Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is an Italian poet who modeled The Divine Comedy after Virgil’s Aeneid in the form of an epic poem. It is separated into three distinct parts: the Inferno, or Hell, which is reserved for those who must suffer eternal damnation because they died in sin; the Purgatorio, which is the place those who have repented their sins must wait before entry into Heaven; and Paradiso, the place enjoyed by those whose souls are pure and free from sin.
The author Dante is a religious man who believes that to enter Heaven a human being must understand the nature of sin. His epic poem represents a man’s journey to Hell in order to gain that understanding. The protagonist making the journey is aptly named Dante, but represents humankind. Readers are cognizant that the character Dante and the author Dante are different. They can still recognize that the author’s beliefs are infused into his fictional hero and protagonist.
The epic hero is guided through the Inferno by the Roman poet Virgil. Beatrice, Dante’s earthly love who now lives in Heaven, asks Virgil to help him. There are nine concentric circles of Hell forming a funnel, and each level goes deeper into the pit at the bottom. As Dante travels deeper into Hell, the sins of the souls suffering are more serious. Thus, the protagonist tends to be more sympathetic toward some at the top of the funnel because their sins are of a lesser magnitude.
As the journey begins, Dante has lost his way through life. He finds himself confused. He wants to travel the right path to God, but must first learn the nature of sin:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
When Dante arrives at the Gates of Hell, he is terrified by the sign above reading, “All hope abandon, ye who enter in!” When he and Virgil enter the first circle of Hell called Limbo, he identifies with the souls trapped there. They had not found Christianity. As pagans, they had lost hope and were doomed for eternity. He knows that he, too, is a lost soul and is sympathetic to that level of sinners:
And if they were before Christianity,
In the right manner they adored not God;
And among such as these am I myself.
For such defects, and not for other guilt,
Lost are we and are only so far punished,
That without hope we live on in desire.
Great grief seized on my heart when this I heard,
Because some people of much worthiness
I knew, who in that Limbo were suspended.
At the sixth level of Hell, Dante encounters those who have rejected Church doctrine. Once again, Dante is sympathetic to them since they have committed sins that were not harmful to others. Nevertheless, they burn in tombs of fire.
In the seventh circle of violence and the eighth circle of fraud, the traveler feels less sympathetic toward the sufferers. He learns that since violence harms others, the punishment is greater, but that God hates fraud, especially that committed against family, even more than violence because those who commit it misuse human reason. Fraud against family is punished in the ninth circle of Hell.
Upon entering the ninth circle where Lucifer resides, Dante no longer feels pity or sympathy for the sinners he sees. He develops an attitude of anger and contempt for them and wishes to escape their presence. He and his guide ascend through the funnel toward hope:
The Guide and I into that hidden road
Now entered, to return to the bright world;
And without care of having any rest
We mounted up, he first and I the second,
Till I beheld through a round aperture
Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;
Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.”