The Divine Comedy Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Dante’s The Divine Comedy is the beginning of Italian literature and the single most significant work of the Middle Ages because its allegory emphasizes the importance of salvation and divine love in a work that is inclusive and tightly structured. It is so thoroughly infused with Christian ethics that any overview has to touch on major Christian themes, beginning with the plot being set during Easter week 1300.

The work is a complex narrative with many allusions to biblical stories, classical myths, history, and contemporary politics; however, the plot’s symbolism provides clarity in that it celebrates the ideal of universalism, where everything has its place in God’s world, and its ultimate goal of salvation triumphs over the contemporary reality of the power struggle between worldly and religious leaders.

The structure of the entire work, as well as of its parts, is symbolic of the story it tells, as the use of numbers shows. The number 3 (symbolic of the Trinity: God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) and the number 10 (the “perfect” number: 3 × 3 + 1) are the most conspicuous examples. The Divine Comedy has three “cantiche,” or parts (Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven). Each cantica has thirty-three cantos, or songs, with the exception of the first cantica, which has thirty-four cantos, adding up to a total of one hundred (the perfect number squared: 10 × 10). Each canto is written in terza rima, that is, in tercets that rhyme in an interlocking manner.

The first canto of Inferno, is considered to be an introduction to the whole work (making the structure even more symmetric: 1 + 33 + 33 + 33 = 100) because all three parts of The Divine Comedy are present in the first canto’s symbolic landscape. Dante finds himself lost in a dark forest. Looking for orientation, he decides to hike up a mountain, whose sunlit top represents Purgatory, while the sky and the sun represent Heaven. However, Dante’s path is blocked by three animals on the mountain’s slope: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf, which represent the three main types of sin that correspond to the three main divisions of Hell.

The spirit of Virgil appears and promises to get Dante to salvation the long way: through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Dante’s doubts are assuaged because Virgil has been sent by three heavenly ladies (the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucy, and Beatrice); in the combination of human reason with divine grace, Dante’s salvation may yet be achieved. After they enter Hell in the third canto, Dante learns through conversations with Virgil and individual souls that each sin is punished according to its severity, systematically going from the lighter sins of incontinence (giving in to one’s desires) to the more severe sins of violence (actively willing evil) and fraud (adding malice). Hell, which is presented as a huge funnel-shaped underground cave, extends in ever-smaller and more-constricting circles to the middle of the earth; there, in the pit of hell, sits Satan himself, forever stuck frozen in the ice of the lake Cocytus, chewing on the three worst human traitors: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.

Climbing past Satan, Dante is headed toward salvation. While all sinners in Hell will remain there forever to suffer their horrible punishments because they did not admit their sins, souls in Purgatory are already saved and eventually will go to Heaven because they confessed their sins before death. Therefore, the mood has completely changed: The souls are not stuck in everlasting isolation but learn in groups from examples of the virtue and vice that correspond to their penance. Purgatory is presented as a huge cone-shaped mountain and the only landmass in the southern hemisphere. Purgatory proper is organized in seven rings according to the traditional seven deadly sins (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust). At the top of the mountain is earthly paradise (the Garden of Eden); this is as far as human reason can lead, so Virgil leaves and Beatrice becomes Dante’s guide.

Cleansed of his own sins, Dante rises naturally toward Heaven. In keeping with the Ptolemaic worldview, Heaven is organized in spheres with the earth in the center. Dante identifies ten spheres that he relates to the so-called four pagan virtues of fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence in varying degrees (first to seventh Heavens), the three Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (eighth Heaven), the Primum Mobile (the ninth heaven, which moves all others), and the Empyrean (the tenth Heaven outside of time and space, where God dwells). The Empyrean as a state of being also contains the Celestial Rose, where all blessed souls reside. The souls do not reside in the individual heavens where Dante encounters them but are put there so that he may more easily understand their place in the divine order. The blessed souls in Heaven form a true, though strictly hierarchical, community that exists in an all-permeating feeling of love and bliss, which comes from the joy and peace of being in the proper place in God’s creation. Dante evokes in images of light what lies beyond human experience, such as the radiance of the blessed souls and Dante’s vision of God.

The Divine Comedy Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Divine Comedy represents the mature Dante’s solution to the poet’s task annunciated in The New Life. Its three canticles (the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso) display a nearly limitless wealth of references to historical particulars of the late Middle Ages and to Dante’s life. Even so, its allegorical form allows these to function as symbols. The Pilgrim’s journey through Hell to Heaven thus becomes an emblem of all human experience and a recognition of life’s circularity. The “Comedy” of its title is, therefore, the situation of life and the accumulation of experience that attends it.

Correspondingly, however, chronological placement of the narrative from Good Friday through Easter Sunday, 1300, particularizes the experience even as it implies the death and rebirth that attends a critical stage of any person’s life. The poet tells his readers in the first line of the Inferno that he is midway through life, and indeed Dante would have been thirty-five years of age in 1300. Though he maintains present tense throughout the poem, he is, however, actually writing in the years that follow the events that he describes. This extraordinary method allows the Poet to place what amounts to prophetic utterance in the mouth of the Pilgrim. Dante thus maintains and further develops the thesis of The New Life, that the progress of the Pilgrim corresponds directly to the progress of the Poet. The literal journey that the Pilgrim undertakes toward the Beatific Vision succeeds only insofar as the Poet can transcend the finite barriers that signification imposes upon language.

