The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Dante finds himself lost in a dark, frightening wood. To regain his path, he tries to climb a mountain, but a leopard, a lion, and a wolf block his way. The Roman poet Virgil approaches him and offers to conduct him through Hell and Purgatory as the only way back to the right path. Virgil comes at the request of a lady from Heaven, Beatrice (a woman whom Dante once loved), who will guide the pilgrim through Heaven once he reaches it.
When the travelers arrive at Hell’s entrance, Virgil explains that the large group of souls outside the gates lived their lives without committing to good or evil, so neither Heaven nor Hell will accept them. At the River Acheron, where they find the ferryman Charon, Dante is seized with terror and falls unconscious. Aroused by a loud clap of thunder, he finds himself across the river and follows his guide through Limbo, the first of the nine circles of the funnel-shaped Hell. The souls in Limbo, most of whom lived in ancient times, lived virtuous lives but were not baptized (since Christ had not yet come to Earth when they lived). Unlike the other souls in Hell, they are not undergoing any torments.
The next four circles Dante and Virgil visit are reserved for those who committed sins of incontinence. In the second circle, they meet Minos, the infernal judge, who appoints newly arrived sinners to their appropriate circle for punishment. Dante is overcome by pity as he witnesses the souls who are guilty of sexual sin being eternally buffeted by a stormy wind. He speaks to two souls and faints when he hears their story. The third circle houses gluttons, who are forced to lie in muck under a constant rain of filthy hail, snow, and stagnant water and are guarded by the terrifying three-headed dog Cerberus. In the next circle, guarded by Plutus, Dante witnesses the prodigal and the avaricious in two semicircles rolling heavy boulders and clashing up against each other. Dante and Virgil reach the muddy river Styx, in which the wrathful are submerged and are tearing at one another. Dante meets someone he knows, as he does in many circles, but for the first time he feels no pity for the sinners as he begins to understand the justice of Hell’s torments. At Virgil’s signal, the ferryman Phlegyas transports them across Styx to the city of Dis.
The city of Dis, or lower Hell, encompasses the last four circles of Hell. When Dante and Virgil are denied admittance by the fallen angels who guard the city’s walls and gates, a terrified Dante wants to retrace his steps and return the way he came. However, an angel arrives from Heaven and commands the rebellious spirits to allow the two travelers passage. Once inside Dis, they discover fiery tombs that house the souls of heretics, and Dante speaks to two of the tormented. During a pause in their journey made necessary by the increasing stench from below, Virgil explains the philosophical rationale for the moral ordering of Hell’s nine circles and describes the next three.
The Minotaur—the raging half-man, half-bull—guards the seventh circle of souls who committed violence against others, against themselves, and against God. Dante and Virgil see a red river of boiling blood, in which murderers are submerged. Dante is transported by a centaur across this river to a forest and discovers that the gnarled trees there contain the souls of those who committed suicide. Next, they come to a plain of burning sand, where they find those who sinned against God (blasphemers) or nature (homosexuals and usurers). Flakes of fire rain down on all three groups. Among the homosexuals, Dante is astounded to find a former mentor, and he speaks with three souls from Florence. The two poets then come to a precipice.
To reach the eighth circle far below, Virgil summons Geryon, a frightful flying monster with a scorpion’s tail, to transport them. When they reach the bottom, they see ten moat-like ditches in descending sequence, connected by rocky bridges. Each ditch houses sinners who committed a type of fraud. Dante finds here, for instance, seducers, flatterers, diviners, sellers of political offices and favors, hypocrites, and thieves. The ten separate torments endured by frauds range from sitting in dung (flatterers) to wearing leaden coats that appear golden on the outside (hypocrites). In this circle, Dante speaks to many people and Virgil speaks to Ulysses.
Hearing a horn blow, the travelers see a group of giants buried up to their waists who surround the ninth circle, in which traitors are encased in ice. After being lowered into this final circle by the giant Antaeus, Dante converses with some of the souls there and learns the nature of their particular betrayals. At the center of this lowest circle, they see the monstrous figure of Satan, with three faces and six wings, frozen up to his waist. Climbing down his...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Hell. Dante begins his journey in the grim nether regions. “Abandon hope all ye who enter in,” is inscribed on the gates of Hell. With Vergil, the most noble of pagans, as his guide, Dante enters the concentric circles of Hell, where sinners are mired eternally in the crimes that have brought them there. Each punishment cruelly fits the sin. Sowers of discord are eternally rent asunder by demons; violent souls steep forever in streams of blood. There are degrees of punishment in Hell. On the outer regions of Hell, swept perpetually by a whirlwind, Dante finds the tragic adulterous lovers from his own time, Paolo and Francesco. The depths of Hell are reserved for the most heinous of sinners, those who betrayed their masters. Here Dante finds Judas and Brutus, frozen in the Devil’s mouth.
The Divine Comedy provides not only a poetic summa of the literature, philosophy, and religion of the Middle Ages, but a medieval Christian interpretation of all human history. Borrowing freely from Ptolemaic cosmology and the speculations of Church leaders, Dante also found the epic poets, particularly Homer and Vergil, enlightening when it came to describing the realm of the dead. Only here could Dante freely mingle fictional personalities from earlier literature with semilegendary characters from epics and real figures from the Italian city states. Only within this locale, constructed from his borrowings and own dreams and visions,...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Bemrose, Stephen. A New Life of Dante. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 2000. Biography that includes a discussion following the plot of The Divine Comedy and differentiating between the real-life Dante and the character.
Cogan, Mark. The Design in the Wax: The Structure of the Divine Comedy and Its Meaning. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Argues that a complex system of interrelated values of sin, redemption, and blessedness is embedded in the work’s structure.
Dronke, Peter. Dante and Medieval Latin...
(The entire section is 363 words.)