Recognizing the Destruction of Divine Justice and the Contortion of Contrapasso: The Injustice of Society and How to Fix It

By Micayah Ambriz, Tommy Castronova, Alice Chen, Claire Corbeaux, Kat Johnson, Mya Nazaire, and Emily Zandy.

The Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, describes the poet’s unique and influential vision of Hell. The story begins with the narrator, Dante himself, being lost in a dark wood where he is attacked by three beasts that he cannot escape. He is rescued by the Roman poet, Virgil, and together they begin a journey into the Nine Circles of Hell. While there, Dante perceives Hell as a place that is governed by two concepts: divine justice and its offshoot, contrapasso. The Catholic Dictionary defines Divine justice  as “the constant and unchanging will of God to give everyone what is due him or her.” As defined by Wikipedia, contrapasso is derived from the Latin words contra, meaning against or opposite, and patior, meaning to suffer, so the literal meaning of contrapasso is “to suffer the opposite.” Moreover, contrapasso refers specifically to the punishment of souls in Dante’s Inferno, where punishment is exacted “by a process either resembling or contrasting with the sin itself.” While in Hell, Dante and Virgil encounter many sinners who have committed various crimes. Each sinner appears to be atoning for his misdeed by continuously undergoing his God-given contrapasso

Towards the end of their perilous journey, Dante and Virgil find themselves in the Eighth Circle of Hell, which is comprised of particular structures called malebolge. The word “malebolge” comes from the Latin term Malebolgia, which is a combination of the words mal, meaning evil, and bolgia, meaning valley or ditch. Thus, malebolge roughly translates into “evil ditches”. In Dante’s Inferno, the malebolgia are a series of 10 ditches, each containing and punishing a different group of sinners according to their contrapasso. The fifth ditch is for corrupt politicians, who, in life, abused their power and manipulated others. In Hell, therefore, they are forced into hard labor and hammer away at nothing, making their labor inherently fruitless. The seventh ditch is for thieves, who are tied up by reptiles, such as snakes, turned into ash, and forced to endure a metamorphosis back into human form, such that the process may repeat. The tenth ditch is for falsifiers of various crimes and as such, their punishment is a variety of diseases. Dante and Virgil must work through each individual malebolgia and interact with the many sinners there in order to eventually leave the Eighth Circle. 

Through investigating the mechanism and structure of Dante’s Hell, the Inferno is put into an intertextual conversation with Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. This conversation between texts which occurs across time and space bears interesting consequences that impact readers’ perceptions of both the literature with which they are engaging and the issues with which the works are themselves concerned. In Beloved, one of the novel’s main characters, Paul D, is sent to a prison in Georgia after attempting to kill a man named Brandywine to whom he was sold by Schoolteacher. Along with 45 other inmates, Paul D is subject to unpaid, labor-intensive work and even suffers sexual assault from the white guards: “Occasionally a kneeling man chose gunshot in his head as the price, maybe, of taking a bit of foreskin with him to Jesus” (Morrison 127). The 46 hammer relentlessly each day with their ankles shackled to an iron chain with only the calling of Hi Man, the arguable leader of the 46, and their disguised songs to get them through. Indeed, “they chain-danced over the fields…with a sledge hammer in his hands and Hi Man’s lead, the men got through” (Morrison 128). When not working, the 46 are held inside locked boxes that are located in deep ditches. During their imprisonment, the 46 are exposed to over nine days of rain, which causes their boxes to fill with water. They are then forced to sit, sleep, and excrete in the water. Amid the deluge, Hi Man, with a tug of the chain, gives the signal that is passed down to all 46 indicating that they should attempt to swim down, through, and up the mud in order to escape the prison and Alfred, Georgia. 

