Dante's Inferno Summary

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, observing the punishments suffered by the various categories of sinners.
  • 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.

Summary

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Last Updated March 28, 2024.

Like so many of the classical epics Dante Alighieri admired, Dante’s Divine Comedy begins in medias res—in the middle of things.

The year is 1300, the night before Good Friday. Dante, age thirty-five, finds himself lost in a dark wood, having strayed from the diritta via—the true path. As he stumbles, he encounters and evades several fearsome beasts before meeting the Roman poet Virgil, now a shade, who agrees to guide Dante, warning him that they must first pass through hell. 

The entrance to the realm bears the ominous 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.

Limbo

The throng of souls entering the gates of hell extends as far as Dante can see; the scale of the desperation astonishes him. Once past the gates, Dante and Virgil enter Limbo, a region populated by noble but unbaptized souls. There, Dante finds himself in the company of great ancient poets—Homer, Ovid, Lucan, Horace, and Virgil—and refers to himself as the sixth among that company, indicating his sense of self-importance.

Second Circle

At the entrance of the Second Circle, the pair encounter King Minos—who judges the incoming souls and assigns them to their appropriate place in hell—and meet the souls of the lustful, who are eternally buffeted by surging winds. The two representative souls are Paolo and Francesca, a pair of Florentine lovers who tell Dante of their ill-fated affair and the bloody revenge that ended it. 

Third Circle

In the Third Circle, the souls of the gluttonous splash about in a bog, blinded by mud and chilled by icy rain, watched over by Cerberus. Virgil fills Cerberus’ mouths with heaps of mud, allowing him and Dante to slip past. Here, Dante speaks with Ciacco, a fellow Florentine who makes a political prophecy, which would not only come true but also be the reason for Dante's exile in 1302.

Fourth Circle

The Fourth Circle houses the greedy, ruled by Plutus, the Roman god of earthly wealth. As Dante and Virgil approach, Plutus mutters the cryptic phrase: “Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!” There, they find the greedy souls, who are fated to eternally roll great bags of gold uphill or in pointless circles.

Fifth Circle

The souls of the wrathful float in the stagnant River Styx. Virgil and Dante hire Phlegyas to ferry them across the Fifth Circle. As they do, they encounter an acquaintance of Dante's, who bitterly accosts him; the pair merely continues onward. On the other shore, they enter the walled city of Dis, which contains the subsequent circles of hell.

Sixth Circle

The souls of heretics burn within the earth, piled deep in the flaming graves of the Sixth Circle. These heretics are punished for their belief that the soul dies with the body.

Seventh Circle

Virgil and Dante slip past the Minotaur as they enter the Seventh Circle, which detains the violent in three subdivided rings. In the First Ring, the souls of those who were violent against their neighbors—such as Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun—wallow in the Phlegethon, a great river of burning blood. 

The Second Ring houses the suicidal, transformed into a grove of gnarled trees perpetually harassed by harpies. Upon judgment day, they have no hope of returning to human form, forever rooted in their sordid grove. 

In the Third Ring burn those who committed violence against God, Nature, and Art. These souls are stranded on a vast desert of scorching sand, rained upon by a perpetual storm of fire. As Dante and Virgil cross the desert, they encounter Brunetto Latini, a Florentine scholar and a mentor and close friend of Dante. Onward they proceed, ferried further into hell with the assistance of the winged Geryon.

Eighth Circle

The Eighth Circle houses the souls of the fraudulent and is divided into ten bolge—trenches—arrayed in a series of concentric circles decreasing in size.

  • In the First Bolgia, the panderers and seducers are whipped and beaten by demons. 
  • The Second Bolgia contains the flatterers, who aremired in pools of feces.
  • The Third Bolgia imprisons the simoniacs—the corrupt church officials who accept money in exchange for favors, pardons, and posts—who spark a righteous, enraged tirade from Dante.
  • In the Fourth Bolgia bumble the sorcerers, whose heads are twisted to face backward.
  • In the Fifth Bolgia burn the barrators—the corrupt political officials who sold government posts for profit—who stew in a lake of hot pitch.
  • The Sixth Bolgia houses the hypocrites, who wear robes of lead. From there, Dante and Virgil cross a ruined bride and enter the Seventh Bolgia.
  • The Seventh Bolgia bulges with thieves who are devoured by and transformed into reptiles.
  • In the Eighth Bolgia, false counselors are ensconced in tongues of flame. 
  • In the Ninth Bolgia, Dante and Virgil find the sowers of discord, who are flayed to shreds by a demon. 
  • The Tenth Bolgia contains the falsifiers, who are ravaged by disease for having been, figuratively speaking, diseases upon society. 

Ninth Circle

Traitors are punished in the Ninth Circle—home to the frozen lake Cocytus—which is divided into four rounds.

  • The First Round is Caïna, where traitors to their kindred are frozen up to their necks in ice.
  • The Second Round is Antenora, where traitors to their country are submerged up to their chins.
  • The Third Round is Ptolomea, where traitors to their guests are frozen up to their eyes. 
  • The Fourth Round is Judecca, where traitors to their lords are entirely suspended in the ice, their bodies wildly contorted. At the heart of the lake stands the devil and former angel, Lucifer. 

Their voyage complete, Virgil and Dante depart from hell, emerging in a welcome spectacle of starlight in the Southern Hemisphere near the base of Mount Purgatory. As Inferno ends, the journey of Purgatorio beckons.

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