If one understands the task of the poem in these terms, the exponential symbolism of The Divine Comedy becomes inescapably clear. Like every human being, Dante carries the intellectual burden of what has formed him. At midlife, this includes the historical influences of his time and the artistic influences of what he has read. His task is to use these to direct his life’s journey and, if he is able, to transcend them. His inspiration for doing this is the same feminine persona that appears in The New Life, though in The Divine Comedy Dante specifically identifies her as Beatrice. Her name implies the grace that she represents, and it is noteworthy that she intercedes with St. Lucy, patroness of the blind, and with the Blessed Virgin Mary to set the Pilgrim on the course toward Paradise. Beatrice thus represents efficient grace, Lucy illuminating grace, and Mary prevenient grace. Collectively, they oppose the three visions of sin (Leopard, Lion, and She-wolf) that obstruct the Pilgrim’s path.

The women logically employ the Roman poet Vergil as the Pilgrim’s guide through Hell and Purgatory. Vergil represents the achievement of pre-Christian antiquity. His poem the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) is the logical forerunner of the poem that Dante hopes to write. Dante, if successful in his journey as Pilgrim and Poet, will synthesize the epic of classical antiquity with the allegory of biblical literature. Understandably, the Pilgrim protests to Vergil that he is neither Aeneas nor St. Paul. This protestation reflects the Poet’s awareness of the daunting artistic task of fusing pre-Christian and Christian thought as much as it does the Pilgrim’s awareness of the long distance between Hell and Heaven. In reality, they are one and the same journey, and Dante undertakes both tasks simultaneously in The Divine Comedy. Appropriately, Vergil can guide the Pilgrim only through Hell and in the ascent of Mount Purgatory. Past that point the pre-Christian past cannot venture. St. Bernard and ultimately Beatrice will guide the Pilgrim through Heaven; yet Vergil (and the pre-Christian wisdom that he represents) offers enough direction to ensure that the Pilgrim reaches Heaven’s threshold.

The sinners whom the Pilgrim beholds as he descends through the circles of Hell correspond generically to the three specters that had haunted him in the wood before Vergil’s arrival. The sins of the Leopard are serious but unpremeditated. Paolo da Malatesta and Francesca, the adulterous lovers of Inferno 5, are good representatives of this grouping. For political reasons and as an alliance of families, Francesca was married to the deformed Gianciotto, son of Malatesta da Verrucchio and ruler of Rimini, but she fell in love with Gianciotto’s handsome younger brother Paolo. Gianciotto caught Paolo and Francesca in adultery and murdered them both. Dante bases his depiction of their affair upon these historical personages; Francesca was aunt to Guido Novello di Polenta, Dante’s friend and host at Ravenna during his years of exile. Even so, he makes the immediate cause of their adultery their reading of a book, the tale of Guinevere and Lancelot. Guinevere, too, had married a man older than she, King Arthur of Camelot; like Francesca, she fell in love with a handsome younger man. Lancelot thus corresponds to Paolo, Guinevere to Francesca, and Arthur to Gianciotto. Dante thus describes seduction by language, calling the book that Paolo and Francesca read a panderer. Its language has seductive charms but was wrongly directed. Paolo and Francesca burn intertwined in a single flame in punishment for their sin, but their punishment effectively extends their passion into eternity.

The Brunetto Latini episode of Inferno 15, the soothsayers’ canto of Inferno 20, as well as many of the other encounters that the Pilgrim has with sinners stress wrong use of language. Brunetto’s was wrong because it pridefully paid too great a debt to the past and did not seek transcendence. When Dante’s Vergil recounts a version of the founding of his native Mantua, which differs from that which the Roman poet had provided in his own Aeneid 10.101, then makes the Pilgrim promise to believe only that which he has now spoken, Dante questions in another way the timeless signification of words with reference only to the natural order. He also implies that there is nothing inherently mantic about a poem, not even Vergil’s Aeneid, and makes Vergil himself articulate the thought.

The topography of Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven violates the conventional Christian conception of these states because of his use of the gyre to describe each. As the Pilgrim descends Hell’s circles, the sinners appear more bound to their sin. Paolo and Francesca burn in perpetual consummation of their passion at Hell’s top, but at its frozen core Vanni Fucci curses God, and Judas Iscariot stands frozen beside Satan. The topographical arrangement implies degrees of offense, yet all sinners in Hell have mortally offended God. Gyre imagery continues as the Pilgrim and Vergil ascend Mount Purgatory. Though its gyres are more discrete than those of Hell, the chaos of sin rules within each of its precincts, mitigated only to the degree that the sinners trust in the divine mercy that will allow them to reach Heaven.

