciotto's younger brother, Paolo. One day the betrayed husband discovered them in an amorous embrace and slew them both." But you knew that already, I am sure. Oh, you didn't? See what I mean about the annotations?!
** And by "we are obsessed" I mean that Tinkerbell sings songs from the play she did at camp so relentlessly that the rest of us are ready to kill ourselves. Trying to write in terza rima...la la la...I could while away the hours, conversing with the flowers, consulting with the rain...la la la... AAAHHH!!!
*** The cover image above is from my Penguin Classics edition. It's a painting by William Blake, The [First] Book of Urizen, Copy B, Plate 14.