Overview

Inferno is a fourteenth-century epic poem by Dante Alighieri in which the poet and pilgrim Dante embarks on a spiritual journey.

  • At the poem’s beginning, Dante is lost in a dark wood both literally and spiritually. He meets the soul of his poetic idol, the Roman poet Virgil, who agrees to guide him through Hell.
  • Dante and Virgil enter Hell and explore its nine circles.
  • At the bottom of the ninth circle, Dante and Virgil encounter Lucifer. They climb the devil’s back in order to ascend to Mount Purgatory.

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Summary

Like so many of the classical epics Dante Alighieri admired, Dante’s Divine Comedy begins in medias res. At the start of the first canto of Inferno, the action has already begun, unaccompanied by contextual information. The year is 1300. It is the night before Good Friday. Dante, aged 35, finds himself lost in a dark wood, having strayed from the diritta via, the straight way, true path, or right road. He encounters a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Evading those fearsome beasts, he then meets the Roman poet Virgil, now a shade, who agrees to guide Dante down through the nine circles of hell. Virgil explains that he was summoned by three holy women: Dante’s beloved Beatrice, the Virgin Mary, and St. Lucia.

The entrance to hell is marked by a grim message:
“Through me you pass into the grievous city,
through me you pass into eternal pain,
Through me you pass among the lost people[…]
Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”

The throng of souls entering the gates of hell extends as far as Dante can see, and he is stunned by the scale of the desperation he witnesses. He had not known there were so many dead people. Having passed through the gates of hell, Dante and Virgil enter Limbo, a region populated by the souls of those who are noble in character but unbaptized, including pagans and infants. Dante is honored to stroll with a company of great ancient poets, including Homer, Ovid, Lucan, and Horace, as well as Virgil. Dante refers to himself as the sixth among that company, indicating his sense of his own importance as a poet.

At the entrance of the Second Circle, Dante and Virgil encounter the Cretan king Minos, who judges the incoming souls and assigns them to their appropriate place in hell. Once inside, Dante and Virgil encounter the souls of the lustful, who in life failed to contain their erotic urges.  They are now eternally buffeted about by surging winds. The two representative souls of the lustful are Paolo and Francesca, a pair of Florentine lovers who tell Dante of their ill-fated affair. They went behind the back of Francesca’s husband, Gian Cotto, who then murdered the lovers in his rage.

In the Third Circle, the souls of the gluttonous splash about in a huge bog, blinded by the mud and chilled by the icy rain pouring down on them. Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog, viciously watches them. Virgil fills Cerberus’s mouths with heaps of mud, allowing him and Dante to slip past. In the Third Circle, Dante speaks with Ciacco, a fellow Florentine who makes a political prophecy: the Black Guelphs will drive out the White Guelphs. This event, the cause of Dante’s exile in 1302, indeed came to pass.

The Fourth Circle is the realm of the greedy. The circle is lorded over by Plutus, the Roman god of earthly wealth. As Dante and Virgil approach, Plutus gutturally mutters the cryptic phrase “Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!” The phrase fills Dante with both fear and confusion. After Dante and Virgil descend into the circle, they find the greedy souls, both hoarders and squanderers. The souls are fated to eternally roll great bags of gold uphill in Sisyphean fashion or spin in circles, pointlessly rolling great boulders into one another.

The souls of the wrathful float in the foul, stagnant River Styx. The more aggressive souls break the surface and bark hatefully, while the more mutely angry souls languish in the depths. Virgil and Dante hire Phlegyas to ferry them across. As they make the crossing, they encounter Filippo...

(The entire section is 1,986 words.)