Worse than Dante's Hell: Parents, Children and Pain at the Border

Kristina Olson (George Mason University)

Dante Notes / September 28, 2018

~ Dedicated to those who were torn apart.

Hell on Earth. Worse than Hell. A living Hell. These are the related aphorisms that have been used to capture the extremity of abuses against human rights, from those committed against migrants attempting to enter Europe,[1] to the decrepit conditions of detention facilities all over the world, especially those in impoverished areas of America.[2] Variations on these expressions have been common in describing the experiences of migrants detained at the American border, like so many souls who, fleeing their native “hell[s]”,[3] wished to find refuge in a real-life Purgatory, but are diverted back to Dis.[4]  How could one not think of hell when pondering the effects of the “zero tolerance” policy announced by Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions in April, 2018: children separated from their parents, their unification uncertain as records are incomplete or missing;[5] nursing babies taken from their mothers;[6] and young siblings ordered not to embrace each other while caged in windowless shelters[7]? Or when we hear of the other horrors that take place there, both now and over the past several years[8]: the reports of immigrant children beaten and injected with medications against their will;[9] the four-year old girl raped by her corrections offer, who threatened the mother with deportation if she were to report his heinous crime;[10] or the allegations that a toddler perished soon after her release?[11]

There are compelling reasons to take literally aphorisms about “hell on earth” when we consider these events. Dante’s poem shows us how far these real-life situations exceed the suffering of parents which he imagined in the lowest circles of hell. It should be remembered that, in Dante’s vision of the afterlife, young children can only be found in Limbo[12] or the Celestial Rose of the Empyrean: in places of waiting or eternal peace, but never in places that cause suffering. Innocence and lack of ethical responsibility exempt children from punishment. The exclusion of children from the horrors of lower hell occurs linguistically as well: Dante reminds us that describing the base of the universe is not “né da lingua che chiami mamma o babbo” (Inf.32.9). Hell is not a place for children – just as it was not a place for six-year old Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, whose recorded pleas for her mother echoed against the walls of her detention facility, or any of the thousands of children who found themselves there.[13]

Some of the most poignant moments of grief in Dante’s hell are those expressed by parents, such as Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, as they reflect upon their children from whom they have been separated by death. Similarly, some of the most tortured souls in hell, including Ugolino, are those who have failed in providing affection and safety for their children. It is the tragedy of parents who are forced to endure the trials of time and tested by the vicissitudes of history, souls with a knowledge of the past and the future, but never of the present. Their pain puts into relief the suffering of the migrants whom we turn away, detain, and deprive of their children, in America. It shows us how these realities are indeed worse than how our poet has imagined hell.


Dante’s interest in the family was both theological and secular, as families were the political protagonists who dictated the majority of local conflicts during his lifetime. Yet his interest in the family is also essential to his poetics of love and attachment. Here he is strongly influenced by Aristotle’s Politics (I, ii) and Nicomachean Ethics in these basic respects: the idea of the family as the basic social unit which must prepare its members for a life in the polis,[14] as well as the definition of love experienced within the family itself. On this latter point, as Aristotle writes, the basis of all love within the family, philia, derives from a parent’s love for their child:

“Friendship/love [philia] between relatives itself seems to include a variety of species, but all appear to derive from the affection of parent for child. For parents love their children as part of themselves whereas children love their parents as the source of their being.” (Nicomachean Ethics, VIII, xii, emphasis mine).

Dante elaborates upon Aristotle’s idea of paternal philia – where the parents experience love for their children as parts of themselves – when he discusses the nostalgia for beloved ones as the desire for their bodies, as well as in other parts of the poem. The poet expresses this sentiment in the sphere of Mars, where we find his own relative, his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida: “Tanto mi parver sùbiti e accorti / e l’uno e l’altro coro a dicer «Amme!», / che ben mostrar disio d’i corpi morti: / forse non pur per lor, ma per le mamme,  / per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari / anzi che fosser sempiterne fiamme” (Par. 14.64-66). They miss their beloved ones in physical form, as if those bodies were extensions, or parts, of themselves; as Teodolinda Barolini has stated, their longing demonstrates that love is an “embodied experience,”[15] and as Manuele Gragnolati has written, this episode also affirms that, “even in Heaven one is allowed, or even encouraged, to retain one’s desires for oneself, for one’s bodies and for the persons who mattered and continue to matter to one.”[16] To complete the idea that physicality enhances the bonds of this love, one might consider that the physical bodies of these souls also once enabled them to receive love from others in turn.[17]