Throughout this section of Beloved, there are a number of parallels between Dante’s journey through the malebolgia and Paul D’s experiences in prison. In Inferno, the ditches that are filled with mud are reminiscent of the malebolge where flatterers are submerged in excrement. In another malebolge, thieves are chased and bitten by reptiles, including snakes, and in Beloved, the nine days of rain brought snakes which “came down from short-leaf pine and hemlock” (Morrison 129) and maintained an intimidating presence on the prison grounds. The ending of this chapter shows a “camp of sick Cherokee” (Morison 131), who are subject to an unnamed disease, like those in the tenth malebolge who are compelled to scratch their itching skin. All of these parallels produce a sense of symmetry and demonstrate the structural similarity between Dante and Morrison’s works. Indeed, Morrison is arguably drawing on the direction Dante’s protagonist takes through the Eighth Circle of Hell and is mapping that same direction upon Paul D’s journey out of imprisonment. However, in addition to producing structural symmetry, Morrison creates a strong sense of dissonance, as well. Particularly, Morrison’s allusions to the contrapassos present within Dante’s Eighth Circle are troubling since the individuals receiving the punishments associated with a particular contrapasso do not seem to deserve said punishments. For example, Paul D and the 45 men imprisoned alongside him hammer and labor fruitlessly, though they are not corrupt politicians. Rather, the corrupt politicians are those who forced the 46 into unpaid labor, that is, the politicians who, in the wake of the Civil War and the formal end of slavery, instituted black codes that kept formerly enslaved peoples in some form of bondage. Morrison uses these parallels to Dante’s Inferno in order to juxtapose the divine justice and contrapasso of Hell with the wildly irrational injustice of racism and slavery in the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras. In doing so, she goes to show us that black people in this time period suffered worse torment than the inhabitants of Hell, from the blatantly racist black codes to the systems of slavery that were designed with the express purpose of stripping them of their identity. Morrison uses this message to remind readers that marginalized groups are still facing twisted and wholly unjust contrapassos in today’s society and that it is the duty of every person to stay aware and vigilant of these injustices and call them out they are witnessed.  

Furthermore, slavery was a crueler fate than Hell for many black people in the United States during the 400 years it was a common practice. The institution of slavery, in its practice and aftermath, calls into question the moral dilemma of doing what’s legal versus doing what’s right. Indeed, it is often necessary to break the chains of established systems that neglect or harm certain groups to truly gain equality. The fight to end slavery was long and incited many legal methods that attempted to work around its abolition. One of these methods was the black codes. The black codes were laws enacted to keep freed slaves from fully coming out from under the control placed upon them. They were forced to return to lives of involuntary labor through these laws, which criminalized innocent behavior and only punished said behavior when it was performed by people of color. For example, there were vagrancy laws that said a black person was vagrant if they were without employment and residence and thus could be sold for labor to pay their fines. Through this one example, it is abundantly clear that the codes were created to keep the inhumane practice of slavery going. Moreover, the unjust ideology of white supremacy fueled and unfortunately still fuels the United States government in its creation of laws and practices like the black codes which try to keep black people from experiencing true equality in society.

As Paul D’s escape from prison continues, Morrison, in keeping with the structure of Dante’s journey, introduces Paul D and her readers to a Cherokee tribe afflicted by a nameless disease. In the Inferno, disease is the contrapasso reserved for falsifiers. It is difficult to discern what sort of falsifying the Cherokee tribe could have performed; however, falsification was undeniably committed against the Cherokee and many other Native American tribes in American history, particularly, when the U.S. government created unfair treaties that were designed to take land from Native tribes. Not only were these treaties corrupt and cruel in it of themselves but they were also disregarded and broken by the U.S. government many times over, making the government the true falsifiers. Indeed, the punishment for falsifiers has been placed upon the Cherokee tribe, despite the fact that they are the victims of the crimes the United States government committed. They suffer an undeserved punishment, just as Paul D and the 45 suffer. This section of Beloved perpetuates the idea that justice is created by the powerful who often act as oppressors towards those who are not them. Furthermore, Beloved reveals that the “ illness that swept them now was reminiscent of the one that had killed half their number two hundred years earlier” (Morrison 131). Morrison further writes that the Cherokee accomplished a large number of things between bouts of illness, “All to no avail.” As long as the government continues to allow these systems to remain in place, the Cherokee will continue to suffer despite all of their best efforts, as is outlined in Beloved. Thus, while the novel is set in a particular time in the past, it nevertheless speaks to the future and to the more distant past, as well. Indeed, Morrison writes: “The disease they suffered now was a mere inconvenience compared to the devastation they remembered”(Morrison 131).

