The Divine Comedy Summary

Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy

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The Divine Comedy Summary

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In this three-part epic poem, Dante Alighieri takes his readers on a pilgrimage to Heaven via journeys first through Hell and Purgatory. It is a spiritual journey expounding the evils of sin through the first-person narration of the aptly named main character, Dante the Pilgrim. The title, The Divine Comedy, is not an implication that the poem is humorous in nature. Rather, the poem is a “comedy” in that it is of the classical style that existed in partnership with tragedy. Traditional tragedies had plotlines that began with an optimistic, or positive, event but ended in sadness, death, or a downtrodden existence. Comedy, considered a base genre, flowed in the opposite direction with tragedy, or at least unhappiness, reaching a happy or optimistic culmination.

Pilgrim’s journey through the realms of the dead lasts from the eve of Good Friday to the Wednesday following Easter in the year 1300. The Roman poet Virgil is Pilgrim’s guide through Hell and Purgatory. Beatrice, who represents Dante’s ideal woman, leads passage through Heaven. Given its religious significance, it is not surprising that The Divine Comedy is structured as a trinity. The three aforementioned sections in literary terms are known as canticas and total 14,233 lines. Each cantica is made up of thirty-three cantos, once again giving significance to the number “three.” The poem has an introduction, which is considered part of the first cantica, thus giving the work a total of one hundred cantos.

The opening section of the poem, Inferno, finds Dante lost in sin, symbolically depicted as a dark wood. He is attacked by a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf and cannot find a way out to safety, or in the religious context of the poem, salvation. This situation is represented by a mountain obscuring the sun. He is ultimately rescued by Virgil who guides them through the underworld. Every sin in Inferno has a punishment that symbolically, even ironically, levels justice. As an example, sinful seers or fortune-tellers are destined to walk with their heads attached facing backward so as to be unable to do what they did in life: see what is yet to come. The three animals that attack Dante symbolize the sins of being self-indulgent, violent, and malicious. Hell is structured as nine circles into which sinners are classified. Those suffering from incontinence or lack of restraint fall into circles one through five. Pride or violence make up circles six and seven. Fraud and malice are the sins connected to circles eight and nine. Each of the circles signifies deeper and deeper evil ending in the earth’s core, the realm of Satan. The punishments for the sins of each circle vary.

After surviving the journey through Hell, Virgil leads Dante to Purgatory, a mountain on the far side of the world that was formed upon Hell’s creation. The mountain has seven terraces representing the seven deadly sins. In the realm of Purgatory, sins are classified more based on one’s motives than on one’s actions. Theologically, there is a Christian basis although Dante does not rely exclusively on the Bible. Love is a significant theme in The Divine Comedy. Love becomes sinful when driven by pride, envy, or wrath. It is also sinful when it is sloth or weak, or too strong via lust, gluttony, or greed. An additional region of Purgatory is the Ante-Purgatory home of those excommunicated from the church and those who died who may have been repentant but had not received rites. Purgatory is an allegory for the Christian life. Souls are escorted there by angels with the hope that they might attain divine grace. The structure of Purgatory from a scientific perspective shows a medieval knowledge of the Earth as a sphere.

On the final leg of his pilgrimage, Beatrice escorts Dante through Paradiso, that is, Heaven. She guides him through the nine celestial spheres of Heaven. While Hell and Purgatory were based on classifications of sin, Heaven is structured around the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. The initial seven spheres of Heaven are concerned with the cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance and are where those embodying said virtues find themselves. The eighth sphere contains those who achieved faith, hope, and love, which are considered the theological virtues and represent the achievement of human perfection. The ninth circle of Heaven is the place of angels, the beings never touched by sin. A final level, which in a sense brings the total to ten, is the Empyrean wherein lies the essence of God. Paradiso is of a more spiritual nature than the other two regions of The Divine Comedy. Dante interacts with several saints there including Thomas Aquinas, and Saints Peter and John. At the end of the text, Dante has an epiphany, which although he cannot fully explain, unravels for him the mystery of Christ, and he feels himself as one with God.