Student Question

What three aspects does Dante include to explain the allegorical meaning behind the Inferno?

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Dante's journey through hell is considered a massive allegory that reflects one universal idea: how a man goes further into sin even though he is ultimately seeking eternal salvation.

While Dante's Inferno is filled with various allegorical elements that explain many things, the most basic literary aspects used to convey allegory include the story, the characters, and the overarching themes of the story itself. Here is a general guide to how allegory is presented in each of these elements:

The story/plot: On the most basic level, Dante's Inferno is about a man by the name of Dante descending into hell for a spiritual quest. However, the author of this fictional story is also Dante Alighieri, who is conveying his actual, nonfiction views on spirituality and sin.

Even though the story is filled with allegorical elements, remember that it is also a larger religious message from the writer himself to explain how conventional sins such as greed, lust, and envy are punished. Dante, the poet, is building a narrative and literary world to shock and instill fear in the reader about the consequences of straying from a just and righteous life.

The characters: Just about every character is a representation of a greater universal concept in regard to religious beliefs and Christianity. Here are the two most important characters:

  • Dante: Dante himself represents the common man of the time searching for salvation. The character is narrating his travels through hell and essentially represents the viewpoint of everyday people, including you, the reader.
  • Virgil: Virgil is Dante's guide through the nine circles of hell and represents a neutral and balanced viewpoint on sin. This is because he is stuck between heaven and hell in purgatory, which is the central domain between the ethereal realms. Virgil is also a poet who has an affinity for the demonic machinations of hell, since he is based on a writer who wrote about the underworld.

The major themes of the story: There are three major themes that heavily convey allegorical elements throughout Dante's Inferno. These include the following:

  1. Morality and divine justice: In each circle of hell, the sinners are punished based on what their crime or sin was. For example, the greedy souls continue to push bags of gold uphill without any outcome. These sinners represent the relentless greed of people who chase wealth or excess without any real thought or care for anything else.
  2. Cleansing of the soul: Dante's journey by itself is used as a device to show the value of introspectively looking at your misdeeds and rectifying them. Dante's journey begins in darkness, but the trial itself pushes Dante to new limits and makes him reflect on his own morality. Eventually, the hero is able to cleanse himself of sin and live a moral and just life.
  3. The poet's story (poem within a poem): A unique aspect of the allegory is that the story is a poem within a poem, which is used to show the power of poetry as a way to reflect on morality and religious devotion. The main characters are both poets, and the story itself leans heavily on verse to guide the plot and develop the entire journey through the nine circles.

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