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.
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, 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 roamly 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 towards spiritual fulfillment takes an ascendent 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...
(The entire section is 982 words.)