The mistreatment of Native Americans is a particularly tragic aspect of American history; its reverberations can still be felt today, particularly among Native communities. This ill-treatment largely began during the late fifteenth century when colonizers such as Christopher Columbus engaged in the moving and selling of Native peoples from their place of origin. These practices were performed primarily for monetary gain and therefore involved the exploitation of labor and claiming of Native land. These practices, which benefited the white settlers committing the aforementioned atrocities, abused the Native people whose lands were claimed and whose labors were exploited, causing them to suffer not only loss of land but loss of livelihood, as well. Acts of genocide, widespread disease, and forced removal are all examples of further crimes committed against Natives by white settlers who were fueled by greed and the ideology of white supremacy. 

To this day, the U.S. government continues to deceive Native Americans by stating that their fraudulent treaties and strict policies were enacted to protect them. At the core of the restrictions on Native Americans lies the idea that “reservation land is held “in trust” for Indians” by the U.S. government (Riley, 2016). It is clear here that the laws of justice, which allegedly aim to protect Native peoples, were created by and for the white individuals who profited from the unfair and imbalanced power dynamics initially formed in the Fifteenth Century. Indeed, by keeping a strict hold of the land, natural resources, and promised provisions, the U.S. government made it very difficult for Native Americans to readily maintain a sense of their own identity and reap the benefits which they are rightly owed. The interference of the government has neither fostered better relationships nor bettered the lives of those living on the reservations, which the government allegedly seeks to protect. Knowing this, the punishment for those guilty of falsifying, that is, the U.S. government and the individuals who orchestrated and abandoned corrupt treaties, should receive the contrapasso of disease as is intended by the divine justice promised in Inferno. However, justice in American society has become such that the guilty are not penalized and the victims succumb to disease and poverty, effects of imbalanced power dynamics. Indeed, Native Americans in Beloved and in present American society were faced with disease and now face land dispossession. The blatant stealing of Native American land throughout history and the erasure of their identity prove the U.S. to be the true falsifiers. 

Furthermore, the concept of identity plays a major role in the structure and functioning of Dante’s Hell in the Inferno. Indeed, throughout not only Dante’s time in the malebolgia but his entire journey through Hell, there is a rather clear pattern. First, Dante and Virgil come into another part of hell. Then, Dante encounters a sinner who dwells in this part of hell and learns that sinner’s name, the crimes they committed in life, and what punishment they must eternally face as a result. Lastly, the sinner usually shows some sign of remorse. We see this pattern at work in Dante’s meeting with Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, who upon meeting Dante, tells Dante his name, and admits that he was a traitor in life, but that while he may deserve the punishment he got on Earth, his children did not. He tells the story of the horrible things the Archbishop that he now finds himself trapped in hell with did to him in life. He shows remorse not because of his own fate, but because of how his actions affected his children. The formula of Dante’s Hell is made especially apparent in his conversation with Bertrand De Born, who tells Dante that, in life, he turned a father and son against each other by advising the son, the “young king” Prince Henry, to rebel against his father, King Henry II. He then goes on to say that because he severed such a sacred bond in life, he must forever live with his head severed from his body. De Borne affirms the strict, sensical orderliness of Hell’s structure when he tells Dante that his punishment is “the perfect contrapasso!” (Dante Canto XXVIII line 142). 

There are a few aspects of this pattern that are important for analyzing Inferno as it relates to Beloved, perhaps the most important of which being that Dante’s Inferno grants each sinner that Dante comes across the opportunity to keep and maintain their identity, even in Hell. This is directly contrasted by Beloved, where those being punished are largely robbed of their identity, and more often than not are given numbers or nicknames in place of their names. Paul D and his fellow prisoners are known as the 46, with Paul D being the only one whose actual name we learn. The only other named member of the 46 is known to both the audience and Paul D by the name, Hi Man, which could be interpreted as a nickname given to him by Paul D. Furthermore, the book’s dedication is to the “Sixty Million and more,” an allusion to the rough estimate of the amount of slavery-related deaths. This serves to comment on the dehumanization of these people, who are the victims in their stories, rather than the sinners. This is not a practice confined to Beloved, or even to fiction. It is common for people in positions of power to commit atrocities against marginalized people and then use their power to cover up these atrocities. Stripping victims of their names, and therefore their identities, is a tactic used by the powerful to cover up the sins they committed since dehumanizing victims tends to shift the focus away from what is being or has been done to said victims. By showing this upsetting tradition in how she refers to groups of marginalized people in Beloved, Morrison displays to her readers that this silencing tactic was being utilized rather unabashedly in the time that this novel takes place, as well as when it was written.

