The Inferno: Novel Summary: Canto 3

The dire words inscribed over the gate of Hell, which end with the famous words, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” (line 9), again frighten Dante, and Virgil has to comfort him again, telling him he must give up fear-the words only apply to those who, being dead, are no longer able to choose to turn to God. Once inside the gate he hears the groans of those who, while they were alive, refused to risk choosing either good or evil. They are in a large and undefined area, sometimes called the Vestibule, or Fore-Hell. As Virgil explains, they dont belong in Hell because they lacked the courage to choose evil; if they were in Hell, even the damned would look down on them. They endlessly follow a banner that never takes a stand anywhere, and Dante is amazed how many there are: “I could never have believed that death had undone so many” (lines 56-57). Then Dante and Virgil come to the river Acheron, where a great crowd of people wait to cross. Charon, the boatman, at first says that Dante, being alive, cannot cross, but Virgil tells him that Dantes journey is willed by God, and Charon accepts that. The souls who are waiting to cross curse God and their parents and all the circumstances of their lives. Dante is then deprived of consciousness by a sudden movement of the earth and an intense red flash.
Here for the first time the outer state of a group of souls after death is described in a way that reveals something about the nature of their inner state; in the same way, all the punishments of Hell, described in such graphic detail, are intended to help the reader see the real nature of the choices the souls have made, the truth about what those choices have done to them, or, to put it in other terms, the essence of their sin, which is now their punishment. Seeing the downward way clearly, as it is, is intended to give the reader, like Dante, the courage to choose the upward way. The suffering of the souls in this Fore-Hell reveal what it does to human beings to refuse to make real choices, to lack the courage to try to be happy, even by choosing to do harm to themselves and others. They follow meaningless causes with no real commitment, and their lives are utterly forgotten. Dante sees among these souls someone who is probably meant to be Celestine V, a pope who refused the risk of staying in office and turned over the papacy to Boniface VIII. Dante blamed Boniface for much of the corruption he saw in the church, and for the disaster that had come on his own beloved city, Florence. Seeing the man whose cowardice put Boniface in office, Dante really understands it-to refuse to act is the worst choice of all.
The souls who are waiting to cross Acheron made, while they were alive, the choice to turn their backs on God. They now blame everyone for that choice except themselves, something we will often see in the lower circles.