If love for those we hold dear is a material and embodied experience, then the parting of those bound by love is, by extension, a figurative rending of the body. Family separation is akin to dismemberment, the division of a physical whole. Dante visually renders this separation in the punishment of Bertran de Born, a soul found amongst the schismatics, for having caused division between the sons of King Henry II and their father. The Occitanian poet holds his own head separate from his body, since he cleft father and son, with words that emphasis partition: “Perch’ io parti’ così giunte persone, / partito porto il mio cerebro, lasso!, / dal suo principio ch’è in questo troncone. / Così s’osserva in me lo contrapasso” (Inf. 28.139-142). The separation of family members or friends was considered a capital offense, as Guido da Pisa writes in his commentary, which here merits the contrapasso.[18] Yet if counter-suffering punishment was considered by many an imperfect form of retributive justice (“lex talionis”), then Bertran’s words downplay the civic damage of his sin for which he is damned amongst fellow schismatics, as Justin Steinberg has argued.[19] Instead, it highlights the violence done to the parent-child relationship. The separation of the head and the body emphasizes the literal integrity Dante placed upon the parent and child relationship, regardless of the public status of those whose bonds have been severed.

Dante’s considerations of love, the body, parents and children appear in other works as well, namely in his epistle to Cangrande and the Monarchia. In the letter to Cangrande, Dante again states that the relationship between father and son is like the relationship between the whole and its parts (Epistle XIII, 13).[20] This sense of the complementary relationship of father and child, especially as projected upon the metaphor of the body, is echoed in the Monarchia, where he writes: “Are they not to be described as having aimed at the common good who strove to increase the public good with toil, with poverty, with exile, with the loss of their children, the loss of their limbs, even the loss of their lives?” (II, v, 8, translation Shaw, emphasis mine).[21]

Separation from one’s children is the experience of physical and spiritual dismemberment for those parents suffering in hell, the minds of those in the “blind prison” (Inf.10.59), as one anguished father, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, describes it. It is also the sensation of being vulnerable to the vicissitudes of history while being unaware of what occurs in the present. The heretic Cavalcante, who is unaware of his son’s fate, as well as the treacherous Ugolino, imprisoned with his two children and two grandchildren, constitute some of the most poignant moments of grief in the poem, moments that speak to this plural sense of temporal suffering, and what we have been witnessing at the border. The anguish of parents separated from their children comes from being at odds with time, looking to an uncertain future while remembering the past, while the life of your child hangs in the balance of an unknown present. It is the anguish experienced by those in hell.

Dante illustrates this dilemma in the sixth circle, where the pilgrim talks about the history of Florentine conflict with the imposing Farinata degli Uberti, a Ghibelline who stood on the side of empire and who clashed with Dante’s ancestors during the mid-thirteenth century. Interrupting their conversation about the past history of exiled relatives, another soul, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, lifts his head out of the same tomb to inquire why his son, Dante’s fellow poet, Guido, does not join him on this infernal journey in the present. Their conversation is the one of literature’s most emotionally-charged uses of the remote past tense, as Auerbach has famously analyzed.[22] It crushes the father’s spirits, causing him to recoil back into his tomb in despair:

Di sùbito drizzato gridò: ‘Come?
dicesti ‘elli ebbe’? non viv’elli ancora?
non fiere li occhi suoi lo dolce lume?’

