Dante’s Inferno: organised chaos, or just a hot mess?

Is it possible that what has long been considered one of the most well though out masterpieces of all time, is not quite as meticulous as it seems?

“Così s'osserva in me lo Contrapasso" (Inf. XXVIII, 142). With these words, Dante introduces, through the character of Bertran de Born, the perhaps problematic principle of contrapasso. Problematic because only mentioned once within the Inferno and yet interpreted by many as a universal explanation for the punishments assigned to each and every sinner in Hell except those who reside in Limbo. One thing we can be sure of is that Dante did not invent the principle of the contrapasso himself.

Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of Dante’s contrapasso….

In general, contrapasso is seen as a correlation between sins in life and punishment in death. The sinner must suffer according to the sin they have committed. The principle has its roots in the traditional moral system taught in the Bible, particularly in the lex talionis of Exodus (21: 23-24) and that phrase we are all familiar with: “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”.

Personally, I consider the meaning of Dante’s contrapasso as greatly dependent on whether we see it as governing all punishments within the Inferno or not. For example, if we want to use the contrapasso to explain all punishments within the Inferno and not just that prescribed to Bertran de Born, the sinner that mentions it, then a different definition is required. In simpler terms, it is clear to see that a vast amount of punishments within the Inferno do not keep in line with an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.

In some cases, the punishments experienced by the sinners are metaphorical. Let us take the example of the squanderers in the second round of the Seventh Circile (Inf., XIII). During life they wasted property and goods, scattering it here and there. In Hell, this becomes a literal reality suffered by them; they are pursued by hounds who tear them apart, dispersing the remnants of their bodies throughout the forest. This allegorical deployment of the principle of contrapasso is even more evident in the case of the lustful who, possessed with a storm of passion during life, are now blown about violently by a passionate storm in Hell (Inf., V31-45).

Different still, there are examples whereby the punishment, rather than a contrast or reversal of the sin, presents itself as a continuation of an action made by the soul during life. The suicides in the second round of the 7th circle who deprived themselves of their bodies on earth, are now deprived of their human form also in Hell where they find themselves bound into gnarled trees. The difference between punishment by analogy and by continuation is perhaps only subtle in some cases. For example, in the aforementioned metaphorical storm of passion, we find the story of lovers Francesca and Paolo (Inf.,V). They loved each other in the human world and now will love each other eternally in the afterlife. This is part of their punishment. They retain those very characteristics that damned them to Hell; they cannot change and are forever damned to stay together away from God, tormented by happy memories for Francesca states that “Nessun maggior dolore/ che ricordarsi del tempo felice/ ne la miseria” (Inf., V, 121-123).

We can see then, that the meaning of the contrapasso is broader than that of the lex talionis. It is used and applied in two different ways: by analogy and by reversal of the sin. This make sense and provides us with a working system. It also provides us with an explanation that is historically sounded. Dante would have known the legal system well, and the term ‘contrapasso’ itself derives from the medieval translation ‘contrapassum’ of Artistotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, with which Dante would have been well acquainted. We also find similar concepts present in the Classical authors such as Virgil (Aeneid 6, 654) and Seneca (Hercules furens, 735-734).

But is this an over-interpretation too far? One of the leading Dante scholars of his time, Peter Armour, certainly seemed to think so. For him, to define the contrapasso this way is merely an attempt to make a word used by Dante once, fit in as many cases as possible. And he has a point. How can we explain the link between the punishment of the flatterers in the eighth circle who are immersed in human excrement? Perhaps Dante thought that to engage in false flattery in life was to surround oneself by filth. And what about the panderers and seducers who are whipped by demons? Many more cases exist whereby the link is unclear too.

Nevertheless, it does seem strange to suggest that Dante didn’t have a forceful reason for each and every case of sin and punishment, in an afterworld that otherwise is laid out to us with such clarity and precision. Nothing it seems in Dante’s Hell is arbitrary, superfluous or unjustified.

We would love to hear what you think! Does the contrapasso, although mentioned only once, have universal significance for the whole of the Inferno? Can you think of any other key instances where the contrapasso is applied differently to sinners and their punishments? Tweet us @madeinthemed to let us know what you think…

For further reading, I also recommend taking a look at a very interesting and convincing interpretation by Barolini (1979) which argues that the whole of Canto 28 (where we meet sinner Bertran de Born) can be seen as an exemplar of the contrapasso as a whole.


Alighieri, Dante (2006), Inferno, London: Penguin Group

Armour, Peter (2000), ‘Dante’s Contrapasso: Context and texts’, Italian Studies, 55, 1-20

Barolini, Teodolinda (1979), ‘Bertran de Born and Sordello: The Poetry of Politics in Dante’s Comedy’, PMLA, Vol. 94, No 3, pp. 395-405

This article was first published on https://medium.com/forte-academy/dantes-inferno-organised-chaos-or-just-a-hot-mess-15511ca3cdcf in June 2020.