Study Guide

Inferno

By Dante Alighieri

Inferno Introduction

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 a 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.

What is Inferno About and 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.

Inferno Resources

Websites

World of Dante, University of Virginia
This site contains pages dedicated to images, music, timelines, popular culture references and maps that help broaden your understanding of Dante's works. Check out Sandro Botticelli's map of the Inferno, made into an interactive wonderland by the good folks at the University of Virginia. If you only have time for one stop on the Internet, this is your place.

DanteWorlds, University of Texas at Austin
This site offers a visual and interactive journey through Dante's "Otherworlds." In this case, click on Inferno for a multimedia exploration of Dante's Hell. Click on any level in the gyre, and you will be directed to a portal page that offers very brief audio clips of passage (read in Italian), a nested list of the inmates for that particular circle of Hell and a gallery of relevant images and study questions.

Abandon All Hope, Film Website
The home site for this short documentary produced by Boris Acosta. It uses images from the artist Gustave Doré and contains interviews with scholars, actors and enthusiasts of Dante's work. You'll have to go to YouTube to view clips, but this site has some amazing graphics and solid information about Dante and his work.

Dante Today: Citings and Sightings of Dante's Work in Contemporary Culture
A popular mash-up of blatantly obvious and obscure references to Dante in our society. Don't know how a 14th century poet affects your life? Take a look at this site.

Movie or TV Productions

1924 Movie
Dante’s Inferno, directed by Henry Otto, is a horror movie spin-off of Inferno.

1935 Movie
Dante’s Inferno, directed by Harry Lachman, is another strange spin-off ofInferno about unsafe carnivals and other weird stuff.

1911 Movie
L’Inferno, directed by Francesco Bertolini, is a silent film that "loosely" follows the original Inferno.

2007 Movie
Dante’s Inferno, directed by Sean Meredith, is an animated and modernized version of Inferno. James Cromwell is the voice of Virgil.

Images

Hell
A map of Hell from the Mandelbaum translation of Inferno.`

Illustrations to Dante's "Divine Comedy," 1824-27
A hypermedia archive that provides beautiful images of visionary poet William Blake's water colors, pencil sketches and copper plate engravings of Dante's Inferno. Objects 1-72 deal with matter from the Inferno; the rest are images from Purgatorio and Paradiso.

The Millenium Project, "The Divine Comedy" by Salvador Dalí
See how the modern artist envisions Dante's Hell.

Documents

Inferno Online
The full text of the Wordsworth translation of Inferno.

More Inferno Online Texts
The full Italian text + a big list of translations.

Other

Go to Hell.
Here’s a quiz to find out where you’d end up in Hell.

2007 Inferno
Here’s the official homepage for 2007 Inferno film.

Videos

The Earth is Round! The Image of the Earth in the Middle Ages
Think you know something about Medieval geography? Anyone who has read Dante's Inferno understands pretty quickly that the lay of the land is more complex than we poor modern folk ever suspected. Michael Fragstein's 5-minute video will help you get a handle on where you stand as you read this epic poem.

TuttoDante, Performed by Roberto Benigni
OK, so it's in Italian – but so is the original poem. Roberto Benigni – of Life is Beautiful fame – performs Dante's masterwork. Did he really memorize all those passages? Word on the street is yes, even if he did have a teleprompter to keep him on track. We're linking to the performance of the first canto here, but you can search YouTube for other cantos in the series.

Dante's Inferno Animated
IMDb's page on this work has the usual information on storyline and cast, but it also has an incredible video sample of the film.

L'Inferno (1911)
Amazingly creepy silent film that has been re-mastered and given a new soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Turn down the lights. Turn up the sound. Lock the doors. Click through the menu on this YouTube page to see all segments of the film.

L'Inferno di Dante nelle Grotte a Pertosa
Not sure what to do on your next vacation? Why not head out to Italy to see how they do Dante? This "re-enactment" of Dante's harrowing journey will make you wonder if the Poet is rolling in his grave. Don't worry about the language barrier here...the dancing devils will convince you that you are in Hell.

Historical Documents

MS. Holkham Misc. 48, Bodleian Library, Oxford University
Is there anything cooler or more intriguing than a medieval manuscript copied by monks in a European monastery? Only when it's a manuscript about Hell. Take a look at this brilliant codex created in the 14th century to get a good idea of how Dante's contemporaries imagined the Devil's Dominion.

Video Games

Dante's Inferno, for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
In this game, Dante is a buff dude who battles through the nine circles of Hell in order to rescue Beatrice. Yeah, it's not all that faithful to the original poem… On the game's website, you can check out the trailer, watch some gameplay, view interviews with the creators, learn about the original poem, and even explore Hell. Just remember, "To best experience Hell, please turn on your speakers."