Just the Inferno?

Of the many, many people I have talked to over the years about Dante, the vast majority of those who have actually read something of the Comedy have only read the Inferno. Usually it’s because that’s all they read in high school. And when talking with teachers who only assign the Inferno, more often than not the reasoning is something like, we simply do not have time to get through the whole poem. And I get it. It’s a long poem, and the further you get the more obscure and difficult it becomes. What is more, unlike the other two parts, Inferno is full of gritty and powerful images that are easily imagined, especially by high school students. This makes it the easiest part to understand and teach. And with a book list to get through, and spring break around the corner, and papers piling up, it just doesn’t make sense to do the whole poem. I get it. It’s a big ask. 

The Tragedy of the Partial Read

That said, and at the risk of sounding petulant, I could almost wish schools would skip the Comedy altogether rather than only assign the Inferno. Even though it is broken into three different parts, or canticles, they are not separate poems any more than Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring is a stand-alone story. Imagine walking away from the Lord of the Rings with the disbanding of the fellowship, and Frodo and Sam heading towards Mordor alone! The Lord of the Rings needs The Return of the King just as Dante’s Comedy needs Paradiso, a return to the King of kings. The Comedy is one continuous story chronicling an everyman as he is brought through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, primarily in order to stand before the face of Jesus, the one in Whom the whole journey finds its meaning and purpose. In other words, Inferno doesn’t really make sense apart from the experience of the rest of the poem, and especially the end. Reading Inferno only leaves the student with a false impression of Dante’s central purpose, which is the glorification of Christ and our union with Him by grace through faith.

To give a few more examples, imagine the impression students would receive of Crime and Punishment if they only read until Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker and her sister. What would their takeaway be? How could they understand what Dostoevsky is doing without reading all the way through the epilogue? Or take Shakespeare. Would we ever read just the first act of King Lear? How would such a radical abridgment shape our students’ moral imaginations? Would reading the first half of Pride and Prejudice ever be tolerated? 

Reading only the Inferno is no different than reading only the first part of any other masterpiece of literature. At best it leaves the student with a truncated understanding of a great work; at worst, it deceives the student into believing he or she has read the most important part, and therefore does not need to read the rest. The act of abridgment is itself a pedagogical tool that shapes the student’s affections and understanding. It can be done well, but it can also do great damage.

A Better Compromise

I understand that time is fleeting, and a school year might not allow reading all 100 cantos of the Comedy. While I personally might restructure the reading list to read fewer books at a deeper level, not everyone agrees with that approach. To help educators confined to the school’s curricular choices into only reading 34 cantos out of 100, here is my suggested compromise. The following are the cantos from each canticle that would better serve your students than simply neglecting all together the second two parts of the poem. Reading these 34 cantos will introduce your students to the entire scope of Dante’s project, and give them a deeper appreciation of what the poem is about, not to mention a much better understanding of the work. Especially if they read these cantos in conjunction with a good Reader’s Guide:

       From Inferno, read cantos 1-5, 11, 13-15, 26, 33-34. 
       From Purgatorio, read cantos 1-2, 9-11, 13-14, 17-19, 30-31 
       From Paradiso, read cantos 1, 3, 7, 9-10, 13, 28-30, 33

If you can, take the time to read the whole poem slowly with your students. But if external constraints mean you cannot do that glorious task, this compromise would at least introduce the student to the whole work. More importantly, it would give the student a proper understanding of what Dante is doing, and why.

More from Joe Carlson

Joe Carlson (MA Humanities) lives in the DFW metroplex with his wife and son. He received his BA from New St Andrews College, and his MA from the University of Dallas, where he is currently completing his doctoral studies. His thesis explored and unpacked a specifically doxological pedagogy, based on Dante’s educational projects. He has managed a chain of coffee shops, published (micro) epic poetry, co-pastored a church, helped create and staff a university campus ministry, written for the Salvo Magazine blog, and taught many different kinds of classes over the years. It was a passion for the medieval cosmology enjoyed by C.S. Lewis that eventually brought him back to an ever deepening love for the Divine Comedy.

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