In my opinion, great pieces of literature should contain great drama, complexity, and intrigue. Dante Alighieri’s “The Inferno” achieves all these things throughout its’ rich story line. The story explores the purpose of human morality and the unrighteousness of human nature and its’ temptations. Alighieri uses allegory, which is using mythological figures to generalize human existence past, present, and future. I believe Dante uses this technique brilliantly within the “Divine Comedy”. Dante Alighieri embodies the socio-economical influences of the time by showcasing the prevalence of the church and its corruption in the 13th century.
I feel to understand this particular piece of literature, it would behoove a reader to know the background of the writer and the surrounding influences during time it was written. Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy around 1865. Not much is known about his early life. It is said that he met Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a prominent banker by the name of Folco Portinari. Around the age of nine Alighieri fell in love with Beatrice without ever interacting with her. This example of courtly love, which was a phenomenon in the 13th century that involved the forbidden love between two people.
One tale that particularly is my favorite is the relationship between Guinevere and Sir Lancelot in the Arthurian legends, which is a prime example courtly love. As the years past, Dante became active in politics and was accused of corruption by the Black Guelphs and was exiled from Florence. If he dared to return he would be burned at the stake! During the time of his exile, he began to write The Divine Comedy, one of the most influential works of all time.
The Divine Comedy begins on Good Friday in 1300 A.D. Traveling in a dark forest, the author’s alter ego also named Dante is lost in a forest and plans to travel up the mountain. The mountain is called Mount Delectable and is meant to represent Heaven. At the foot of the mountain, Dante is stopped by a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Dante is saved by the ghost of Roman poet Virgil, a poet who is best known for his poem The Aeneid. Virgil explains he sent by Beatrice, his courtly love, to guide him through Hell and Purgatory.
Virgil leads Dante to the gates of Hell with the gates that has the fearful yet iconic description that says, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” (III.7). They start their journey to the ante-inferno that punishes those who did not choose good or evil during their lifetime. The fallen angels who didn’t chose a side in the war between Heaven and Satan are punished by being bitten by hornets. The ferryman Charon takes them across to the first circle of Hell, Limbo. This circle of Hell houses the unbaptized and those who lived long before Christ and Virgil belong to this circle.
Dante meets other poets before Christ such as Ovid and Lucan and Dante considered to be in their ranks. They continue their journey to the second circle of Hell for those who committed sins of lust and are punished with a never-ending storm and being thrown to the rocks. Dante meets a woman named Francesca who tells the story of the love affair she had with her husband’s brother Pablo that was similar to Guinevere and Sir Lancelot’s love affair with the theme of courtly love that landed both Francesca and Pablo in Hell.
Dante and Virgil continue to the third circle of Hell. There they meet the gluttonous. Their punishment is to lay in a never-ending rain of filth. When they arrive at the fourth circle they meet the prodigals. The prodigals are punished by being forced to push boulders against one another. As they make their way into the fifth circle they meet the wrathful drown who must drown in the river Styx.
As the journey continues Dante, then begins to see people he recognizes in Hell. One of the first that he spots is his former political rival named Filippo Argenti. Dante is a bit thrilled as he watches other souls tear him apart. Dante and Virgil arrive at the city of Dis where the worst of the worst are punished. The demons are staunch and refuse to grant passage. However, a messenger from Heaven forces the demons to open the gates. They pass at the sixth circle of Hell, which punishes the heretics or a person who rejects faith. They continue their exodus to arrive at seventh and eighth circle that encompasses violence. They meet individuals that were violent onto others and are punished by boiling in a river of blood.
Dante and Virgil meet the centaur Nessus that guides them to the second ring. The second ring belongs to those who committed suicide or violence to themselves. They are turned into trees for eternity and will not come back completely in the second coming of Christ. Dante stops converses with one of the suicides by the name of Pier Della Vigna. As they continue their journey Dante notices one of his patrons Brunetto Latini among those who were violent against nature, including, but not limited to, homosexuals.
Malebolge, (evil pockets or pouches) is the eight circle of Hell. A monster named Geryon, transports them there. The first pouch includes seducers, and they punished by being whipped by demons. The second pocket included the flatterers that must lie in a river of feces. The third pouch contains priests that took money from the church. The priests are punished by being turned upside down in a pit and their feet are on fire. The fourth pouch contains the Astrologists or Diviners and they are forced to walk with head backward and not being able to see what is ahead of them.
