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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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In our day and age, suicide is sometimes viewed as romantic.
You therefore may have to adjust your thinking to Dante's in
this canto about the Suicides. Modern readers, who understand
suicide as a psychological symptom, often have a hard time
with the harsh punishment that Dante inflicts upon these
sinners. Before judging him harshly, try to see this sin and
punishment in terms of his total concept.

Once Nessus has departed, Dante and Virgil walk into a forest
of dry, thorny trees. The ugly, shrieking Harpies sit on these

NOTE: The Harpies, the bird-women guardians of the Wood
of the Suicides, are another example of the half-human, half-
beast monster from mythology that Dante chooses as the
image of the sins of Violence. In Virgil's Aeneid, the Harpies
attack Aeneas and his men when they land on the Strophades,
stealing and defiling their food. Thus, as the image of the will
to destroy, they guard and torment the souls of those who
denied and rejected life on earth.

The poets hear a wailing but Dante can't see anyone who
might be making the sound. Virgil bids Dante to break off a
branch from one of these trees. Dante does as he is told and is
terrorized by the result. Blood and words pour from the place
where he has plucked the branchlet. The tree asks Dante why
he has torn away its bones.

Virgil answers for the stricken Dante. He begs forgiveness
from the wounded soul, explaining that he asked Dante to tear
away a branch in order to see for himself what he might not
have believed if he were simply told. Virgil also tells the soul
that if he speaks with Dante, Dante might be able to explain
his sin when he returns to earth.

This is the Wood of the Suicides. The tree-embedded soul is
Pier delle Vigne, once counselor to Frederick II. Accused of
treason and conspiracy, he tells Dante, he took his own life
rather than live with shame. The shade goes on to tell Dante
how the souls of the Suicides come to be in the leafless trees.
When a soul is forced from its body in the violence of suicide,
Minos sends it down to the Seventh Circle. The soul,
wherever it lands, falls into the ground, sprouts, and grows
into a sapling and then a tree. The Harpies feed on the leaves
and branches, causing great pain. After the Judgment Day,
when all sinners' bodies are reunited with their souls, the
bodies of the Suicides will hang from the thorns of the trees.

As Dante and Virgil wait for more words from the Suicide,
they hear the crashing sounds of a hunt. Two naked shades
come running toward them, chased by a pack of black dogs.

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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes

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