In Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, those who committed suicide are punished. Like in the other circles of the inferno, the punishments for those who committed suicide is directly linked to the nature of their sin. In the case of those who committed suicide, the souls are not given bodies as other souls in the Inferno but rather they are made into trees and fibrous plants which are torn and broken. Since those who committed suicide discarded their body on earth, they are made to suffer without a body. (Musa 67)
The type of punishment that souls suffer for the sin of suicide discloses Dante’s view of that sin. Specifically, it discloses what Dante believes drives a person to commit suicide, how suicide is offensive to God, and how truly culpable the offending soul is. Together, he demonstrates how much pity, he believes, should be shown to a given suffering soul.
The beginning of Canto XIII discloses what Dante believes drives a person to commit the sin of suicide as he describes the bushes and trees that he sees as he writes,
“No green leaves, but rather black in color,
No smooth branches, but twisted and entangled,
No fruit, but thorns of poison bloomed instead” (Inf. XIII, 4-6).
The black leaves lacking color are analogous to a suicidal human being who, while his lungs are breathing and his heart is beating, lacks the beauty of life and is spiritually dead. He is physically alive but his spirit is dead and he has lost the will to live. That is why he also cannot bear good fruit and any product that does come forth from him does not promote life. Instead, the only thing that comes from this blackened spirit is poison that kills and harms that which comes near it.
The twisted and entangled branches represent the twisted reasoning that drives a person to believe that suicide is the best option. An example of this is given again when Dante speaks to Pier Delle Vigne and Pier says,
“My mind, moved by scornful satisfaction,
Believing that death would free me from all scorn,
Made me unjust to me, who was all just” (Inf. XIII, 70-72).
Pier, having placed so much faith in his status in the royal court, believed that he had lost everything when his standing fell in the eyes of Frederick. In that moment, his entangled system of values and twisted reasoning led him to believe that the only relief in living was to die. He valued something fickle and temporary over his own life which made him believe that life, which was the one thing that couldn’t be diminished by the royal court, was not worth living. In that respect, his mind and reasoning was as entangled, illogical, and twisted as the branches he now has in the Inferno.
The punishment of the suicides also discloses Dante’s view of how suicide is so offensive to God. God gives people the gift of life and of body. He gives a life that people are supposed to live seeking to be virtuous and happy—making sure to correctly value and recognize the gifts God has given them. In committing suicide, people disregard and discard the gift of the body God had given them and disregard God’s call for them to seek happiness and virtue in the world. In the example of Pier Delle Vigne, Pier now has to bear all the pain of having a body with none of the benefit; each broken and torn branch being as painful as a human being having their limbs torn off. Pier cries,
“’Why are you tearing me?’”
And when its blood turned dark around the wound,
It started saying more: ‘Why do you rip me?
Have you no sense of pity whatsoever?’” (Inf. XIII, 33-36).
Having failed to properly love and care for his body, Pier now suffers an existence of pain and bleeding without any of the benefit that having an actual body brings.
This sort of disregarding of God’s gifts is also demonstrated in the comments made by the Florentine when he says,
“I turned my home into my hanging place” (Inf. XIII, 151).
God calls all people to live a happy and healthy life, enjoying the gift of bodily living. God desires people to take their life and make something beautiful out of it—devoting life to virtue, art, and service of others. God gives people life so that they can do things that are life giving. When the Florentine hangs himself, he discards the call to be life giving and makes his home, which is supposed to be the center of life giving acts, a place of death. By disposing of God’s greatest gift to him, which is giving him life, he disrespects God Himself.
As Dante descends into the Inferno, the extent of his pity towards the suffering souls gradually decreases as he meets souls that committed more grievous sins. However, in Canto XIII, Dante’s level of pity actually increases toward these souls. Just previously, Dante didn’t have any pity in Canto XII toward the sinners boiling in blood, while in Canto XIII he is moved to pity and shock. At first, he is shocked after he breaks the branch of Pier Delle Vigne,
“So from that splintered trunk a mixture poured
Of words and blood. I let the branch I held
Fall from my hand and stood there stiff with fear” (Inf. XIII, 40-42).
Later, Dante confirms how great his shock and pity are towards Pier Delle Vigne when he says,
“’Why don’t you keep on questioning,’ I said
‘And ask him, for my part, what I would ask,
for I cannot, such pity chokes my heart’ (Inf. XIII, 82-84).
This feeling of guilt for his contributing to the suffering of Pier Delle Vigne and pity for Pier reveals that Dante, while recognizing the gravity of the sin, believes that those who committed suicide were not in full control of themselves. As such, they deserve pity because, much like Francesca and Paolo, they committed the sin they did as a result of the conditions they faced at that moment and not because they were evil or truly seeking malice. Of course, they are in the Inferno and, according to Dante, they deserve to be in Inferno because of the gravity of the sin and the fact that they did not seek God’s forgiveness. That being said, Dante recognizes that those who commit suicide have no opportunity to seek God’s forgiveness after they commit suicide. Since the consequence of their sin is death itself, they do not have a chance to repent for their sin. Moreover, the fact that those who commit suicide are faced with an entangled mind and twisted reasoning means that they cannot make a decision in true freedom or with a clear mind.
Dante’s opinions and interior conflicts are put on display in the Inferno. In how he describes who is in the Inferno, their punishments, and how and whether or not to pity them he discloses what he thinks about morality, theology, and the culpability of man in regard to different sins. He uses his knowledge of theology to describe the punishment of various sins in accordance with how great he perceives the gravity of a given sin to be. He condemns those who seek vice with the full ability to seek virtue, and pities those who did not have full faculties of mind and heart to avoid the sin they committed. In Canto XIII he looks upon these sinners who discarded the greatest gifts God had given them, their body and life, with pity. These souls were not given a chance to repent for a sin they committed under great pressure and distress. These are souls that committed a grave error and never had a chance to change their decision or make up for their mistake.