In A Nutshell
Dude goes to Hell. We repeat: a guy wandering around in the forest outside of Florence meets a dead epic poet... and then gets an all-expenses paid, full-blown tour of Hell.
This is basically 14th Century Italian poetry version of getting a VIP day at Disneyland with Donald Duck as a guide. Except, you know, replace It's A Small World with a river of boiling blood, Splash Mountain with a desert nightmarescape complete with fiery rain, and The Matterhorn with a harrowing scaling of the legs of Lucifer.
Hmm. Maybe that Disneyland metaphor doesn't actually work.
But you know what metaphors do work? Answer: all of the metaphors in Inferno. When Dante and his host-with-the-most Virgil take a stroll through the netherworld, he sees that every sinful action has an equal and opposite Hellish reaction—if you're sullen, you spend eternity glubbing in mud like a catfish. If you're a suicide (if you decided you didn't want life), boom—no humanoid afterlife for you: you spend eternity as a tree. A tree being perpetually bitten by harpies.
This poem is insane. And it's also insanely important and eloquent. And—as if you needed a cherry on top of this demented literary sundae—it was totally controversial when it came out.
Written in the early fourteenth century by Italian politician Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy is a literary reaction to the bitterly contested politics of medieval Florence. Florence, the richest of the Italian city-states and possibly all of Europe at that time, was divided between two political parties—the Blacks (who supported the Pope) and the Whites (who didn’t). When Pope Boniface VIII schemed with the Blacks to seize power over Florence in a military coup, Dante was exiled. His hatred of the Pope can be seen throughout his Divine Comedy.
You heard right. A trip through the three layers of Catholic afterlife is actually about (in part) how much its author hates the Pope. We told you this poem was nuts.
The Divine Comedy is Dante's fictional (shocker, right?) account of himself traveling through the three divine realms: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Not surprisingly, in this story Dante puts his enemies in Hell and makes 'em suffer; the Inferno is heavily populated with corrupt Florentine politicians characterized as sinners.
But more than just a means to get payback, the Divine Comedy is the first Italian epic work of poetry that is not in church Latin but in the vernacular—the language of the common people—the Florentine dialect of Italian. So Dante played a major role in standardizing the Italian language, coining new words and paving the way for major works of literature written in the vernacular.
In other words, Dante’s a big kahuna among poets. And Inferno is widely believed to be his magnum opus.
Why Should I Care?
We have two layers of why you should care for you, Shmoopers. (We could have used nine as a nod to the nine layers of Hell, but brevity is the soul of wit, y'all.)
The first reason you should care is that this poem is awesomely insane. It's not often that you come across a Great Work Of Poetry that is essentially a list of afterword punishments so sadistic they'd make King Joffrey blush. Inferno is also a chronicle of Who Messed Up—it's a gossipy, star-studded tale of famous people who sinned... and what kind of twisted fate they have to suffer for all eternity.
Dante's warped Hannibal Lecter-esque genius thinks up (and describes in great detail) afterlife sentences that include being perpetually stung by insects, lying around in feces, and being trapped in burning tombs. And that's just beginning—those are the the punishments for the lesser sins of being neutral (!), being gluttonous, and being heretical.
You should see what happens to the government officials who take bribes.
So how come Dante is more bitter than five-day-old coffee? Well, that brings us to Why You Should Care, Reason #2 .
Few people in history have fallen so hard and so fast as Dante Alighieri. In the space of a few weeks, our man Dante went from being a famous poet and influential citizen in his native Florence to a desperate political exile.
Let’s imagine a far-fetched contemporary scenario set in America that would roughly approximate Dante’s catastrophe. You’re a famous novelist, and your latest masterpiece won the Pulitzer Prize. As a young man, you invented an entirely new way of writing, which your fawning critics labeled—no joke—“the sweet new style.” Because of your awesome reputation, you’ve become deeply engaged in government, and as long as your political party maintains power, you can depend on having its tons o' cash and protection.
But one day, the unthinkable happens. While you’re on a trip to Europe to visit some foreign dignitaries, your political party is completely wiped out. You’re told that if you return to America, you’ll be put to death on the spot. Your house and bank accounts have been seized, and your friends have either been killed or have turned against you. You’re now forced to move from country to country, a political refugee living on welfare.
Think this could never happen to you? So did Dante.
This is about the point where Inferno begins. That is to say, in the middle. Far from being simply about revenge and punishment, Inferno is really about a man trying to pick himself up off the ground—battered and bloodied—and find some kind of meaning in life.
Inferno is a story for people at the end of their rope, or people who can at least imagine what it would be like to find themselves there. You don’t have to be rich or famous to lose everything. And once you’ve lost your dignity and your ethical compass, you can’t get them back again without experiencing some pretty harrowing things. (Just maybe not necessarily ones involving serpent-demons or cannibalized clergymen.)
Basically, in order to get back on track, Dante has to understand and, to some degree, participate in some of the worst atrocities every committed by humans. To find God, he has to start by crawling through Satan’s intestines.
But—hey: you'll have to read on to find out what kind of Clive Barker/James Wan/Wes Craven-type stuff goes down in the true bowels of Hell.