This sense of forced anonymity, and stolen identity, is prevalent throughout Beloved and shows up in many ways. For example, it is present in the idea of someone else having ownership of your whole self, as illustrated when Morrison writes: “That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you… dirty you so bad you forgot who you were” (Morrison 295). This feeling is something the characters in Beloved struggle with throughout the novel. This idea of having your very sense of self stolen away from you is something that not even those in Dante’s Hell suffer, and that is the very point Morrison is trying to make. This is only further exacerbated by another contrast between Beloved and Inferno, being that the sinners in the Inferno usually show some sign of remorse in their interactions with Dante, implying that, after being punished and confronted with the fact that their actions were wrong, they finally realize the error of their ways. No such thing occurs in Beloved, as it is made very clear that those being punished are the victims, and that the sinners, in this case, white people, aren’t being held accountable in the slightest. Indeed, the few white people we do meet in Beloved, even the ones framed as helpful, or kind, show no remorse for any previous or current acts of racism of which they took part. This is clear when looking at the Gardners’ participation in the institution of slavery. The Gardners feel justified in their participation in such an institution since they believe their treatment of enslaved peoples to be different, that is, kinder and milder than the norm. They believe themselves to be exercising “kind” treatment in cases such as giving Sethe earrings for her wedding or allowing Halle to buy his mother out of slavery. These acts of “kindness” perpetuate their lack of remorse by justifying their support of a corrupted, unjust system. This goes to further display to the reader that the world of Beloved, unlike Hell, has no Divine Justice. If anything, it has a distorted, wicked sort of Divine Injustice. It serves to make the reader understand that, as Mya Nazaire brilliantly put it, “slavery is Hell for the undeserving.”        

Thus, Morrison, in her conscious referencing and reworking of Dante’s Eighth Circle, produces a dramatic dissonance within her readers, specifically in readers familiar with the Divine Comedy.  Morrison, in her inclusion of the instances of contrapasso that appear in Dante’s own journey, assigns punishments to individuals and groups who do not appear to deserve said punishments. Paul D and the 45 other men with which he is imprisoned are forced to reside within their excrement, a punishment reserved for flatterers, though they have committed no such crime. The parallels that Morrison’s adherence to Dante’s path through the Eighth Circle create “higher” and “deeper” (Morrison 159) dissonance as the Paul D imprisonment chapter continues. Morrison seems to be leading her readers to assign the punishments of forced labor, the pursuit of reptiles, and disease to the individuals suffering from the aforementioned entities. However, Morrison does so purposefully to jar her readers into realizing that the contrapassos they recognize from the Inferno’s Eighth Circle are inverted such that the individuals who sinned do not encounter their contrapasso. Rather, the individuals or groups that the sinners harmed are forced to experience the contrapassos which their oppressors themselves warrant. It is in this way that Morrison promotes the idea that the Hell envisioned by Dante is a formulaic, structured place, from its very geography to its inner workings and policies, while, on the other hand, slavery and the legislations which came after its abolishment that served to by and large maintain it, and the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans are all senseless. 

Furthermore, in reworking Dante’s journey through the Eighth Circle and upending the fabric of contrapasso, a component and sign of divine justice, Morrison demonstrates that the U.S. government, particularly through its institution of slavery, legislation of Black Codes, and treatment of Native Americans, obfuscates, abandons, and contorts the concept of divine justice. Moreover, the U.S. government fails to in any way actualize the divine, deserving justice which Dante seeks to describe in his Inferno and exchanges it for corrupt injustice which manifests into atrocious policies and laws which were or are nevertheless upheld as being allegedly “just” and “lawful.” This corrupt injustice and the laws born from it seek to protect and promote the perpetrators of crime who seek to remain in power by abusing and oppressing marginalized individuals. As was eloquently put by Mya, Morrison demonstrates how “slavery was a hell for the undeserving” by displaying in Beloved just how those in power are able to flip the contrapasso they deserve upon those they oppress in order to maintain the unfair power dynamics already pervading and plaguing their society. 

