Fair warning: Dante is on more of an emotional roller coaster than a two-year-old that just ate a bag of Chips Ahoy.
Dante cares super-deeply about the moral thought processes of mankind, having personally suffered as a result of others’ sin. He was exiled from his hometown. We know the intensity of his feelings is often obscured by his fancy style, but you can’t have crying and fainting and damning from the first-person narrator without running a pretty high emotional fever.
The "sympathetic" part comes out in the portrayal of the so-called "noble sinners"—souls like Francesca, Farinata, Brunetto Latini, and Ulysses—who speak very little about their actual sins. Their stories are designed to make readers ask why they are in Hell and, often, Dante’s reaction is the same, plus some weeping and swooning for good measure.
However, Dante is particularly pitiless with the fraudulent sinners. When you have lines like,
O Simon Magus!...Rapacious ones, who take the things of God, / that ought to be the brides of Righteousness, / and make them fornicate for gold and silver! / The time has come to let the trumpet sound / for you… (XIX.2-6)
... you’ve got some serious damning going on. Notice that these lines have no quotes around them in the original text, meaning that it is not character-Dante who speaks them, but our omniscient tone-setting author-Dante.
The Inferno is in verse. It rhymes. And has a meter (a fancy meter called terza rima). Do you need any more convincing that Inferno is a poem?
As for the "epic" part, Dante is talking about a man's choice between good and evil and showing us the eternal agony of those who pick Door #2. For you skeptics out there, you know it’s an epic when you see big long epic similes every fifth line. Take into account the fact that Dante is guided by Virgil, the epic poet of Rome, and you’ve got yourself an epic poem.
Oh yeah, and Dante invokes the Muses. When you have Muse-invocation, you know you're dealing with an 100% Grade-A Prime epic.
Yeah, "comedy" doesn't sound too apt for an epic poem that spends 99% of its lines talking about people suffering, does it? (Unless you have a sadistic sense of humor, you sick puppy.)
But Dante’s Divine Comedy, which traces the spiritual journey of souls, actually consists of three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Inferno is the first part. The story starts off in the Inferno, which is the fancy Italian way of saying Hell, and translates well into English because the word "inferno" has taken on the meaning of a fiery place of chaos and destruction.
Dante’s version of Hell actually has very little fire and burning. The reason for this is that fire implies light, which conventionally represents good. To Dante, evil is not some living, malicious force. Instead, it is a lack of life, a complete void, utter nothingness (as you’ll see in the very last circle of Hell). So instead of fire, there is a lot more focus on darkness, blindness, and confusion.
We’re going to go out on a limb here (a hellish ice-limb, probably) and say that the Inferno wins the competition for coolest setting of all time. Hands down. Not just because it’s Hell, the most intense of all places, but because it’s Dante’s Hell. The whole idea springs from his creative genius. In other words, he makes it all up. (Okay, not all, but most.)
Where theologians before thought of Hell as some abstract fiery place underground, Dante gives us all the gritty details. Where is Hell’s mouth? Somewhere in the shady woods of Florence, Italy. Its exit? On Mount Purgatory in the southern hemisphere. Theoretically speaking, you could roll out of bed, book a flight to Italy, wander in the woods, and find the Hellmouth. That’s how specific Dante gets. His message is that Hell is as real a place as New York City. (And just as insane.)
Now you’ve seen all the circles of Hell. You say, "why circles?" Well, Hell’s all about eternity. It’s about locking down sinners forever. Because these people have sinned and haven’t repented before death, they’ve lost their chance at eternal paradise. Their fate is fixed, and they can kiss any chance at improvement goodbye.
Now, what better shape can convey the idea of endlessness than a shape that has no edges and no corners? Hence, Hell is comprised of circles. Concentric ones, shaped as a funnel. The worse your sin, the deeper down you are, and the smaller your circle. Dante’s reasoning goes that the worse your sin, the less right you have to act or even move. Smaller circles mean less room to move around. Thus, the greatest sinner—Lucifer—is completely frozen in ice.
Extending the concept of contrapasso further (punishment matching one's crime), one can see that the guardians of Hell reflect the sin of the circle they guard. Cerberus gobbles up anything he can get his fangs on, and thus he guards the gluttonous. Similarly, the Centaurs—specialists in archery and rape—oversee the circle of the violent. Geryon is an "effigy of fraud" and appears at the threshold of the eighth circle. Finally, the giants who betrayed the gods stand immobilized, as anticipatory echoes of frozen Lucifer, before the circle of the traitors.