Quando s’accorse d’alcuna dimora
ch’io facëa dinanzi a la risposta,
supin ricadde e più non parve fora. (Inf.10.67-72)

As we know, Guido was in fact still alive during the time of the fictional journey (April 1300), though he died from malaria while in exile a few months later (August 1300). Dante the pilgrim asks Farinata to explain his mistaken use of the past tense: Guido is still “co’ vivi ancora congiunto” (Inf.10.111). The adjective “congiunto,” or “conjoined,” evokes the sense of being simultaneously with and part of others. In Paradiso 17.19, Dante will describe his time spent with Vergil, his father figure, as the period when he was conjoined with him (“mentre ch'io era a Virgilio congiunto”). Considered from this perspective, Dante wishes to tell Cavalcante that though his son is not there with them, he is still part of the present and conjoined with others. It is a response to the anxieties of a parent in detention, waiting to know the fate of their children, where they are and in whose care, and whether they will be reunited or be separated for all of eternity.

Cavalcante’s paternal love and anguish clashes with the case of another sinner and father, Ugolino della Gherardesca, who is frozen in lake Cocytus amongst the treacherous of the Ninth Circle. We have a limited understanding of Ugolino’s life as an instigator and victim of political conflict: exiled from his native city of Pisa, he switched political affiliations between the causes of the empire and the papacy to protect himself. Yet it appears that he did nothing politically to warrant such an extreme location in hell; it was perhaps his treatment of his grandson, Nino Visconti, that merited Dante’s stern view of this father figure.[23] Towards the end of his life, he was scapegoated by his companion in hell, the Archbishop Ruggieri, whose head he chews for eternity. Ruggieri’s manipulation of public opinion led to Ugolino’s imprisonment in the Eagle Tower with his two children and two grandsons. As they begin to die from starvation, the children offer themselves to be eaten by their patriarch, since he is the source of their flesh:

Come un poco di raggio si fu messo
nel doloroso carcere, e io scorsi
per quattro visi il mio aspetto stesso,

ambo le man per lo dolor mi morsi; 
ed ei, pensando ch’io ‘l fessi per voglia
di minicar, di sùbito levorsi

e disser: “Padre, assai ci fia men doglia
se tu mangi di noi: tu ne vestisti
queste misere carni, e tu le spoglia.” (Inf.33.55-63)

Parenthood, as Ugolino describes it, is the narcissistic perception of one’s own face in other faces. Resemblance is different than the relationship of parts – which may be complementary, but distinct – to the whole. Both patriarch and offspring do not acknowledge distinction in their relationships, nor, especially, of the suffering of the children, as John Freccero and Robert Hollander have observed.[24] They only consider the parental side of the equation, so to speak, for which the children offer their bodies – like parts to complete a whole, as if to mend the patriarchal body.[25]

Children should not be subjected to their parents’ political fate; as Dante writes, even if Ugolino betrayed his city, this was no reason to have his children suffer (86-7).[26] Ugolino’s story thus is not the story of the migrant: that of a parent who would sacrifice his own life for a better life for his children. It is the story of those, instead, who have created this crisis: of those who thrive on the division of the civic body and who cannot understand the relationship of the filial parts to the parental whole. The story of Ugolino is the allegory of division and destruction in the household and the state by the narcissism of leaders. It is the consumption and erasure of future generations born into a conflict which was bred by those in power.


Hell on Earth. We say it when it seems that nothing else could be worse, when we are overwhelmed by the staggering cruelty and lack of compassion displayed by one human being inflicting suffering upon another. We say it when we think of the sin of betrayal, however in an opposite fashion to what we find at the bottom of Dante’s hell: at the border, it is the breaking of the bonds between innocent loved ones and not the punishment of those who have broken those bonds. Dante’s poem tells us that hell is anywhere where parents and children suffer. More than midway along their journey through hell, Vergil teaches Dante the pilgrim that we should not pity the guilty, for to do so would be to question divine justice (Inf. 20.28-30). Dante’s poem shows us the human price of the opposite action: how pity and compassion are truly dead when we fail to recognize the innocent.


[1] Report by Izza Leghtas for Refugees International: “’Hell on Earth’: Abuses against Refugees and Migrants Trying to Reach Europe from Libya,” June 2017. https://www.refugeesinternational.org/reports/2017/libya Last accessed: July 17, 2018.

