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Recapping Dante: Canto 3, or Abandon Hope

October 21, 2013 | by

Charon Carries Souls Across the River Styx, Alexander Dmitrievich Litovchenko, 1861, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Charon Carries Souls Across the River Styx, Alexander Dmitrievich Litovchenko, 1861, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

I am writing this from the lobby of the Ace Hotel in New York; as I ascend from the basement with Dante under my arm, I see the following text printed on the stairs: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. This inscription offers an appropriate contrast to the opening of the third canto, which gives us the famous line written above the gates of hell, a line so famous that many know it well without knowing exactly who wrote it: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE. And just like the inscription in hell, these words too are written in the hotel’s neo-Victorian “dark hue.” But whether or not Dante knows it, he and I are essentially reading the same sentence—as chilling as the inscription is, the words in canto 3 ultimately do not apply to the man who travels beside Virgil.

Canto 3 is our first real contact with hell. As Dante approaches, he is accosted by the sounds of sinners waiting to cross the Acheron—the river that acts as a sort of foyer to the inferno. Charon, the ferryman, refuses at first to take Dante across. Virgil insists, and offers Dante little comfort or advice as they cross over.

This canto is loud. As Dante passes beneath the archway, he can hardly see anything, and can hear only the noises coming from the swarm of sinners, babbling in different languages, the sound of their hands slapping against their bodies—the vast, cacophonic gang eager and hungry to cross, being stung by insects and bleeding. There’s even something relentless and winding about the way Dante describes the noise: “unfamiliar tongues, horrendous accents, words of suffering, cries of rage …” It’s a violent passage intended to overwhelm, and indeed, imagine entering the darkness and hearing only the deathly sounds of people who are about to enter hell.

At this point, Dante starts crying.

Dante can only see the sinners in what he calls the “dim light.” What is this dimness? Is it that Dante’s eyes have begun to accustom themselves to the darkness, or that, as he moves closer to the river, just the faintest light from hell leaks over across the black water?

Charon tells Dante to move aside, and can see that Dante is in fact alive. At this point Virgil plays the divine mission card (sort of like a theological AmEx Black) and flexes his heavenly influence. Charon, who has been ferrying sinners to hell since the beginning of time, probably isn’t in the mood to argue, and relents.

As Charon calls the proverbial “all aboard” and is about to set off on his skiff, the sinners, as Dante says, leap into the ship “just as in autumn as the leaves fall away.” Needless to say, it sounds like the autumnal foliage is far more harrowing in Italy than it is over here.

Virgil and Dante begin to rove mysteriously over the water toward the inferno. And overwhelmed by the passage to hell, Dante loses hold of his senses, and faints. Classic Dante.

This fall, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along!

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.




  1. marcos | October 21, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    I’m loving this. I’ve read Dante’s Inferno about 3 years ago and some books about him by Erich Auerbach. Although Auerbach really reveals the structure and the facts of this work, now I’m paying more attention to the really small details, for instance: the moment Dante faints or the moment he leaps in the boat, as the recap says, are pure Dante. Not the one with high-elaborated poetics but the prosaic and pathetic human-like one that lost his path and tries to find it through his beliefs.

  2. Drew | October 21, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    “ I began to weep: Strange languages, horrible screams words imbued with rage or despair”

    “Dante was very particular about language. “When he comes to examine the dialects he finds Tuscan: ‘turpissimum..fere omnes Tusci in suo turpiloquio obtusi… non restat in dubio quin aliud sit vulgare quod quaerimus quam quod attingit populous Tuscanorum.’

    [Basically ugly and dull]

    His conclusion is that the corruption common to all the dialects makes it impossible to select one rather than another as an adequate literary form, and that he who would write in the vulgar must assemble the purest elements from each dialect and construct a synthetic language that would at least possess more than a circumscribed local interest, which is what he did.”

    —- ‘Dante… Bruno. Vico…Joyce, by Samuel Beckett’
    ( p. 18) from “Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of ‘Work in Progress.’

    Have the Robert Pinsky Bilingual Edition under my arm, walking down a hallway at SUNY where they’re
    re-painting the walls, and a sign overhead reads: “CAUTION” in big bold red letters.

  3. Drew | October 21, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    To marcos: ‘I’ve read Dante’s Inferno about 3 years ago..”

    “The Death of Beatrice inspired nothing less than a highly complicated poem dealing with the importance of the number 3. in her life. Dante never ceased to be obsessed by this number. Thus the Poem is divided into three Cantiche, each composed of 33 Canti, and written in terza rima.”

    -Op. cit.


  4. Joe | October 23, 2013 at 4:17 am

    I’ve been tuning in weekly for these articles. I’m thoroughly enjoying them.

  5. marcos | October 27, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks for the quotes Drew! Now I’m eager to read “Dante… Bruno. Vico… Joyce”, probably will read it only 3 months from now (with no irony at all, as I will have more time after some admissional exams)

  6. Benou | December 27, 2013 at 8:02 am

    I think “Charon Carries Souls Across the River Styx” is a picture by José Benlliure. Litovchenko has made the same subject but not this one.

  7. Jessa | July 27, 2015 at 11:07 am

    The picture above is actually La Laguna Estigia created in the year 1887 by the Filipino painter Felix R. Hidalgo. Litovchenko DID create a Crossing the River Styx painting, however his was created two years after Hidalgo’s in 1889.

1 Pingbacks

  1. […] is de beurt aan aflevering (canto) 4. Waar canto 3 nog behoorlijk onheilspellend eindigde (‘laat alle hoop varen‘), komen Dante en Vergilius in de regels van canto 4 een stuk minder demonen en monsters […]

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