In a nod to Classical literature, Dante includes the five rivers of the Greek Underworld in his conception of the Christian Hell. He does, of course, modify them to fit his designs, displacing Lethe and, in a creative move, rendering Phlegethon (traditionally a river of fire) instead as a river of way cooler boiling blood whose banks can offer protection from the rain of fire coming down.
Let’s talk about time next. We know that Dante enters Hell at dawn. He also emerges at the South Pole at dawn. Experts tell us that that’s twenty-four hours of travel time. But the fact that he exits Hell at the same time of day that he entered gives the impression—at least to him—that no time at all has passed. Creepy, right? Dante gives the illusion that time has stopped during his journey through Hell.
As for the exact date, the fact that it’s Easter weekend has to mean something, right? Well, Dante enters Hell on the morning of Good Friday, a commemoration of the day that Jesus was crucified. The death of the Savior coincides with Dante’s descent into Hell.
Great religious tragedy and personal crisis coinciding? Do we sense some symbolism here? To give you a hint, Dante begins climbing the Mount of Purgatory and going towards Heaven on the morning of Easter Sunday, on the day when Christ was resurrected. Might Dante be setting himself up as a Christ figure?
Guess you'll have to read the next two volumes of the trilogy to find out...
There's very little that's easy n' accessible about Dante's style. You might want to read a terse Hemingway short story after you finish Inferno as a kind of palate cleanser... kind of like drinking a glass of cold milk after you finish a slice of triple-chocolate-raspberry cake.
But, much like a slice of triple-chocolate-raspberry cake, Dante's language is pretty dang delicious.
When we say it's "formal," we mean that Dante adheres to a very rigid literary form. In this case, epic conventions include tons of invocations to the Muses, epithets, apostrophes, epic similes, divine creatures, and a character list longer than all seasons of Game of Thrones put together.
The "elevated" part indicates that the text is difficult. Sentences tend to be extremely long and chock full of prepositional phases. This type of language tends to describe some larger-than-life topic—say, man’s eternal damnation—and to address it in a very serious, occasionally stuffy way.
Just take a look at this gem:
[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)
Yikes, right? But take it slowly, line by brilliant line, and you'll realize how crazy-beautiful even descriptions of sinners "wedged in slime" can be.
Let’s face it, you can’t really discuss Hell and all its inhabitants without illuminating something about the society that produces such evildoers. So Dante’s personal crisis and journey through Hell could represent every man’s moment of weakness and his descent 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.
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. This is essentially the only difference between the real world and Hell: people become their sins and suffer by them.
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.
The leopard, lion, and she-wolf that menace Dante in his quest to get to the sunlight all represent different types of sin. Traditional interpretations have parsed the leopard as a symbol of fraudulence, the lion as a symbol of pride, and the she-wolf as a symbol of avarice or greed. The leopard has few physical characteristics suggesting its interpretation as fraudulence, but the prideful lion has his "head held high."
The she-wolf is described most fully. She "carr[ies] every craving in her leanness," meaning she is painfully skinny. Which explains why she represents avarice or greed. She’s got nothing! But even more interesting is Virgil’s explanation that a Greyhound will eventually come to kill the she-wolf and "restore low-lying Italy." This seems to imply that greed afflicts the whole country. Well, we know that this is true for Florence, given the city’s illustrious textile and banking industry and the political squabbling taking place there at the time. However, nobody can agree about whom the Greyhound represents.
In our "Character Analysis" of Dante, we’ve discussed how it’s important to distinguish between author-Dante and character-Dante. Here’s why: Our narrator is primarily character-Dante because he’s the one documenting his feelings as he experiences Hell.
But his observations are often informed by the historic knowledge of author-Dante, who has already lived these events. Example: when talking to Brunetto Latini, Dante lets slip that he wants to show his work to Beatrice. Which won’t happen until Purgatorio. Cliffhanger!
Dante has a rather special case of midlife crisis. He’s lost in the woods. Which is, of course, allegorical. He has lost the true path to God and now wanders in a dark wood. The phantom Virgil pops out of nowhere with the answer. A trek through the afterlife will help Dante find his righteous path again.
We’ll start with Hell. When Dante balks at the word "Hell," Virgil lures him on by mentioning that Dante’s long-lost girlfriend Beatrice sent him. They head into Hell.
Virgil has a great deal of tolerance for witnessing others’ pain. Dante, while more affected by the sinners’ agony, is most interested in their stories. Especially when they pertain to Florence. He sympathizes with a number of sinners before finally beginning to see their evil in the fifth circle.
