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Dante Alighieri

Dante's Inferno

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Adult | Published in 1307

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Inferno is the first book of Dante Alighieri’s great medieval epic, The Divine Comedy: a monument of world literature. Written between 1308 and 1320, the three-part poem charts Dante’s transformative journey through Hell and Purgatory to Heaven itself. The poem’s form—terza rima, an endlessly circling pattern of interweaving triple rhymes—reflects its major theme: the wisdom, power, and love of the trinitarian Christian God. Like every book of the Comedy, Inferno ends with the word “stars.”

This guide refers to the 2003 Oxford University Press edition, translated by Robert M. Durling and edited by Robert M. Durling and Ronald Martinez. Your translation and edition may vary. Please note that quotations are marked here by line numbers rather than page numbers, so you will be able to use this guide with other translations. Note as well that line numbering restarts at 1 at the beginning of each canto. Lines quoted outside the Summary section are marked with both canto and line numbers: (2.31-33).

Plot Summary

Midway through life, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri finds himself lost and terrified in a dark wood. He desperately wishes to ascend a beautiful mountain, but is blocked by three threatening wild beasts. He is about to give up hope when he encounters a ghost: the spirit of his great poetic hero Virgil. Dante’s dead beloved Beatrice has sent Virgil to rescue Dante, but they will not be able to get past the beasts and climb the mountain directly. Instead, they will have to make a long pilgrimage through Hell itself.

Virgil guides Dante into Hell, where Dante is forced to face his own sins in the guise of damned souls. Hell, he learns, is funnel-shaped—a tightening pit of concentric circles. The souls there fall into three worsening groups: the incontinent, or people who had a disordered relationship to earthly goods like sex, food, and money; the violent; and worst of all, the fraudulent. Over the course of The Inferno, Dante visits every circle of Hell and meets sinners undergoing ironic punishments. For instance, the lustful are swept up in a dank whirlwind that never lets them rest; the heretics who did not believe in eternal souls are imprisoned in flaming tombs; the violent boil in a river of blood while centaurs shoot at them; and the treacherous are locked in ice alongside their enemies.

Dante discovers that Hell is as old as the world itself, a piece of the cosmic pattern: It is populated with figures from classical mythology, its landscape was rattled by earthquakes after the Crucifixion, and Virgil reports having seen Christ descend into Limbo to rescue Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs.

As Dante and Virgil travel, Virgil protects and parents Dante at the same time as he reveals his own weaknesses. Virgil himself is damned, though his soul resides in the tolerable Limbo—a campus-like underworld where pagan philosophers and poets wander around chatting. The justice of Hell leaves these otherwise virtuous souls longing for a heavenly home they will never reach. Virgil is a caring, witty, and wise guide, but as he and Dante descend further into Hell, Dante begins to understand what Virgil lacks: an understanding of divine grace, that quality of God’s goodness that transcends any kind of individual heroism. A failure to comprehend and submit to grace underlies all the punishments of Hell. As Dante learns later in Purgatory, the worst of sins can be forgiven if the sinner repents.

While Hell is full of big names—Cleopatra, Achilles, Attila, Dido—Dante spends most of his time speaking with his dead Italian countrymen. In meeting people he knew during his life—some of them friends—Dante comes to an intimate understanding of his own sins. Hell, it turns out, is not a place of sadistic punishment, but a place of justice, where people receive exactly what they desired most. Dante is chastened to recognize many of these mistaken desires in himself. In the circle of Lust, he even faints from pity and terror at the story of Francesca, who made the error of misreading her sordid, adulterous love affair as a grand romance. Similarly, Dante finds rebukes to his hunger for earthly fame in his damned former teacher Brunetto Latini, and to his desire to transcend human bounds in an encounter with Ulysses—the only classical hero to whom Dante directly speaks. Dante’s encounters provide both personal and political critiques, sending warnings to his warring enemies back on earth and forcing him to grapple with his own shortcomings.

The darkest parts of Hell are reserved for the traitors, whose sins freeze their souls in eternal ice and make them more animal than human. One of Dante’s most memorable encounters is with the spiteful Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, who tells the story of his horrible demise: Double-crossed by Archbishop Ruggieri, he was walled up and left to starve with his young sons—whose corpses, his story implies, he ended up devouring. While Ugolino’s story is indeed piteous, Ugolino learns nothing from it: Trapped in an animalistic lust for vengeance, he will not even speak to his dead sons, let alone provide them with any comforting thoughts of a world beyond. In Hell, he forever gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull, trapped in a vengeful and materialistic prison of his own making.

At the bottom of Hell, Dante and Virgil find Satan himself. He is a gigantic, three-faced, bat-winged monster, locked in ice, his three mouths continually gnawing on three infamous traitors: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas. Dante is struck momentarily catatonic with horror at this vision. While Satan is dreadful, his power is not infinite. In fact, Virgil and Dante use Satan’s body as a ladder, climbing his frozen torso down through the center of the earth and then trekking upward to the foot of the beautiful mountain Dante can now recognize as Purgatory. After a harrowing journey to the very depths of despair, Dante and Virgil emerge once more into the open air and see the stars.

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