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So you’re going to teach Dante’s Inferno, the first part of his epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, Inferno has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has its challenging spots—complex language, violent imagery, difficult thematic content—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying Inferno will give them unique insight into the medieval Catholic worldview as well as Dante’s profoundly influential vision of human life. This guide provides some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1472 
  • Recommended Grade Levels: 11th, 12th, undergraduate 
  • Author: Dante Alighieri 
  • Country of Origin: Italy 
  • Genre: Epic Poem 
  • Literary Period: Middle Ages 
  • Conflict: Person vs. Self, Person vs. Person, Person vs. Supernatural 
  • Narration: First-Person 
  • Setting: Florence, Italy, 1300 
  • Dominant Literary Devices: Terza Rima Verse, Religious Allegory, Allusion 
  • Mood: Sweeping, Grave, Penitential

Texts that Go Well with Inferno

The Aeneid (19 BCE) of Virgil is one of the foundational texts of the Western literary canon. The poem follows the Trojan hero Aeneas in his voyage across the Mediterranean to Italy, where he sows the seeds of the Roman civilization. Virgil’s magnum opus was among Dante’s greatest influences. Consider pairing book 6 of the The Aeneid, in which Aeneas descends to the Underworld, with Dante’s Inferno

Purgatorio (1316) and Paradiso (1320), by Dante Alighieri, complete Dante’s journey in The Divine Comedy after Inferno. Readers who are particularly stirred by Inferno ought to read the rest of the trilogy, even though Inferno is often considered the most vivid of the three volumes. Purgatorio catalogs those souls who find themselves stuck between hell and heaven, with the long road to salvation stretching before them. Paradiso is an exultant record of those figures who, in Dante’s view, most uphold divinity. 

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), by William Blake, represents another poetic voice grappling with the Christian spiritual tradition and figuratively descending to hell. Blake’s book is an experimental mosaic of poetry, narrative prose, aphorisms, and engraved full-color illustrations. Blake was directly inspired by Dante’s vision. 

Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable (1951-53), a trilogy of novels by Samuel Beckett, constitute the Irish writer’s most significant work of fiction. Beckett was profoundly influenced by Dante throughout his life. Although he himself was an unbudging atheist, Beckett saw in war-torn Europe the severe scenes of Dante’s imagination. His prose conveys a balance of bleakness and beauty that rivals Dante’s Inferno. However, unlike Dante’s trilogy of spiritual ascent, Beckett’s trilogy descends ever deeper into desolation. 

Divine Comedies (1976), by James Merrill, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning volume by one of the most accomplished American poets of the 20th century. The volume contains a number of self-contained lyric poems as well as an extended verse sequence titled “The Book of Ephraim,” in which Merrill’s speaker, named J.M., communicates with spirits of the dead through a ouija board. Both in his lush, precise style and his tale of otherworldly traversing, Merrill is deeply influenced by Dante’s innovations.

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Key Plot Points