The consequences of the U.S.’s history as a country that, at one time, perceived slavery as morally sound are still reverberating throughout modern-day American society with the continuation of white supremacy. This distortion of justice is still prevalent in today’s society and, notably, within the justice system itself. America is known for having astounding mass incarceration rates, particularly, among individuals from lower socioeconomic statuses, and more specifically among those who fall under a racial minority. According to Pew Research Center, “In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population” (Gramlich, 2019).The school to prison pipeline is an example of how members of American society are affected by our gradually improving yet still failing justice system. Two groups of students are targeted within this particular pipeline: racial minorities and students with disabilities. These students appear to be pushed from school for alleged behavioral issues and into the criminal justice system (Elias, 2013). Once thrown into this system, it is difficult to leave since a criminal record makes finding future jobs more difficult and even increasingly so for minorities and people with disabilities. Although imprisonment rates as a whole have been decreasing since the mid-2000s, there is still an appalling racial discrepancy in these imprisonment rates. This shocking disparity is evident is one simple sentence stated by Pew Research Center: “Blacks, Hispanics make up larger shares of prisoners than of U.S. population” (Gramlich, 2019). This isn’t because different races are inherently more prone to criminal behavior, but because of our country’s continuation of a mindset in which those who are regarded as allegedly different are treated as such. This mindset is perpetuated by using the word “justice” to excuse a flawed system that was created hundreds of years ago. Moreover, the word “justice”  itself can have multiple meanings depending on one’s perspective, but even with this indefinable quality, it is assumed that justice should be a principle that is equally applied to all. Then, perhaps the true discrepancy of justice in society lies not within what justice is defined as, but in who is deemed deserving of it and to what extent. Unfortunately, where there is money, there inevitably exists an unequal power dynamic that is often exploited in favor of those who have money, and therefore, power, versus those who do not possess such things, a factor which is largely determined by preexisting power dynamics which are themselves predicated on a corrupt, reversed sense of justice. Change takes time and although steps have been taken towards the creation of a more just society, people are still corruptible whether it’s through their own sense of justice or their blatant opposition to it. 

Furthermore, Morrison’s Beloved emphasizes the importance of examining justice in the society one is living in. Morrison suggests that any society that allows the institution of American slavery to exist is not a just society, rather, it is a society experiencing and promoting a reversal of justice. In Dante’s Inferno, justice is the idea that the punishment for the criminal fits the crime they committed. Beloved emphasizes the reality that society’s sense of justice is extremely distorted, and that white supremacy allows for this distorted idea of justice to continue to exist within the framework of racism and other forms of discrimination. Morrison concludes the novel with the statement “This is not a story to pass on” (Morrison 324). This statement following a novel that tells a story that, like many others, never got told, seems to be satirical and ironic, with many implications. It urges readers to examine why these stories don’t get passed on and urges them to consider what will happen if they are not told. A compelling answer that readers may find for the aforementioned question is that history will inevitably and unfortunately repeat itself if stories of injustice are not told, responded to, and reflected upon. American society’s idea of justice has clearly been inverted, and the only way in which change can be accomplished is by first being aware of the injustices American society permitted in its corruption. Through Beloved, Morrison urges readers to be cognizant and to prevent history from repeating itself by understanding it and the atrocities that occurred within it. 

In all, Morrison, through her conscious reworking of Dante’s Eighth Circle and her distortion of the Dantean concepts of divine justice and contrapasso demonstrates how society and the powerful entities that dominate it often corrupt, distort, and ignore divine justice and forgo the arduous work of creating such justice on Earth. Rather, the powerful seek to remain powerful by creating faulty justice systems and practices. Moreover, these warped senses of justice function by mangling the concept of contrapasso that rules Dante’s vision of justice, punishing individuals and groups who were marginalized by the powerful such that they may remain so. In doing so, Morrison urges her readers to recognize the injustice that pervades the society they participate in and encourages them to pass on the stories of the victims who were further victimized by those who sought to maintain their marginalization for their own selfish gain. Only through this awareness can readers begin to work towards ameliorating the corrupt “justice” practices in their societies and strive for the creation of divine justice on Earth. 

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