[2] See Carl Takei, “The East Mississippi Correctional Facility Is 'Hell on Earth',” ACLU blog, March 5, 2018. https://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/medical-and-mental-health-care/east-mississippi-correctional-facility-hell . Last accessed: July 17, 2018.

[3] See Axel Avendaño, “Mexico: Hell on Earth for Migrants,” El Universal, December 29, 2016. http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/articulo/english/2016/12/29/mexico-hell-earth-migrants . Last accessed: July 17, 2018.

[4] See Oliver Laughland, “'Going through Hell' at the Border: Parents Split from Children Tell of Anguish,” The Guardian, June 22, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/22/going-through-hell-at-the-border-parents-split-from-children-tell-of-anguish#top . Last accessed: July 17, 2018. See also: “Migrant Describes Childhood Spent in a Place ‘Worse than Hell’ and How He Escaped,” Fusion Live, Mariana Atencio, August 13, 2014. https://fusion.tv/story/6273/migrant-describes-childhood-spent-in-a-place-worse-than-hell-and-how-he-escaped/ . Last accessed: July 17, 2018.

[5] See “Migrant Parents Wait and Hope for Their Children,” The New York Times, June 21, 2018.

[6] See Tom Barnes, “US officials took baby daughter from mother while she breastfed in immigration detention centre, says,” The Independent, June 14, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-immigration-center-mother-child-breastfeeding-mexico-border-patrol-ice-a8398186.html . Last accessed: July 17, 2018.

[7] See Michael E. Miller and Jon Gerberg, “‘Where’s Mommy?’: A family fled death threats, only to face separation at the border,” The Washington Post, March 18, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/wheres-mommy-a-family-fled-death-threats-only-to-face-separation-at-the-border/2018/03/18/94e227ea-2675-11e8-874b-d517e912f125_story.html?utm_term=.d41835acc3af . Last accessed: July 19, 2018.

[8] See “ACLU Obtains Documents Showing Widespread Abuse of Child Immigrants in U.S. Custody,” ACLU, May 22, 2018 . https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-obtains-documents-showing-widespread-abuse-child-immigrants-us-custody  Last accessed: July 19, 2018.

[9] See Flores vs. Sessions, filed on April 23, 2018, in the U.S. District Court in California for a description of these allegations: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4525292-420-2-Exhibit-Vol-2-Exs-21-30-Pages-109-73.html . Last accessed July 29, 2018.

[10] See Samantha Schmidt, “Deputy accused of sexually assaulting girl, 4, threatening to have mother deported if she spoke up,” The Washington Post, June 18, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/06/18/deputy-accused-of-sexually-assaulting-girl-4-threatening-to-have-mother-deported-if-she-spoke-up/?utm_term=.bd39234d9060 . Last accessed July 19, 2018.

[11] See Maria Sacchetti, “Migrant Child Died after Release from Detention, Attorney Group Alleges,” The Washington Post, August 1, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/immigration/migrant-child-reportedly-dies-after-release-from-ice-family-detention-facility/2018/08/01/6a9515ea-95a8-11e8-a679-b09212fb69c2_story.html?utm_source=reddit.com&utm_term=.7fa30fc8db40

[12] See Teodolinda Barolini’s discussion of Dante’s Limbo as a place that “mitigates the suffering not of the unbaptized infants of Christian parents but of pagan adults.” See “Inferno 4: The Cultural Other.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-4/ . Last accessed: July 20, 2018.

[13] Ginger Thompson, “Listen to Children Who’ve Just Been Separated From Their Parents at the Border,” ProPublica, June 12, 2018.  https://www.propublica.org/article/children-separated-from-parents-border-patrol-cbp-trump-immigration-policy . Last accessed: July 19, 2018.