The pilgrims’ progress comes to a screeching halt when the grumpy citizens of Dis shut their city gates in Virgil’s face. They threaten to strike a bargain with him, allowing him through their walls if he will send Dante back alone. Dante quakes in his boots. Virgil stutters in surprise at his failure. To top it all off, the fearsome Furies await Medusa’s coming so they can turn Dante into stone. Fortunately for him, the heavenly messenger gets there first. But the seed of fear has been planted.
The nightmare stage begins with Geryon, the living incarnation of fraud. As the pilgrims travel through the eighth circle, Dante finds no end to human deception. Language, too, starts to break down, rendering meaning-making difficult. Dante’s fear peaks in the fifth bolgia when he and Virgil (rather stupidly) entrust themselves to the care of the Malebranche demons. They end up in a horror movie chase, barely escaping with their lives. To make matters worse, our pilgrims have to be lowered down into the last circle of Hell within an evil giant’s hand.
"Thrilling" is a relative term. In truth, there’s nothing exciting about Lucifer, the highly-hyped prince of darkness. After all the sinister stories and graphic punishments we’ve seen, Lucifer is an anticlimax… basically he’s the giant air-conditioner of Hell. He doesn’t even say anything, probably because he’s too busy chewing on the three most odious traitors in Hell.
Dante and Virgil look at him for a second, then grasp the hairs of his enormous legs, and rappel down. A quick gravity shift, a short trek up, and our heroes emerge unscathed back on the surface of the Earth. Because it’s morning here and also was morning when Dante started, it seems as though no time has passed; the whole experience is dream-like.
Dante needs help in a bad way because he is lost in a dark wood, symbolizing his corrupt moral state. As we learn later in the Comedy, Beatrice—the love of Dante's life—has died and this is part of the reason he is plunged into despair. He has sunk so deep into sin that he has attracted the attention of the Virgin Mary herself, whose compassion leads her to try to save Dante. We know this is the initial situation because Dante is in the darkest part of his life In Hell, Dante learns to harden his heart to the suffering souls and learns to condemn them for the sinners they are.
Having survived Hell, Dante comes face to face with his first real conflict: he has committed the sin of pride. Remember all his holier-than-thou rhetoric against Florence and her sinners in Inferno? That comes partly from his pride. Thus, Dante suffers with the Prideful on the First Terrace, pulling his own symbolic share of weight. Though he doesn't purge his soul of pride, he recognizes the sin in himself and the need to address it. For the rest of his purgatorial journey, Dante remembers his sin and constantly makes tortured references to it.
Dante has learned to trust Virgil, so when he disappears Dante feels as if he has lost a father. As readers, we know that pagan Virgil cannot possibly set foot in the holy Earthly Paradise, the former Garden of Eden.
To further complicate things, Beatrice has little mercy for Dante, quickly putting him through an emotionally harrowing confession in preparation for his dunking in the Lethe. Her accusations are all the more painful because they prove that Dante swerved from the true course even after witnessing the goodness of Beatrice. Dante is properly ashamed. As readers, we fear for Dante here, unsure whether he is worthy enough to continue on his journey.
After undergoing Beatrice's terrifying inquisition, Dante is deemed worthy to continue with his journey. Before heading to the river Lethe, Beatrice conveys God's message to Dante that his mission will be to observe all the happenings from this point forward, record them as accurately as he can, and bring this confessional back to Earth in the form of a poem.
We recognize this as the climax because all of Dante's suffering and learning is given a direction and reason. That Beatrice, his love, bestows it means even more to him because it brings his personal and spiritual life into harmony.
Having passed into the heavens, Dante goes along happily, learning theology until he confronts another test—much like the confession Beatrice put him through. Here, though, the stakes are much higher. These questions on Biblical theory test whether or not Dante is worthy of entering the Empyrean, where all the blessed souls reside. The three saints question Dante on his knowledge of the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity.
Dante has proven himself worthy. Woo-hoo. He ascends into the Ninth Heaven of the Primum Mobile and eventually into the highest realm of Heaven, Empyrean itself. His observation of the two hosts— the angels and the blessed souls—is interrupted when he finds that Beatrice has disappeared.
As readers, we say "Whew! He's made it!" and it seems as though everything is happily winding down for Dante, but suddenly (when something as unexpected happens as Beatrice disappearance), we're left scratching our heads and wondering what will happen next.
Beatrice's disappearance echoes Virgil's disappearance in Purgatorio XXX, and is the ultimate test of Dante's faith: he loses his love yet again. But not really; she's up with the blessed and smiles down on him. She even joins in the sung prayer to Mary on Dante's behalf.
