In Canto 30 of Dante’s Inferno, the reader is led through a lengthy, crowded section of hell where a collection of souls who are suffering eternal punishment for a wide range of sins are clustered together, mired in their own collective filth, which reflects some of the religious imagery of the times.
This “valley of disease” that serves as the setting for this canto is characterized by rot, decay, and disfiguring, foul illnesses that are often symbolically related to the crimes of the sufferer. For instance, the only character who is given any extensive dialogue in order to aid in his characterization, Master Adam, is swollen with a disease called dropsy, which is symbolically related to his crime of being “swollen” with the stink of greed during his life as a counterfeiter. He describes and taunts the other souls around him who are, much like him, miserable, but unable to do anything but lash out at others around them. The characterization of the entire place presented in this canto then reflects not only its inhabitants, but the crimes they committed, which label them as being diseases upon society. From incest to fraud, this gathering of sinners is unlike any other found in this poem by Dante. Part of the reason for this is that the author uses broad and symbolic characterization to communicate his ideas as opposed to a more focused, character-specific approach as used in previous cantos where one character was the subject of scrutiny.
In terms of characterization, instead of relying on mere language to communicate his sentiments about the plights of the multitudes in the bolgia that is filled with disease, Dante the poet relies on metaphor and symbolic characterization to present readers with notions regarding crime and the most appropriate form of punishment . By connecting issues of crime, punishment, and the animalistic, base nature of criminal behavior itself, the poet not only offers commentary on how the punishment in hell fits the crimes in life, he is also able to create characters who are defined by what they symbolize as opposed to by what they say in a narrative sense. In addition revealing that which is animalistic, Dante the poet literally interprets the crimes these citizens of hell physically. The ultimate effect of the combination of animal characterization and the use of symbolic characterization of the crimes committed is that the reader understands associations between crimes and their most just, fitting punishments. Hence, it is only just that this den of souls suffering for a multitude of sins that vary in scope and severity are diseased. The final effect of these characterizations is a deepening of the reader’s understanding of naturalism as it exists in this text. Suffers become literal interpretations of what their most grotesque sins and are characterized and presented in an “everyday” manner as enacting the torturous results of their mistakes in life.
The overall effect of this canto is on the reader is that it becomes possible to see these characters as individuals guilty of base crimes that can be tied to animalistic or instinctive desires (lust and greed). With their fitting punishments do, although it could easily be argued, is to gather up any of the “remaining sins” that had not been covered in the text and lump them together into the pit of disease. The characterization of the setting itself is that of a random collection of people who were themselves diseases upon society. These souls are now left to linger in their filthy torment along this “dismal road” that stretches on for eleven miles but is thin and crowded. Interestingly, the setting itself causes a change in the character of Dante as he is scolded by Virgil for succumbing to their petty gossip. It seems that the base, primal drives that landed many of the souls present in this region are also drives that Dante possesses, even though he has nothing but disdain for the reeking souls he surrounded by.
It is much easier to begin to see Dante’s new character trait that emerges toward this end of Inferno to have dismay for these dead rather than outright pity. The characterization of many of the other souls he has encountered do encourage the reader to sympathize with what drove them to their sins and while some have deserved more scorn than others, the characterization of this den of people who were blights upon their society discourages that in the reader and in Dante. The final effect of this canto is to communicate through characterization (as opposed to dialogue or narration) the conception of fitting punishments for sins committed during one’s life and to ultimately characterize sin as base human desires that are not rejected by the higher moral force in all of us.