Study Guide

Inferno Time

By Dante Alighieri

Time

Inferno Canto II
Dante

And just as he who unwills what he wills
and shifts what he intends to seek new ends
so that he’s drawn from what he had begun,
so was I in the midst of that dark land,
because, with all my thinking, I annulled
the task I had so quickly undertaken. (Inf. II, 37-42)

When Dante has a moment to reflect on his hasty decision to take a tour of Hell with Virgil, his anxiety paralyzes him so that he is unable to move forward. This immobilization is shown linguistically in the oscillating back and forth between "unwills" and "wills" and his mental tangents that "draw [him] from what he had begun." Dante is rendered wholly indecisive.

Inferno Canto III
Dante

And after this was said, the darkened plain
quaked so tremendously – the memory
of terror then, bathes me in sweat again.
A whirlwind burst out of the tear-drenched earth,
a wind that crackled with a bloodred light,
a light that overcame all of my senses;
and like a man whom sleep has seized, I fell. (Inf. III, 130-136)

In ending a canto with the protagonist fainting away "like a man whom sleep has seized," the author Dante effectively stops the action and freezes time from the reader’s perspective. From the moment the character Dante passes out right up until his awakening, readers are left unaware about whatever action takes place.

Inferno Canto V (the Second Circle: the Lustful)

And while one spirit [Francesca] said these words to me,
the other [Paolo] wept, so that – because of pity –
I fainted, as if I had met my death.
And then I fell as a dead body falls. (Inf. V, 139-142)

Again, Dante’s tendency to faint with pity inserts a gap into the plot. When Dante wakes up at the beginning of the sixth canto in the third circle, readers are left to conjecture how he got there. Because our narrator Dante is unconscious in that transit period, time seems to stop for readers as well.

Inferno Canto X (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)
Virgil

[Virgil]: "Within this region is the cemetery
of Epicurus and his followers,
all those who say the soul dies with the body." (Inf. X, 13-15)

By denying man’s immortal soul, the Epicureans condemn themselves to living purely in the present. Because they do not believe in the afterlife, they have no inhibitions to restrain them from indulging their basest pleasures at any time they please. They are trapped in the present time, just as after they die their souls are subjected to the eternal present of torment in Hell.

Dante

[Dante]: "It seems, if I hear right, that you can see
beforehand that which time is carrying,
but you’re denied the sight of present things."
[Farinata]: "We see, even as men who are farsighted,
those things," he said, "that are remote from us;
the Highest Lord allots us that much light.
But when events draw near or are, our minds
are useless; were we not informed by others,
we should know nothing of your human state." (Inf. X, 97-105)

Heretics, for denying the immortality of the soul, are denied a linear, straightforward understanding of time. Having lived their lives only in the present moment (like the Epicureans), heretics are punished by being imprisoned in the future. They can see only in front of them, but not around them; they remain ignorant of their present state and must spend eternity without knowledge of their own time.

Inferno Canto XI (the Sixth Circle: the Heretics)

[Furies]: "Just let Medusa come; then we shall turn
him into stone," they all cried, looking down;
"we should have punished Theseus’ assault."
"Turn round and keep your eyes shut fast, for should
the Gorgon show herself and you behold her,
never again would you return above,"
my master said; and he himself turned me
around and, not content with just my hands,
used his as well to cover up my eyes. (Inf. IX, 52-60)

The pilgrims’ wait at the gates of Dis and the subsequent menace of Medusa are all threats of immobilization. The very act of waiting in the eternal space of Hell seems to stop time. In addition, Medusa endangers Dante by threatening to turn him to stone or, in other words, to paralyze him so that his body is frozen forever. The inability to move forward because of either the locked gates or the rigidity of a stone body renders time meaningless to Dante.

Inferno Canto XIV (the Seventh Circle, Third Ring: The Violent against God)

[Capaneus]: "That which I was in life, I am in death.
Though Jove wear out the smith from whom he took
in wrath, the keen-edged thunderbolt with which
on my last day I was to be transfixed;
or if he tire the others, one by one,
in Mongibello, at the sooty forge,
while bellowing: ‘O help, good Vulcan, help!’ –
just as he did when there was war at Phlegra –
and casts his shafts at me with all his force,
not even then would he have happy vengeance."
Then did my guide speak with such vehemence
as I had never heard him use before:
"O Capaneus, for your arrogance
that is not quenched, you’re punished all the more:
no torture other than your own madness
could offer pain enough to match your wrath."
But then, with gentler face he turned to me
and said: "That man was one of seven kings
besieging Thebes; he held – and still, it seems,
holds – God in great disdain, disprizing Him…" (Inf. XIV, 51-70)

Capaneus’ sin lies primarily in his inability to change. What "I was in life, I am in death," he announces and, in so doing, damns himself for eternity. As long as he remains eternally unrepentant, nothing can change for him. Neither can time move forward for him, nor can his punishment be alleviated.

Inferno Canto XX (the Eighth Circle, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, and Magicians)

As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;
they had their faces twisted towards their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them. (Inf. XX, 10-15)

The magicians, for their crime of claiming power over the future, must live forever in the past, with their heads turned backwards on their shoulders. Like the heretics, they cannot experience time in the forward-moving manner most souls do, but are stuck in a single time period for all eternity.

Inferno Canto XXIV (the Eighth Circle, Seventh Pouch: the Thieves)

No o or i has ever been transcribed
so quickly as that soul caught fire and burned
and, as he fell, completely turned to ashes;
and when he lay, undone, upon the ground,
the dust of him collected by itself
and instantly returned to what it was:
just so, it is asserted by great sages,
that, when it reaches its five-hundredth year,
the phoenix dies and then is born again;
lifelong it never feeds on grass or grain,
only on drops of incense and amomum;
its final winding sheets are nard and myrrh. (Inf. XXIV, 100-111)

The sheer endlessness of the thieves’ eternal punishment is conveyed by comparison to the phoenix, who dies only to be born again.

Inferno Canto XXXII (the Ninth Circle, First Ring Caina: Traitors to their Kin, Second Ring Antenora: Traitors to their Homeland or Party)

At this I turned and saw in front of me,
beneath my feet, a lake that, frozen fast,
had lost the look of water and seemed glass.
The Danube where it flows in Austria,
the Don beneath its frozen sky, have never
made for their course so thick a veil in winter
as there was here; for had Mount Tambernic
or Pietrapana’s mountain crashed upon it,
not even at the edge would it have creaked. (Inf. XXXII, 22-30)

Ice, as an immobilizing agent, literally freezes time for the sinners submerged in it. Because they cannot move and cannot relieve their constant suffering, the ice literally represents eternity for them – cold, unmoving, and unforgiving.

Virgil

[Virgil]: "Here it is morning when it’s evening there;
and he whose hair has served us as a ladder
is still fixed, even as he was before." (Inf. XXXIV, 118-120)

According to translator Mandelbaum’s notes, the journey through Hell takes a full day. When the sun sets in the northern hemisphere (as the pilgrims cross the earth’s axis), it rises in the southern hemisphere, where Dante and Virgil emerge. So just as Dante begins his journey at dawn, so he ends it in the light of another dawn on the other side of the world. In a dreamlike manner, it seems as though no time at all has passed.