Dante's Inferno Summary

Inferno is a fourteenth-century epic poem by Dante Alighieri in which the poet and pilgrim Dante embarks on a spiritual journey.

  • At the poem’s beginning, Dante is lost in a dark wood, both literally and spiritually. He meets the soul of his poetic idol, the Roman poet Virgil, who agrees to guide him through hell.
  • Dante and Virgil enter hell and explore its nine circles, observing the punishments suffered by the various categories of sinners.
  • At the bottom of the Ninth Circle, Dante and Virgil encounter Lucifer. They climb the devil’s back in order to ascend to Mount Purgatory.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 28, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1986

Like so many of the classical epics Dante Alighieri admired, Dante’s Divine Comedy begins in medias res. At the start of the first canto of Inferno, the action has already begun, unaccompanied by contextual information. The year is 1300. It is the night before Good Friday. Dante, aged 35, finds himself lost in a dark wood, having strayed from the diritta via, the straight way, true path, or right road. He encounters a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Evading those fearsome beasts, he then meets the Roman poet Virgil, now a shade, who agrees to guide Dante down through the nine circles of hell. Virgil explains that he was summoned by three holy women: Dante’s beloved Beatrice, the Virgin Mary, and St. Lucia.

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The entrance to hell is marked by a grim message:
“Through me you pass into the grievous city,
through me you pass into eternal pain,
Through me you pass among the lost people[…]
Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”

The throng of souls entering the gates of hell extends as far as Dante can see, and he is stunned by the scale of the desperation he witnesses. He had not known there were so many dead people. 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, as well as Virgil. Dante refers to himself as the sixth among that company, indicating his sense of his own importance as a poet.

At the entrance of the Second Circle, Dante and Virgil encounter the Cretan king Minos, who judges the incoming souls and assigns them to their appropriate place in hell. Once inside, Dante and Virgil encounter the souls of the lustful, who in life failed to contain their erotic urges.  They are now eternally buffeted about by surging winds. The two representative souls of the lustful are Paolo and Francesca, a pair of Florentine lovers who tell Dante of their ill-fated affair. They went behind the back of Francesca’s husband, Gian Cotto, who then murdered the lovers in his rage.

In the Third Circle, the souls of the gluttonous splash about in a huge bog, blinded by the mud and chilled by the icy rain pouring down on them. Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog, viciously watches them. Virgil fills Cerberus’s mouths with heaps of mud, allowing him and Dante to slip past. In the Third Circle, Dante speaks with Ciacco, a fellow Florentine who makes a political prophecy: the Black Guelphs will drive out the White Guelphs. This event, the cause of Dante’s exile in 1302, indeed came to pass.

The Fourth Circle is the realm of the greedy. The circle is lorded over by Plutus, the Roman god of earthly wealth. As Dante and Virgil approach, Plutus gutturally mutters the cryptic phrase “Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!” The phrase fills Dante with both fear and confusion. After Dante and Virgil descend into the circle, they find the greedy souls, both hoarders and squanderers. The souls are fated to eternally roll great bags of gold uphill in Sisyphean fashion or spin in circles, pointlessly rolling great boulders into one another.

The souls of the wrathful float in the foul, stagnant River Styx. The more aggressive souls break the surface and bark hatefully, while the more mutely angry souls languish in the depths. Virgil and Dante hire Phlegyas to ferry them across. As they make the crossing, they encounter Filippo Argenti, a Florentine acquaintance of Dante’s. Argenti bitterly accosts Dante because of their opposing political allegiances: Argenti being a Black Guelph, Dante a White. Crowds of wrathful souls attack Argenti as Dante and Virgil raft away. On the other shore, they enter the walled city of Dis, which contains the subsequent circles of hell.

The souls of heretics burn within the earth, piled deep in the flaming graves of the Sixth Circle. This herd of heretics largely consists of Epicureans, hedonists, and other materialists, whose damnable heresy lies in their claim that the soul dies with the body. Virgil describes the geography of the seventh and eighth circles and, noting the rotations of the constellations, calculates that it is now just before dawn on Saturday.

Virgil and Dante slip past the Minotaur as they enter the Seventh Circle, which detains 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. The Phlegethon is populated by bloodthirsty warlords, such as Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun, who are kept in place by the sharp arrows of patrolling centaurs.

The Second Ring houses the souls of suicides. They have been transformed into a grove of gnarled trees, to be perpetually harassed by harpies, who make the trees bleed. Upon judgment day, they have no hope of returning to human form; they are rooted in their sordid grove forever. Two profligate souls sprint through the woods, chased by hounds, crashing through and breaking the limbs of the suicides, who cannot avoid the agony.

In the Third Ring burn those souls who committed violence against God, Nature, and Art. They are known as blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers, respectively. These souls are stranded on a vast desert of scorching sand, rained upon by a perpetual storm of fire. As Dante and Virgil cross the desert, they encounter Brunetto Latini, a Florentine scholar, orator, and poet who was a mentor and close friend of Dante’s. Dante lavishes respect and praise on Latini, referring to him with the formal pronoun voi. Dante and Virgil proceed, preparing to plunge into the abyss beyond the Seventh Circle. To descend through the abyss, Virgil solicits the assistance of the winged beast Geryon, who ferries them down.

The Eighth Circle, the vastest of all, houses the souls of the fraudulent, who are divided into ten bolge, or trenches. The bolge are arrayed in a series of concentric circle that grow smaller as they descend towards the central well, whose bottom yields the final circle.

