The Massive Allegory
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
A Hell Of An Allegory
Let’s face it, you can’t really discuss Hell and all its inhabitants—not to mention about a million twisted punishments—without illuminating something about the society that produces such evildoers. Sure, each individual sadistic comeuppance for each individual sinner speaks allegorical volumes... but it ain't nothing compared to the Big Daddy of all allegories... the whole idea of going to Hell itself.
So Dante’s personal crisis and journey through Hell could represent every man’s moments of weakness and his descents into sin. This is apparent from the very beginning. The dark woods and night might symbolize man’s sin while the path—which Dante has lost—is the virtuous man’s way of life.
The dawn brings hope and the hill crowned with sunlight, which Dante strives to ascend, is the way to God. That his way is obstructed by the three beasts means that Dante is not yet worthy to proceed to Heaven.
Sorry, Dante. Instead of going to Heaven, you get to pass through a truly terrifying gate which literally spells out the whole Hell-deal in block letters:
THROUGH ME THE WAY INTO THE SUFFERING CITY,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE ETERNAL PAIN,
THROUGH ME THE WAY THAT RUNS AMONG THE LOST.
JUSTICE URGED ON MY HIGH ARTIFICER;
MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,
THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE.
BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE.
These words – their aspect was obscure – I read
inscribed above a gateway… (Inf. III, 1-11)
Then you’ve got Hell itself, which is basically a microcosm of society. Here, you’ve got all sects of humanity—laymen, clergy, lovers, wagers of war, politicians, scholars, you name it. And they’ve all got their little sections of Hell. Except that all their little flaws are visible to everyone.
How exactly does this work? A nifty little trick called contrapasso, which is basically the sin version of Newton's Third Law—for each sin there is an equal and opposite punishment:
[Bertran de Born]: "Because I severed those so
joined, I carry – alas – my brain dissevered from its source,
which is within my trunk. And thus, in me
one sees the law of counter-penalty." (Inf. XXVIII, 139-142)
This is essentially the only difference between the real world and Hell: people become their sins and suffer by them. And it doesn't get more allegorical than that. Check it out:
[Virgil]: "Wedged in the slime, they say: "We had been sullen
in the sweet air that’s gladdened by the sun;
we bore the mist of sluggishness in us:
now we are bitter in the blackened mud."
This hymn they have to gurgle in their gullets,
because they cannot speak it in full words." (Inf. VII, 121-126)
Yep—if you're sullen you'll become sullenness personified (hanging out gargling nasty mud). If you're lustful, you'll fly around in a frenzied manner reminiscent of the frenzy that probably caused you to "fly around" behind your significant other's back. The list goes on.
That Dante survives Hell, learns from it, and emerges unscathed (read: climbs up into the light) means that he has proven some sort of worth. This is Dante's PSA: if you're worthy, you'll forgo the whole Hell experience. But if you're a sinner... well: hope you like ice, fiery rain, and rivers of boiling blood.