[14] Dante defines the civic purpose of the family in the Convivio and the Monarchia. In the Convivio, he writes: “E sì come un uomo a sua sufficienza richiede compagnia domestica di famiglia, così una casa a sua sufficienza richiede una vicinanza: altrimenti molti difetti sosterrebbe che sarebbero impedimento di felicitade. E però che una vicinanza [a] sé non può in tutto satisfare, conviene a satsfacimento di quella essere la cittade. Ancora la cittade richiede alle sue arti e alle sue difensioni vicenda avere e frattellanza colle circavicine cittadi; e però fu fatto il regno” (Convivio IV, iv, 2). In the later treatise, Dante elaborates upon the civic education that must take place in the family: “Consideriamo una famiglia, il cui fine è predisporre i propri membri a una vita bene ordinata: ci vuole uno che sia a capo e diriga, quello che appunto si chiama padre di famiglia, o chi ne tiene il posto, secondo il detto del Filosofo: ‘Ogni famiglia è retta dal più anziano’; e suo compito è, come dice Omero, dettare regole e leggi a tutti gli altri” (Monarchia I, v, 5).

[15] Teodolinda Barolini, “Paradiso 14: Our Bodies, Our Loves.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2014. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/paradiso/paradiso-14/

[16] Manuele Gragnolati, “Nostalgia in Heaven: Embraces, Affection and Identity in the Commedia,” in Dante and the Human Body: Eight Essays, ed. by John C. Barnes and Jennifer Petrie (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007), pp. 134-37.

[17] I am grateful to Simone Marchesi for this observation.

[18] “Qui separat alios, seu amicitia seu parentela coniunctos, caput a corpore portat divisum, quia secundum leges talis est capite puniendus. Et sic observatur in eo contrapassus, quia debet recipere id quod fecit.” (Expositiones et Glose: Declaratio super Comediam Dantis)

[19] See Justin Steinberg, “Dante’s Justice? A Reappraisal of the Contrappaso,” L’Alighieri 44 (2014): 59-74.

[20] “Eorum vero que sunt, quedam sic sunt ut habeant esse absolutum in se; quedam sunt ita ut habeant esse dependens ab alio per relationem quandam, ut eodem tempore esse et ad aliud se habere ut relativa; sicut pater et filius, dominus et servus, duplum et dimidium, totum et pars, et huiusmodi, in quantum talia” (emphasis mine).

[21] “Nunquid non bonum comune intendisse dicendi sunt qui sudore, qui paupertate, qui exilio, qui filiorum orbatione, qui amissione membrorum, qui denique animarum oblatione bonum publicum exaugere conati sunt?”

[22] Erich Auerbach, “Farinata and Cavalcante,” trans. W.R. Trask, The Kenyon Review 14:2 (Spring 1952): 207-242.

[23] As Barolini writes, “In Dante’s view, Ugolino used and abused his family members in securing and consolidating power over Pisa. Thus, Dante shows the fictional Ugolino’s willingness to use his children as oratorical pawns in his infernal narrative.” Also see Nassime Chida’s conclusions about Ugolino’s political “betrayal” summarized here. See “Inferno 33: Dynastic Wife to Dynastic Wolf.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-33/ Last accessed: July 20, 2018.

[24] See John Freccero, “Bestial Sign and Bread of Angels (Inferno 32-33),” Yale Italian Studies I (1977): 53-66; Hollander, Robert. “Inferno XXXIII, 37-74: Ugolino’s Importunity,” Speculum, 59:3 (July 1984), 549-555.

[25] See Ronald B. Herzman, “Cannibalism and Communion in Inferno XXXIII,” Dante Studies 98 (1980): 53-78. 

[26] One could read this sense into Dante’s epistle to the rulers of Italy: “Perdonate, perdonate, già da ora, o carissimi, voi che con me avete sofferto ingiustizia perché l’ettoreo pastore vi conosce come pecore del suo ovile; sebbene gli sia stato concesso da Dio l’esercizio della punizione temporale, tuttavia, per risentire egli della bontà di Colui dal quale come da un punto si biforca la potestà di Pietro e di Cesare, volentieri punisce la sua famiglia ma più volentieri ne ha pietà” (V, xvii, emphasis added).