The Inferno is one-third of the Divine Comedy, the masterpiece epic poem by Dante Alighieri. The Inferno is a vivid series of cautionary tales drawn from Biblical and classical figures and from Dante’s Italian contemporaries. Dante’s title for his work was Commedia or “Comedy”; the word “Divine” was added after Dante’s death. In medieval literature, the term “comedy” refers not to humor but simply to a tale with a happy ending. The three parts, or canticles, of the Divine Comedy—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—describe Dante’s fictional journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, the three realms of the Catholic afterlife. The Inferno is the most widely read of the three canticles; it is as expansive in its verse as it is fascinating in its orderly ranking of sins and horrific images of Hell.
Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in his Tuscan dialect of vernacular Italian instead of in Latin, which was the accepted literary language of his time. For his verse he chose terza rima or “third rhyme,” with three-line stanzas in which the rhymes extend into the next stanza. The rhyme scheme has the pattern a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, and so on. The Divine Comedy represents the first known use of terza rima. Dante’s choice of the three-line stanza is thought to pay homage to the Christian Holy Trinity. He made use of the holy number three in other ways, too. The Divine Comedy has three canticles composed of thirty-three cantos each, with one extra introductory canto at the beginning of the Inferno, bringing the total cantos to an even one hundred. There are three beasts of sin in the first canto and three heavenly angels concerned with Dante’s fate in the second. Thirty-three is also the age at which Jesus is thought to have died. Dante’s journey in the Inferno takes place from Good Friday to Easter morning in the year 1300. We know the precise year he intended because he alludes in the first canto to being halfway through his life. According to the Bible, a human’s life expectancy was seventy years.
The journey in the Inferno is allegorical. Dante’s main character in the story can be seen as any man trying to find a virtuous path in life. Through the voices of sinners consigned to Hell, Dante comments on morality and the degradation of Italian society by greed, violence, and corruption. The sinners in his Hell are also an embodiment of sin itself, and many of them are very compelling. Dante’s Hell has nine circles, each punishing a particular kind of sin. The Eighth Circle for the fraudulent is further divided into ten “bolgias,” or pouches, each pouch punishing a specific type of fraud. The Ninth Circle, for traitors, is subdivided into three rings. Dante’s ranking of the sins is thought to be based more on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics than on the traditional concept of seven deadly sins accepted among medieval Christians.
Born in Florence in 1265 to an aristocratic family, Dante experienced tragedy very early in his life. His mother died when he was seven, and his father died when he was a teenager. After their deaths, he became responsible for his younger siblings and half-siblings. In his youth, he relied on several mentors, including the scholar Brunetto Latini, whose condemned soul Dante greets warmly in Hell. The poet Guido Cavalcanti was another of Dante’s mentors; his father appears in the Inferno. Dante and Cavalcanti founded a poetry movement called the dolce stil nuovo, the “sweet new style.” The new style was less flowery and more straightforward than that of poetry popular at the time.
A central figure in Dante’s life was Beatrice, a little girl he claimed to have met at a party when he was nine. Though there is no evidence they were close friends, she served as a muse in his early work and as his heavenly guide in the Paradiso. His Beatrice is thought to have been a real-life Florentine girl named Bice. Both Bice and Dante wed others through arranged marriages, but Dante’s Beatrice continued to be prominent in his poetic imagination. When she died at age 24, Dante wrote a series of poems about their relationship titled La Vita Nuova, or New Life.
Dante told his friend and patron Can Grande in a letter that his purpose in writing the Divine Comedy was to help people move from a state of misery into a state of happiness. He may have been trying to inspire himself, as well. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy during his permanent exile from Florence, a city divided at the time by political strife as opposing factions, the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs, struggled for power. The Whites were mostly merchants; the Blacks were aligned with banking and imperial interests and had the support of Pope Boniface VIII. Entering politics in Florence in 1295, Dante was a member of the Whites. In 1301 while Dante was in Rome on a political visit, the White Guelphs lost control of the city to the Black Guelphs, and fearing for his safety, Dante did not return to Florence. By 1302 he had been formally exiled; he would never return home again. Dante lived his remaining years in various Italian towns, writing and being supported financially by the generosity of friends.
The Inferno was finished and in circulation by 1314. Dante completed the final canticle of his Comedy, the Paradiso, in 1320, a year before his death from malaria in Ravenna. Dante’s poetry was well known in Italy at the time of his death, and later in the century, Florentine poet Giovanni Boccaccio worked to repair Dante’s reputation in Florence. Dante’s personal life and reputation suffered as a result of the political climate of his times, but his work prevailed, transcending his life and times. In its artistry and complex vision, the Divine Comedy is considered one of the greatest works of Western literature. Dante’s given name comes from the name “Durante,” which means “enduring.” It is perhaps a perfect name for the poet, as his literary legacy continues to span the centuries.
Finally, it should be noted that the Inferno reflects the religious precepts—and the cultural biases—of Dante’s fourteenth century. For a student audience, some elements in the poem may be genuinely disconcerting, especially those in regard to homosexuality, women as symbols of promiscuity, and condemnation of Jews and Muslims. In presenting the Inferno, it is important to establish that the content of the poem does reflect fourteenth-century thinking and to confront and discredit the cultural biases in the work that are demeaning.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso as the three parts of the Divine Comedy.
2. Identify and discuss the Inferno as allegory.
3. Describe the structure of Dante’s Hell.
4. Discuss Dante’s conception of Divine Justice.
5. Define contrapasso, the rule of retribution.
6. Discuss how man’s use of language is depicted in the poem.
7. Recognize the poem’s satire of Dante’s contemporaries in politics, Church leadership, and poetry.
8. Discern the allusions to famous figures from the Greek and Roman classical tradition and discuss the poem as an extension of Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.