The fifth pouch contains the Barraters or those who accepted bribes. The punishment for them is steeping in boiling tar and are thrown back in by demon every time they try to escape. The sixth pouch includes the hypocrites. Their punishment is to wear robes of lead and walk forever in a circle. A notable person in this circle includes Caiaphas, the priest who confirmed Jesus’ death sentence, and he is crucified on the ground.
The Seventh Pouch punishes the thieves and the individuals punished by robbed of their true forms by being trapped in a pit of vipers and becoming vipers themselves. In the eighth pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell, Dante converses with Ulysses that now punished among the false counselors for his executing the Trojan Horse. In the Ninth Pouch, the souls that are guilty of causing drama or division amongst people walk in a circle and are afflicted by wounds that heal and return. In the tenth pouch, the falsifiers suffer from plagues and diseases of many kinds.
Virgil and Dante proceed to the ninth circle of Hell through the Giants’ Well. The giant Antaeus picks Virgil and Dante up and sets them down in the lowest region of Hell. In the first ring of the ninth circle are those who betrayed their kin. The sinners are frozen to their necks in the lake’s ice. In the second ring belongs to those who betrayed their country. The betrayers are frozen to their heads. Dante meets Count Ugolino, who gnaws on the head of the man who imprisoned him in life. In the third ring, those who betrayed their guests. They must lie on their backs in ice, and their tears can never flow.
Dante follows Virgil into to the fourth ring that belongs to those who betrayed their benefactors are completely buried under the ice. Dante notices the mist ahead to see Lucifer himself waist down into the ice. His body travels down to the center of the earth where God banished him. Lucifer’s three heads chews on history’s greatest traitors: Judas, the betrayer of Christ, Cassius, Brutus the betrayers of Julius Caesar. Virgil and Dante climb down Lucifer’s body and reach Lethe (river of forgetfulness). They travel from the river out of Hell and back onto Earth. It is Easter morning, just before sunrise, and Dante continues his journey.
I admire the way that Dante conquered themes of human morality before the time of freedom of thought. A lot of works during that time were written so that it could reach the upper-crust or masses. I feel (and admire) that this was written in common language that everyone could understand. Dante uses many literary techniques such as symbolism, imagery, and allegory throughout the story brilliantly.
One of my favorite themes of the story is the perfection of God’s justice and consequences of not abiding by God and how Hell reflected the time it was written. Many, including myself, found the punishments to be harsh. However, when I read it again, it became clear that sinners suffer to the gravity of their sins. The structure of the poem reinforces a sense of balance and justice to the piece as the plot progresses from minor sins to major ones.
What I disliked about this was that God’s justice feels objective and mechanical in that it becomes a system. One might feel that the poem is outdated, medieval, and old. I can understand that. I did not particularly care for was some punishments that are not exactly common to day such simony.
This piece of literature is an example of Christian values that were upheld at the time by the Catholic church, as Dante was a devout Catholic. An example is how accepting a bribe was worse than committing an act of violence such as murder. A reader must remember Dante follows strict doctrinal Christian values that were prominent in Catholic church at the time and his moral system does not reflect the values of today’s society.
I believe the book written as if values and social constructs in society would never change. On the other hand, I believe Algieri conquers the theme of human compassion and dynamism of human nature and how it can change through experiences and maturity, which is a timeless theme. Another thing is the perfection of Dante’s punishments throughout the story. Two of my personal favorites are thieves who are robbed of their true forms as such as what they did in life. Also, the astrologist that only see what was behind them instead of being able to see what was ahead of them.
In conclusion, I believe Dante’s Inferno successfully carried out the message of the power of morality and human passions. It explains life’s journey, and how someone can be separated from God, but can still repent while on Earth. The story has the complexity and intrigue that I think any great story contains. His use of the prevalence of the Catholic church during the 13th century and values of Italian society is astounding. I believe he achieved his purpose of showcasing the complexity and dynamism of human nature and showed the perfection of God’s judgment. I believe Dante gave God a certain distance and coldness to heighten his omnipotence throughout
the story. In my opinion, this gave Hell an oppressive and somber effect that transitioned throughout Dante and Virgil’s exodus.
Dante’s blending of reality, religion, and fantasy was seamless which makes story stand out amongst the classics. He conquers the timeless theme of human compassion, human growth, and change. I believe Dante’s Inferno is piece of literature that has secured its’ place in history and will continue to span throughout the ages.