Compassion, Fear And Pity In The Inferno

Dante reacts with compassion and fear to the suffering of the infidels. Dante frequently shares the pain and suffering of sinners. The Latin root for compassion is “to suffer along with”. In Canto XX he cries on behalf of the magicians. He laments, “tears poured down from their [sinners] eyes / and they bathed both buttocks – running down into the cleft.” It is obvious that I wept (XX 23-25). He is rendered speechless by his pity, as he states, “I can’t [speak], pity has taken my heart” (XIII.84). Dante has a deep empathy for Francesca and Paolo. In his words: “while a spirit (Francesca] told me these words, / another [Paolo] sobbed, that I – due to pity- / fainted. As if I’d met my end” (V.139-41). Dante is able to feel the pain of sinners through his reactions. Dante is unable to see that sinners are responsible for their own punishment. His compassion makes him question God’s morality.

Canto II begins with Dante recalling: “I myself/alone prepared to endure the battle/both of the journey and the pity.” (II,3-5). Dante’s pilgrimage to hell will be a journey of discovery for Dante, as this introduction highlights pity. Dante was able to see hell as long as he was alive due to Dante’s pity. Beatrice, Dante’s ex-lover, pities Virgil when he loses his way and is lost in the woods. She asks Virgil for help. Virgil recollects that Beatrice, after requesting Virgil’s service, “turned aside her gleaming tears” (II.116). Dante allows compassion to cloud his emotions as Beatrice does when she expresses her pity.

Dante’s compassion gets worse in Canto XV. When he recognises Brunetto as a Florentine, it becomes a problem. Dante’s eagerness to converse with a sinner is evident in his writing: “I went with my head bowed / like a man going with reverence”(XV,43-44). Dante changes his moral compass with this gesture. Contrary religious doctrine, it seems that he admires or reveres a gay man. Dante goes on to contest God’s punishment towards Brunetto. He says, “If God answered my desire totally,/you’d still / be / with humanity and not exiled from it” (XV. 79-81). Dante shows pity towards Brunetto, but does not mention the sin.

Virgil demonstrates restrained pity in response to Dante’s concern that Dante’s face appears flushed. Virgil explains why he has a pale complexion, saying that “the anguish / whose home is below me, touched my cheek / with compassion you mistake for terror” (IV. 19-21). Virgil pities ancient poets who have been condemned to a lifetime in Limbo. Virgil continues to show that his compassion, unlike Dante’s, is measured. He says that pity, unlike faith, is inferior. Virgil represents the human mind and affirms God’s law. Dante is admonished for his tears, which he sheds on behalf of the Eighth Circle. Virgil admonishes Dante, saying “Are you just as stupid as the others?” Virgil asks Dante if he is as foolish as the rest.

Dante gets deeper and deeper into hell. The more he does, the less he feels the pain. Dante tells a sinner who refuses his name that he will not have a single hair on top of his head if he doesn’t identify himself. (XXXII 98-99) Dante’s threat is carried out, as the sinner refuses to budge. “I pluck from him more that one tuft/while he was screaming and his eyes looked down” (XXXII 104-105). This Dante is in stark contrast to his earlier Cantos. In this case, he is not reacting to the suffering of a sinner but inflicting it. Dante in this scene acts as if he were God, punishing the Florentine traitor for his evil deeds and recognizing him as such. Dante’s moral character changes after this encounter. He not only endorses, but also practices the harsh punishments consistent with God’s Justice.

Dante’s response seems to conflate fear and compassion with his own sin. God’s judgement is used to justify his salvation based on Dante’s experiences in hell. Dante’s morals are linked with those who suffer. He says in Canto V that he fainted “because of pity” when describing Francesca’s and Paolo’s tragedy. (V,140-141). Dante may be pitying the lovers by equating his fainting with dying. The possibility of eternal hellfire and sin is a constant source of anxiety for him. Dante’s trepidation leads him to initially forgive sinners. “Pity” / took hold of him, and he was lost like a man (V, 71-72). Dante’s judgment has been clouded by pity. He only learns, at the end, to reconcile it with God’s harsh justice.

Dante’s quest for spiritual understanding is underlined by his innate desire to be redeemed. In the end, Dante travels to hell to learn about God’s moral standards and strengthen his moral compass. This transformation is vital because before he can reach heaven, he needs to have a very strict moral code. Dante’s Divine Comedy does not end with the Inferno. Purgatoria followed by Paradiso is where he continued his journey.



Makhi is a 34 yo educational blogger who is passionate about writing and exploring new content ideas. She has a degree in English from the University of Utah and is currently working as a teacher in a public school in Utah. Makhi has been published in numerous online journals and has been featured on national television networks.