Dante’s Inferno Overview
Inferno is the first poem in a three-part series called The Divine Comedy. Inferno is an allegorical journey through Hell. In part, Inferno is a political allegory, and in part it is a religious allegory. It is also a story following the classic elements of a comedy—it starts in the depths of Hell but ends with the joys of Heaven.
In this epic poem, Dante himself has to travel through the layers of Hell in order to find his dead love, Beatrice, who is watching over him in Heaven. She sends the poet Virgil, who is spending eternity in Limbo, to guide him and help him make his way to her. Dante feels great feelings of pity and is overwhelmed at first, however he seems to come to a deeper understanding of Hell and how it functions as a spiritual realm, so by the end he possesses a certain acceptance and wisdom about Hell and its purpose.
Dante’s Inferno Literary Elements
Author: Dante Alighieri
Type of Work: Narrative poem
Genres: Epic poem, allegory, fantasy
Published Date: 1314
Setting: The year 1300 in Hell
Main Characters: Dante Alighieri, Virgil
Protagonist: Dante Alighieri
Major Thematic Elements: The perfection of God’s justice; evil juxtaposed to God’s grace; storytelling as a vehicle for immortality
Motifs: Political arguments; allusions to classical literature; cities; fame and prestige in human life
Exposition: Dante is wandering a dark forest by himself, alone and afraid. He is met by the poet Virgil, who offers to be his guide.
Conflict: Dante attempts to find his way to God, to Heaven, to Beatrice, but obstacles in Hell hinder his journey.
Plot: The story is told in Cantos—sections of the poem. Mostly, the Cantos align with where the characters are in their journey through Hell.
Major Symbols: The entire poem is allegorical, so every aspect serves as a symbol. For example, the punishments of the condemned symbolizes their sins on Earth.
Climax: Dante’s encounter with Lucifer.
Dante’s The Divine Comedy is considered to be a landmark in European literature. Inferno is widely considered by scholars to be the greatest medieval poem written in vernacular language. It is upheld as a beautiful poem unmatched by any other of its time. The fact that this poem is written in vernacular Italian—the common language of the people—it provides an amazing historical context in which literature and language can be evaluated and studied.
Before Dante, most epic poems, and literature in general, was written in Latin and nobody quite understood the value and poetic beauty that could come from writing in one’s natural tongue. The Divine Comedy is genuinely a comedy in terms of the classic genre. It is upheld in two ways—it is written in vernacular language, and it starts off sad/dramatic (in Hell) and ends on a happier note (in Heaven).
What Dante truly did well with Inferno is to write a universal work that critics would praise due to its elevated style, but ordinary people could also access and enjoy it.
Dante’s Inferno Summary
The poem begins on Good Friday in the year 1300. The poet Dante Alighieri is lost in a forest and is looking for the way out. He cannot remember how he got there. He decides to try and climb to a sunny point on a nearby mountain but meets a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Unable to fight them, he returns down to the dark forest. While wandering, he encounters the ghost of the poet Virgil, who says that he will guide him to the top of the sunny mountain. Virgil tells Dante that their path goes through Hell, but they will eventually reach Heaven, where Dante’s love, Beatrice, is waiting for him. Virgil tells Dante that Beatrice saw him wandering alone and afraid and sent Virgil to help guide Dante to her. In Canto II, Dante invokes the muses, asking for help telling his experiences as he travels through Hell. As he approaches the gates, he fears that he will not be worthy of traveling through Hell and returning.
In Canto III, Virgil leads Dante through the gates of hell, which read “abandon all hope, you who enter here.” As the pair enter Hell, they first go through the outer layer, the Ante-Inferno. In this part of Hell live the people who were unable to live either lives of good or of evil and so neither Heaven nor Hell would accept them. Now, they chase after a blank banner every day while hornets sting them, and worms drink their blood and tears. A boat lead by an old man, Charon, takes Virgil and Dante across the river of wailing souls into Hell. Dante feels pity for the souls he’s witnessed already and is uneasy about entering Hell. He faints.
When they enter Hell, they arrive in the First Circle, Limbo. This is where pagans and good people who did not know Christ are housed. Here he meets Ovid and Horace, and he learns that this is where Virgil resides, along with the great philosophers Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, etc.
In Canto V, Virgil and Dante descend to the Second Circle of Hell where they meet the monster Minos. His job is to assign punishments to the condemned souls who enter. The Second Circle of Hell is where the lustful wind up. Overcome with pity, Dante faints for the second time since he’s arrived in Hell.
When he awakens, he is in the Third Circle of Hell. The gluttonous are housed in this circle and are forced to lie in mud while they are rained on by filth and excrement. Dante asks Virgil what will happen to the souls in hell after the Last Judgment, and Virgil answers that since the Last Judgment will bring perfection to all of creation, the punishments of those in Hell will be perfected as well.
The Fourth Circle of Hell avaricious and prodigal souls are forced to charge at one another with boulders. These are the people who hoarded and squandered their money, respectively. They are in this Circle together because of their imprudence with Fortune. At the end of Canto VII, Dante and Virgil descend to the Fifth Circle of Hell and see the River Styx. Covered in mud, these souls residing here fight and bite one another relentlessly. These are the souls of the wrathful. There are also souls submerged in the river, the souls of the sullen.
In Canto VIII, Dante sees someone he knew on the banks of the river. Rather than feeling pity, he is glad to see that this individual is being ripped apart by others. In Canto VIII, Virgil and Dante enter Lower Hell—the city of Dis. Fallen angels refuse Dante entry. In Canto IX, Dante sees three Furies who call for Medusa to come and turn Dante to stone. Virgil covers Dante’s eyes in time to prevent this. An angelic messenger arrives to force open the gates and allow Dante entry to the Sixth Circle of Hell, home of the heretics. Here, as Canto X begins, Dante encounters a political rival, Farinata. He tells Dante that he will be exiled from Florence, but admits that as part of the punishment, heretics in Hell can only see distant events, not present ones.
Canto XI sees Virgil and Dante enter the Seventh Circle of Hell. Here, those who committed violent acts against others spend eternity boiling in a river of blood. They meet with a group of centaurs who take them into the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, where those who committed suicide reside. Here, they endure eternity as trees. Traveling onwards, the pair encounter the souls of the blasphemers, the sodomites, and the usurers (those who were violent against God, those who were violent against nature, and those who were violent against art, respectively).
In Canto XVIII, Virgil and Dante arrive outside the Eight Circle of Hell, which is made up of several pouches. The First Pouch houses the panderers and the seducers, the Second Pouch houses the flatterers, the Third Pouch contains Simoniacs, the Fourth Pouch contains the astrologers, the Fifth Pouch houses those who accepted bribes, the Sixth Pouch contains hypocrites, the Seventh Pouch contains the thieves, the Eight Pouch contains the False Counselors guilty of spiritual theft, the Ninth Pouch contains the Sowers of Scandal and Schism, and the Tenth Pouch houses the liars.
In Canto XXXIV, Dante and Virgil reach the pit of the Ninth Circle of Hell, in which the three-headed Lucifer resides. In each of his mouths, he is chewing on a sinner. The three greatest sinners are being chewed violently, but they never die. They are Judas, who betrayed Christ, and Brutus and Cassius, the betrayers of Julius Caesar. Virgil says they have now seen all of Hell and must leave. They reach the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness and travel from Hell back to Earth. They emerge on Easter morning.