Dante’s Mount Purgatory consequently has three major regions through which the Pilgrim and Vergil ascend: ante-Purgatory, occupied by those who failed to use the grace that divine mercy had provided them in life; lower Purgatory, the region for the proud, envious, and wrathful; and upper Purgatory, reserved for the slothful, covetous, gluttonous, and lustful. At its summit is an earthly paradise corresponding to Eden, as well as to the Elysium of Aeneid 6. Logically, Vergil cannot venture beyond this stage both because of his status as pre-Christian and because of his achievement as a poet. As Purgatory implies the reconstitution of a soul, its mountain requires an ascent that corresponds to the descent through Hell. The process that it imposes upon its sinners is purificatory rather then penal, and so it is appropriate that all of its souls at some period, whether on arrival or after preliminary cleansing in ante-Purgatory, must pass through Peter’s Gate. After the sinners have demonstrated their desire for Heaven by ascending the three steps of penitence (confession, contrition, and satisfaction), an angel inscribes seven P’s upon their foreheads (peccata) for the seven capital sins (pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth). These vanish singly as the soul ascends each cornice. Once again, signification emerges as a dominant aspect of Dante’s allegory. Inscribing the P’s enforces the souls’ awareness of the sin that had existed hidden in life. The Pilgrim grows in his appreciation of the unspoken word as the Poet grows in his ability to express the ineffable in words whose signification is conventionally finite.

It is in Purgatorio 30 that the Pilgrim, awakened in the Edenic paradise by the approach of Beatrice, realizes that Vergil is no longer with him. The fears of the Pilgrim at this apparent abandonment by his guide correspond to those of the Poet, who realizes that from this point the artistic task is his alone. This realization creates impressive tension between the status of the journey, whose successful outcome would appear assured, and the task of the Poet, whose task of reconciling heavily weighted allegorical language with the limitless signification of the infinite necessary to describe the nature of Heaven grows more challenging.

The poetry of Paradiso does assume a more mystical character, which enlists the full imaginative powers of the reader. In a way impossible in either the Inferno or the Purgatorio, the reader becomes a participant in the transforming experience that Heaven imposes. The gyres recur, though as circles of the blessed grouped around the Beatific Vision. Even among those saved, the capacity to appreciate the infinite varies directly with their distance from the Vision itself. The Poet thus asks the reader to accept a paradox, which once granted, allows finite language’s reconciliation with the Logos itself. It is Dante’s most extraordinary achievement of all, and it is the key to an appreciation that is worthy of the Paradiso.

Beatrice now assumes an active role in the direction of the Pilgrim. They rise from the earth into the heavenly Empyrean, the abode of God, within which revolves the Primum Mobile, the swiftest and outermost of the heavens. The light of the sun, the music of the spheres, and the gaze of Beatrice, all representing spiritual illumination and enlightenment, increasingly fill the cantos of the Paradiso and replace the doubt, darkness, and periodic faintings of the Pilgrim on his passage through Hell and Purgatory.

Much emphasis rests upon the degrees of happiness that the blessed of Heaven experience. Piccarda dei Donati and the Empress Constance both reside in a lesser sphere of bliss; both had been forced to leave the spiritual life that they would have preferred and enter into forced marriages. Even so, Piccarda and Constance experience a full measure of happiness. In another paradox, they know the infinite bliss of Heaven to the full measure of their ability to comprehend it. Their joy is no less than that of the souls that are closer to the Beatific Vision, even though they reside within a considerably lower sphere.

In the Ptolemaic cosmos, which informs The Divine Comedy, all the planets (including for Dante the Sun and Moon) orbit the earth upon a series of transparent concentric spheres. These celestial spheres provide the external order that characterizes Heaven. They guide the seven heavenly bodies that circle the earth: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond the planets is the Sphere of Fixed Stars, and still further is the Primum Mobile. Beyond all nine spheres lies the Empyrean, Dante’s unmoved, eternal, boundless region in which the Logos and the saints reside. This conception of Heaven is another means by which the Poet allows his poem to move beyond limited signification and approach the unchanging infinity of First Cause.

Central to portrayal of the Primum Mobile is the symbol of the Celestial Rose. It is a circle of white light within which is a golden center of God’s glory. White petals rise in a thousand tiers, and upon these sit the blessed: saints of the old law at one side, saints of the new on the other; little children arranged immediately around the golden center; virtuous women in one descending portion, saintly men in another opposite location. Beams of divine glory, comparable to sunbeams but carried by angels, bear divine love to the created world, not of necessity but from divine graciousness.

As the Pilgrim nears the Beatific Vision, he comprehends all the contradictions that had filled his life’s journey. He compares himself to the geometer, who knows it is theoretically possible to square the circle, yet he recognizes the limitations that language imposes upon any attempt to describe accurately what he sees. The image of divinity seems self-sufficient, self-defined, simultaneously that of the Pilgrim and of all humanity. The single word that allows the Poet to describe it is “love,” the boundless ability that is assuredly human but that also moves the sun and stars.

The Divine Comedy Summary

Engraving of a scene from the Inferno, Canto XXII. Published by Gale Cengage

Dante's Divine Comedy is bewilderingly complex to the first-time reader, even on the literal level. (This complexity remains after...

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