Dante's Inferno Canto 5: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, you will be introduced to the second circle of Hell as Dante continues his journey through the underworld in the 'Inferno'. You will then be presented with some analysis of what the poet encounters in the second circle of Hell.

Context to Remember

Dante wrote the Inferno in the fourteenth century (which means the 1300s). The epic poem is broken up into many long cantos, which chronicles the poet's journey into Hell. Each canto begins with a short 'argument' in prose, which succinctly summarizes the canto's events. At the beginning of the poem, Dante, who is middle-aged at 35-years-old, finds himself in a dark wood. He tries to climb a mountain, but his path is blocked by three symbolic animals (a lion, a leopard, and a wolf). Thereafter, he encounters the 'shadow' or perhaps the ghost of the Greek poet Virgil, who convinces Dante to travel through the circles of Hell.

Before Canto 5, Dante and Virgil entered the infamous gates of Hell ('Abandon all hope, ye who enter here'), have passed through the region of the 'uncommitted' (and seen the people who refused to take sides in life or to live with passion), and then crossed over the river Acheron into Hell itself. In Canto 4, the pair encounters the dead who are in limbo, which includes Virgil himself.

Plot Summary

Canto 5 begins in the second circle of Hell, which is occupied by 'carnal sinners.' The argument tells us that Dante and Virgil meet Minos, 'the Infernal Judge,' who warns Dante about his travels. In these travels, the poets will encounter Francesca of Rimini, whose tale is so sorrowful that it causes Dante to faint.

The poetry of Canto 5 begins with a description of Minos's duties. He meets the dead coming into Hell and
'Examines the transgression
Judges, and sends according' (lines 4-5).

In other words, the dead appear before Minos, they speak about their sins, and Minos punishes them accordingly.

Dante then describes hearing the sounds of cries as he encounters complete darkness,'a place mute of all light' (28). Here also are 'opposing winds' (30) that form an 'infernal hurricane that never rests' (31). The strong winds lift the sinners of the second circle and jostle then to and fro.

Dante describes these sinners:
'The carnal malefactors were condemned
Who reason subjugate to appetite' (37-38).

In other words, these sinners let their desires dominate more reasonable pursuits, such as learning. Virgil goes on to describe some of the shadows that flit around the scene, which include some notable historical figures such as Helen and Paris of Troy.

Dante desires to speak to one of the lost souls. He subsequently hears the tale of Francesca of Rimini, whose agonies,'Sad and compassionate to weeping make me'(116-17).

At the end of Francesca's tale, Dante 'swooned away as if I had been dying' (141) and the canto concludes.

Dante Meets Francesca and Paolo by Gustave Dore
Dante Meets Francesca and Paolo by Gustave Dore

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