First Year Seminar
The Existence of Pathos in Dante’s Inferno
The strength of emotions drives many unjustifiable actions of humanity. The human race is subjected to feelings of pity and compassion. Yet, when did we obtain these potentially harmful yet also helpful feelings? Why do we have these uncontrollable emotions? And what can these feelings possibly contribute to an individual, or a society? There is much contemplation about the roles that pity and compassion, as well as other feelings play into life. Emotions are the basis of all interaction and relationship; they enable a certain level of trust throughout literature, which can also perceptibly be applicable in everyday existence. Dante’s Inferno, is an epic piece of literature that contains exemplary instances of the use of pity and compassion. Pity is the ability to sympathize for one’s situation, being able to look down with reason and an equal understanding. Compassion is affection, and care that is distributed and usually reciprocated in a relationship. These emotions are used to create a foundation relationship and a basis of trust throughout the text between the characters, and the reader.
These most basic human emotions, pity and compassion, are fundamental to a true human experience. They build a level of trust between Dante, the writer, and his reader. A necessity in all of literature is to establish a balance of trust between the narrator and the reader. Without this relationship, the reader will become disinterested, and it will be more difficult for him or her to make the vital connections with the characters. Just as Calhoun 2
Virgil guides Dante through hell; the poet guides the reader through the work of literature. According to Professor Joseph Luzzi at Bard College, Dante addressed the reader 20 times throughout the poem (Poetry and Knowledge in Inferno: Dante’s World Wide Web). This aids in the establishment of participation, and creates a more intimate and interactive relationship with the reader. The ability to have a protagonist with these human feelings of compassion develops a more believable plotline and affirms the easily accessible bond with the reader. Dante accomplished this by creating a relatable main character, himself, who feels the same average emotions as every natural human.
Should we pity those in hell? This question rattles the minds of those who read Dante’s Inferno. In this vernacular poem Dante is both the author and the main character. He is taking a journey through hell guided by Virgil. Many have no idea why Dante wants to visit hell. However, many infer that Dante used this book as a form of revenge for the society of Florence, from which he was exiled in 1301. Also, he used this book as an attempt to exert more superiority over his enemies. Along the way, Dante emphasizes on all of the terrible sights of disfigured sinners, and giant monsters. His wild and imaginative tour taught him the full understanding of sin, and the consequences of these acts of wrongdoing. Dante experiences pity and compassion many times throughout the text. He pities the many sinners who have been placed in hell, and his friendship with Virgil aids his travels. These indisputable emotions both helped and hindered him during his time in hell.
Hell itself is an intimidating, unknown, and violent place. All of those who sin and die on earth are welcomed by the devil to hell. The architecture of hell is not Calhoun 3
designed to promote pity and compassion. Dante learns through his excursion that pity is not the appropriate response to the sinners. All of the sinners are aware of their situation; they have chosen their sin and hell is the consequence for their actions. Those in hell do not need to feel emotions for each other, because they are all in the same position, and their conditions have no permanent means to improve. There is no place in the typical hell for compassion. This...