Key Plot Points

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Last Updated on July 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858

While we recommend reading Dante’s Inferno in its entirety, we understand that your classroom may have time constraints. The following Key Plot Points are meant to guide you and your students to the most relevant parts of the text so you can plan your lessons most efficiently. 

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The Dark Wood (Cantos 1–2): The year is 1300. Dante, aged 35, finds himself traversing a dark wood, having lost the path. He encounters a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Evading them, he then meets the Roman poet Virgil, who agrees to guide Dante down through the nine circles of hell. 

The First Circle (Canto 4): 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. 

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The Second Circle (Canto 5): At the entrance of the Second Circle, Dante and Virgil encounter the Cretan king Minos, who judges the incoming souls and sorts them into their proper place in hell. Once inside, Dante and Virgil encounter the souls of the lustful, who in life failed to contain their erotic urges and who now are eternally buffeted about by surging winds. 

The Third Circle (Canto 6): In the Third Circle, the souls of the gluttonous splash about and wallow in a bog, blinded by the mud and chilled by the icy rain pouring down on them. Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog, viciously surveils them. Virgil fills the dog’s mouths with gobs of mud, allowing him and Dante to slip past. 

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The Fourth Circle (Canto 7): The Fourth Circle is the realm of the greedy, lorded over by Plutus, the Roman god of earthly wealth. The greedy souls, both those who hoard and those who squander, are fated to eternally roll great bags of gold uphill in Sisyphean fashion or spin in circles, rolling great boulders into one another. 

The Fifth Circle (Cantos 7–9): The souls of the wrathful float in the foul, stagnant River Styx, with the more aggressive souls breaking the surface and barking hatefully, the more mutely angry souls languishing in the depths. Virgil and Dante hire Phlegyas to ferry them across. On the other shore, they enter the walled city of Dis, which contains the subsequent circles of hell. 

The Sixth Circle (Canto 10): The souls of heretics burn forever, piled deep in the flaming graves of the Sixth Circle. This herd of heretics largely consists of Epicureans, hedonists, and other materialists, whose great heresy lies in their claim that the soul dies with the body. 

The Seventh Circle (Cantos 12–17): Virgil and Dante evade the Minotaur as they enter the Seventh Circle, which houses the violent in three subdivided rings. In the first ring, the souls of those who were violent against their neighbors wallow in the Phlegethon, a great river of burning blood. In the second ring, the souls of suicides stand as a grove of gnarled trees, perpetually harassed by harpies. In the third ring burn those souls who committed violence against God (blasphemers), Nature (sodomites), and Art (usurers). These souls are marooned on a vast plain of burning sand, rained upon by flakes of fire. To descend through the abyssal gulf to the Eighth Circle, Virgil solicits the aid of the winged beast Geryon, who transports them down. 

The Eighth Circle (Cantos 18–31): The Eighth Circle, the vastest of all, houses the souls of the fraudulent, who are divided into ten bolge, or trenches. In these trenches suffer the panderers, who are whipped and beaten; the flatterers, who are mired in excrement; the simoniacs, who are buried head-first and burned; the sorcerers, who walk blindly, their heads twisted to face backwards; the barrators, who stew in a lake of hot pitch and are clawed by demons; the hypocrites, who trudge heavily, cloaked in robes of lead; the thieves, who are devoured by, and transformed into, reptiles; the false counselors, who are ensconced in great tongues of flame; the sowers of discord, who are cut to shreds by a demon; and the falsifiers, who are ravaged by various diseases. Finally, the giant Antaeus carries Virgil and Dante down to the Ninth Circle. 

The Ninth Circle (Cantos 32–34): Traitors languish in the Ninth Circle, a great frozen lake consisting of four rings. The first is Caïna, where traitors to their kindred are frozen up to their necks in ice. Second is Antenora, where traitors to their country are frozen to their chins. Third is Ptolomea, where traitors to their guests are frozen up to their eyes. Last is Judecca, where traitors to their lords are entirely suspended in the ice, their bodies severely contorted. At the very heart of the lake stands the devil, the former angel Lucifer, traitor to God, who has three faces and six leathery wings. The three mouths perpetually devour three infamous traitors: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas. To depart from hell, Virgil and Dante climb the devil’s enormous back, emerging in the Southern Hemisphere near the base of Mount Purgatory. 

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