St. Bernard's purpose quickly becomes clear. Nobody can see God without going through Mary first. As Mary's devotee, he prays to her on Dante's behalf. When Dante is granted the gift of seeing God, the implication is that he is blinded by the burst of light that ensues. We can't see what follows.
Dante is rescued by Virgil within the dark wood. They enter Hell. In the first five circles, Dante shows an excess of compassion for the incontinent sinners. Towards the end, Dante rebukes Filippo Argenti, much to Virgil’s delight. At the city of Dis, Virgil’s "persuasive word" fails for the first time and the pilgrims must be rescued by a heavenly messenger.
Dante and Virgil journey through the circles of heresy and violence. Virgil explains the structure of Hell and the three categories of sin. Dante shows a great deal of sympathy for the sinners—especially Brunetto Latini and Pier della Vigna. Virgil explains the origin of the five rivers of the Underworld. This section ends with Virgil summoning Geryon from the depths and scaring the hell out of Dante when they ride him down into the eighth circle.
Dante and Virgil move through the Eighth and Ninth circles. Throughout, Dante shows less and less sympathy for the fraudulent sinners, especially Pope Nicholas III, Vanni Fucci, the barrators, and Fra Alberigo. Virgil convinces a giant to take them into the ninth circle. They witness Lucifer, who turns out to be anticlimactic. And finally, they return to the surface of the earth, where a new dawn awaits them.
Virgil is Dante’s guide, first mention (Inf. I, 79)…
Homer (Inf. IV, 88)
Aristotle, Ethics (Inf. XI, 80)
Aristotle, Physics (Inf. XI, 101)
Aesop (Inf. XXIII, 4-7)
Charon (Inf. III, 94-99)
Aeneas (Inf. IV, 122)
Minos (Inf. V, 4-15)
Cerberus (Inf. VI, 15-18)
Plutus (Inf. VII, 1-12)
Phlegyas (Inf. VIII, 19-24) – from Virgil’s Aeneid
Furies (Inf. IX, 38-48)
Medusa (Inf. IX, 52-54)
Minotaur (Inf. XII, 12-25)
Chiron (Inf. XII, 72) – a centaur
Nessus (Inf. XII, 67-69) – a centaur
Capaneus (Inf. XIV, 63-69)
Old Man of Crete (Inf. XIV, 94-111)
Geryon (Inf. XVII, 97)
Manto (Inf. XX, 52-93)
Ulysses (Inf. XXVI, 55-63)
Sinon (Inf. XXX, 98-99)
Antaeus (Inf. XXXI, 113-114)Dis (Inf. VIII, 67-75) – epithet for Classical UnderworldLancelot (Inf. V, 128-129) – a knight in Arthurian legend
Gallehault (Inf. V, 137) – a knight in Arthurian legend
Genesis (Inf. XI, 107)
Saint Lucia (Inf. II, 97-102)
Simon Magus (Inf. XIX, 1)
Saint Peter (Inf. XIX, 90-96)
Mohammed (Inf. XXVIII, 31)
Nimrod (Inf. XXXI, 67-81)
Lucifer (Inf. XXXIV, 28-57)
Francesca da Rimini (Inf. V, 116)
Ciacco (Inf. VI, 52-54)
Filippo "Argenti" (Inf. VIII, 61) – "Argenti," meaning "silver" in Italian, was a nickname given to him because he shod his horse with silver horseshoes
Epicurus (Inf. X, 14-15)
Farinata degli Uberti (Inf. X, 32)
Pier della Vigna (Inf. XIII, 33-69) – not actually named in text, but scholars have identified him; also in endnotes
Brunetto Latini, Tesoretto (Inf. XV, 119)
Pope Nicholas III (Inf. XIX, 67-72) – not actually named in text, but scholars have identified him; also in endnotes
Pope Boniface VIII (Inf. XIX, 53), (Inf. XXVII, 85-105)
Catalano (Inf. XXIII, 103-109)
Loderingo (Inf. XXIII, 103-109)
Vanni Fucci (Inf. XXIV, 124-126)
Guido da Montefeltro (Inf. XXVII, 67-111) – not actually named in text, but scholars have identified him; also in endnotes
Bertran de Born (Inf. XXVIII, 134-135)
Geri del Bello (Inf. XXIX, 27)
Capocchio (Inf. XXIX, 136-137)
Gianni Schicchi (Inf. XXX, 32)
Master Adam (Inf. XXX, 61-90)
Bocca degli Abati (Inf. XXXII, 106)
Count Ugolino (Inf. XXXIII, 13-75)
Fra Alberigo (Inf. XXXIII, 118-120)
Branca Doria (Inf. XXXIII, 137-147)