Dante's Inferno Themes

Themes

The Inferno comprises the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy, the initial segment of a spiritual journey that will take the poem's narrator, the "pilgrim Dante," through purgatory and into paradise. Dante conceives the entire journey as a learning process for its central protagonist and for the reader, the former serving as a kind of Christian everyman whose status as a sinner and need for redemption is shared by all humans. In his theological views, Dante was a strictly orthodox adherent of Medieval Catholicism, who embraced the doctrine of original sin. Beyond the consequences of the Fall, however, the pilgrim Dante stands in peril, not because he is guilty of any specific transgression but because at the "mid-point" in his life he has "wandered off from the straight path" (I, l.3). At this stage in his earthly existence, a type of indifference or lethargy has undermined the narrator's desire to do God's will. Sin, for Dante, begins with being intellectually inattentive, and the poem's purpose is to reawaken the central character (and, by extension, the reader) to the reality of sin and the accompanying need for confession, repentance, and a return to the straight path that leads to eternal salvation.

It is through a divine command that Dante's narrator is given the opportunity to travel through the realm of sinners, furnished with a guide in the person of the ancient Roman poet Virgil. Dante acknowledges Virgil's status as the writer who has exerted the greatest influence on this own work, "the first of all my authors" (I, l.85). But as Virgil apprises him, he agreed to undertake the task of escorting Dante through the intervention of a compassionate soul in heaven, Beatrice—Dante's lifelong love and the inspiration for all of his poetry. From the reports that have reached her in heaven, Beatrice fears that Dante may have gone so far astray that it is too late to aid him. Throughout the Inferno, the narrator shifts between hope and fear. Virgil must repeatedly remind him that despite the obstacles they encounter, no one can stop them from completing the journey because God has decreed it. Each time they meet with a gatekeeper in Hell, Virgil is able to overcome his (or its) opposition. For example, as they approach the second circle of Hell in Canto V, Minos bars their way. Virgil easily gains passage, however, by telling the mythological figure: "Do not attempt to stop him on his fated journey; / it is so willed there where the power is / for what is willed; that's all you need to know" (V, ll.22-24). Hell is devoid of divinity (there is no explicit mention of Jesus Christ throughout the Inferno), but God's will is universal and supremely powerful.

At the conclusion of the first canto, Dante agrees to go through the underworld with Virgil and declares, "let us start, for both our will, joined now, are one" (II, l.139). Although the poet Dante acknowledged the supremacy of God's will, he also believed that human beings were blessed with their own free will. Indeed, it is precisely because the inhabitants of Hell deliberately set their own wills against that of God that they have been sentenced to the ever-lasting torments of the Inferno. Moreover, if they had confessed and repented of their sins while they were living, God would have extended redemption to them. As it is, they are in Hell because they abused their capacity to make moral choices.

Near the poem's start, while in the vestibule of Hell, Dante encounters two types of souls. The first group is comprised of those who were "neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God, / but undecided in their neutrality" (III, ll.38-39). They are stung into constant motion owing to their failure to exercise their wills. The second group is made up of sinners who are awaiting passage across the river Acheron into Hell proper. As Virgil explains to his charge, "they want to cross the river, they are eager; / it is Divine Justice that spurs them on / turning the fear they have into desire" (III, ll.124-126). Although they too are stung by divine justice, the sinners who will be consigned to various circles of Hell go there of their own free will; they are drawn to their punishment in the afterlife just as they deliberately chose to sin during their lives.

The blueprint of Dante's Hell is exceedingly complicated. The underworld is divided into nine circles, each meant for a different variant of sin, and the lower circles are further articulated into sub-realms. Thus, the eighth circle, "Malebolge" is comprised of ten separate "bolgia," each of which is meant for a different type of fraud ranging from pandering to fortune-telling to the provision of evil counsel. In Canto XI, Virgil explains the broad rationale behind the main divisions in the Inferno. Sinners in the upper...

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