Dante's Inferno Themes

The main themes in Dante’s Inferno are morality and divine justice, the soul’s journey, and the poet’s vocation.

  • Morality and divine justice: The correspondence between the sinners’ actions and their punishments in hell indicates Dante’s belief in the fairness of divine authority.
  • The soul’s journey: Inferno records Dante’s journey through doubt and suffering to get back on the diritta via—the right path—and achieve religious salvation.
  • The poet’s vocation: The poem draws distinctions between Dante as author, narrator, and protagonist, but each of these facets addresses his identity as a poet. Throughout the epic, Dante explores the nature and function of poetry.


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Morality and Divine Justice

Dante’s Divine Comedy establishes an elaborate system of punishment and reward for humans in the afterlife. While Dante drew on an enormous body of Christian and classical thought in his composition of the epic poem, he also brought a great deal of innovation. The Catholic Church had long imagined hell, purgatory, and heaven as the three realms of the afterlife. Dante contributed to this canon of Catholic thought by bringing a new level of sweeping vision and immersive detail to these realms.

In Inferno, Dante crafts an underworld in which the punishment fits the worldly crime. Dante matches the sins and sentences in terms of both degree and kind. The sins fall on a scale: the graver the sin, the harsher the punishment. The First Circle, Limbo, is by far the mildest realm of hell. The dead are not directly punished, but neither do they have hope of heavenly bliss. Limbo is fittingly mild, for it is populated by virtuous souls who happen to have never been baptized.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the souls in the Ninth Circle of hell, deep within the City of Dis. Those souls, all of them traitors, are forever frozen in Lake Cocytus, their bodies horrendously contorted in the ice. At the very bottom of the circle, Judas thrashes about in Satan’s mouth, his head gnawed upon and his back flayed by the devil’s claws. As Dante’s journey through hell progresses, the justice he sees becomes more severe and the sinners’ stories more wretched.

Each sin is also met with a punishment that reflects the essence and character of the sin. Gluttons wallow in mud like pigs. Greedy souls hopelessly roll huge bags of gold uphill. Sowers of discord, who split society, are themselves split, sliced, and severed by a sword-wielding demon. While Dante allowed his imagination to roam widely in his conjurings of the underworld, his intention was serious. He hoped to instill in his readers a moral forthrightness through his fearsome depictions of hell.

The Soul’s Journey

Dante’s Inferno is an epic narrative that plays out on both cosmic and personal scales. While the poem lays out a sweeping system of divine justice, it also tracks one man’s path through religious struggle and into transcendence. Dante, the poem’s protagonist, undergoes a difficult journey through hell, purgatory, and finally heaven. In the process, he learns to once again walk the divine path.

At the start of Inferno, Dante finds himself at midlife, lost in a dark wood, having wandered from the diritta via, the right path. From these opening lines, readers understand that Dante’s dark situation is as much spiritual and psychological as it is literal. The precise nature of his journey is never made explicit, because the poem immediately launches into an allegorical and symbolic zone. To be lost in dark woods, to have strayed from the path—these are metaphors for spiritual ennui and moral uncertainty. Thus, at the start of Inferno, Dante seeks to reorient himself.

Dante’s progression toward spiritual fulfillment takes an ascendant arc. Thus, he begins with a “dark night of the soul,” a summons to the journey. He then descends downward to confront the most horrendous, wicked truths of human life. Inferno records Dante’s katabasis, his descent to the underworld of sin and suffering. Just as Dante witnesses the terrible punishments delivered in hell, he experiences the journey as a grueling trial. The ordeal cleanses him of sin and ensures his moral seriousness, thus preparing him to rise to the higher levels of spiritual attainment awaiting him in Purgatorio and Paradiso.

The Poet’s Vocation

Dante’s Inferno is a poem that knows it is a poem. While there are important distinctions between Dante the author, Dante the narrator, and Dante the protagonist, each version of Dante is a poet. Thus, explorations into the nature of poetry—its roles and capacities—are always at hand in Inferno.

From the first canto, the topic of poetic composition spills into the narrative. When the lost Dante encounters Virgil, it is clear that Virgil stands as both Dante’s guide to the underworld and his poetic mentor. In Dante’s first remarks to Virgil, he calls the older poet “my guide and my author” and praises his perfected style. Dante most likely composed his Divine Comedy with Virgil’s Aeneid as a reference and model. From the start, the reality of the poem collides into the reality of the narrative.

Dante intrudes into the narration of Inferno to discuss the nature of poetry. In many cases, he questions his own capacity to render the wild sights of hell into verse. He even questions the limits of language itself. As Dante the narrator remarks at the start of canto 28,

Who could find words, even in the flow of prose,
To speak of the blood and wounds that I now saw,
Even if shaped and told again and again?
No doubt each tongue would fall far short, strained
By our speech and by our mind, which are too narrow
To grasp the range of such monstrosities.

Such interludes invite readers to consider the document in front of them. Dante’s discussions about language and poetry make the events of the narrative appear both more and less real. The events seem more real because Dante cleverly claims that any unbelievable elements are a result of his shortcomings as a poet—or of the shortcomings of language. The events seem less real because readers are made aware of the fact that Inferno is a poem. The artifice of the narrative, with its layers of poetic and linguistic labor, is illuminated. Such illumination does not necessarily detract from the experience, because Dante’s artifice is so exquisite. As limited and artificial as language is, we require it, and Dante is a master of it.

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