  • In the First Bolgia suffer the panderers and seducers, who are whipped and beaten by demons. Dante notices the Greek Hero Jason, who courted and abandoned Medea, among the seducers’ ranks.
  • The Second Bolgia contains the flatterers, who are mired in pools of feces.
  • The Third Bolgia imprisons the simoniacs, or the corrupt church officials who accept money in exchange for favors, pardons, and posts. Notable simoniacs include Simon Magus, for whom the sin is named, and a trio of popes: Nicholas III, Boniface VIII, and Clement V. The simoniacs, who are buried head-first and burned, spark a righteous, enraged tirade by Dante.
  • In the Fourth Bolgia bumble the sorcerers, who walk about blindly and aimlessly, their heads twisted to face backwards. These magicians and soothsayers sinned for arrogantly attempting to surmise God’s intentions. Exemplary sorcerers include Amphiaraus, Tiresias, and Michael Scot.
  • In the Fifth Bolgia burn the barrators, or the corrupt political officials who sell government posts for profit. These barrators stew in a lake of hot pitch and are kept submerged by demons known as the Malebranche. The Malebranche take a keen interest in Dante and Virgil, and their leader, Malacoda, orders a troop of his demons to guide the pair to the next bolgia. Along the way, the Malebranche terrorize an unnamed man, who points out several of his fellow barrators. When two of the demons begin to wrestle, falling into the pitch, Dante and Virgil escape the demons’ surveillance and slip down into the Sixth Bolgia.
  • The Sixth Bolgia houses the hypocrites, who trudge about while cloaked in robes of lead. The robes, with their brilliant exterior gilding and interior leadenness, reflect the deceptively dual nature of hypocrisy. Notable hypocrites include members of the Jovial Friars, known for their failed asceticism, and Caiaphas, the priest who ordered Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Caiaphas is staked to the ground in a crucifixion of his own; passing crowds trample on him, deepening his agony. Dante and Virgil cross a ruined bride to enter the Seventh Bolgia.
  • The Seventh Bolgia bulges with thieves. These thieves are devoured by, and transformed into, reptiles; just as they stole from others in life, their identities are stolen by the vile patrolling reptiles. Among the thieves is Vanni Fucci, a Florentine whom Dante recognizes. Fucci curses God, drawing the ire of the centaur Cacus, who pursues Fucci. Dante chastises the city of Florence for filling the halls of hell with so many sinners; he implores Florentines to do better.
  • In the Eighth Bolgia, false counsellors are ensconced in tongues of flame. Dante finds the Greek soldiers Diomedes and Ulysses wrapped in a single flame, punished for having devised the Trojan Horse. Ulysses tells of his final days, in which he left Ithaca for a final journey beyond the Atlantic. He coaxed his crew far beyond the horizon, only to sail them into a deadly whirlpool.
  • In the Ninth Bolgia, Dante and Virgil find the sowers of discord, who are flayed to shreds by a demon. The discordants are largely rebels, politicians, and soldiers who rent society to satisfy their own aims; notable discordants include Muhammed, Gaius Curio, and Bertrand de Born.
  • The Tenth Bolgia contains the falsifiers, who are ravaged by disease for having been, figuratively speaking, diseases on society. The varieties of falsifiers are alchemists, such as Griffolino d’Arezzo, imposters, such as Gianni Schicchi, counterfeiters, such as Adam of Brescia, and perjurers, such as Sinon, the man who convinced the Trojans to accept the Greeks’ horse. Finally, Dante and Virgil arrive at the well, which is crowded with tower-sized giants, including Nimrod, Ephialtes, and Antaeus. Virgil convinces Antaeus to transport him and Dante down to the well’s bottom, where the Ninth Circle of hell starts.

Traitors are punished in the Ninth Circle, the frozen lake Cocytus, which is divided into four rounds.

  • The First Round is Caïna, where traitors to their kindred are frozen up to their necks in ice; this zone is named for the evil Cain. It includes such traitors as Mordred, of Arthurian lore, and the Ghibelline Camiscion de’ Pazzi.
  • The Second Round is Antenora, where traitors to their country are submerged up to their chins. Examples include the region’s namesake, Antenor, a Trojan who betrayed his city, and the Guelph traitor Bocca degli Abati. In this round Dante encounters one of the most pitiable figures in all of hell, Count Ugolino, who tells his story: After being charged in a conspiracy to take over his political faction, Ugolino was locked in a tower with his sons and grandsons, all of whom were slowly starved to death.
  • The Third Round is Ptolomea, where traitors to their guests are frozen up to their eyes. The round is named for Ptolemy, the crooked governor of Jericho. Here, Dante encounters Fra Alberigo, another of the Jovial Friars, guilty for having a pair of rivals murdered at a banquet he hosted. Dante refuses Alberigo’s pleas to remove the ice from his eyes.
  • The Fourth Round is Judecca, where traitors to their lords are entirely suspended in the ice, their bodies wildly contorted. At the heart of the lake stands the devil, the former angel Lucifer. The devil, whose chief sin is treachery to God, has three faces and six leathery wings. The three mouths perpetually devour three infamous traitors: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas, for whom the round is named.

Their journey complete, Virgil and Dante depart from hell. They climb the devil’s back, emerging in a welcome spectacle of starlight in the Southern Hemisphere, near the base of Mount Purgatory. As Dante’s Inferno ends, the journey of Purgatorio beckons.

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