The Divine Comedy Themes
The three main themes in The Divine Comedy are education and salvation, choices and consequences, and art and experience.
- Education and salvation: Dante—and, by extension, the reader—learns how to attain salvation on the journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise.
- Choices and consequences: Dante comes to understand that while God knows in advance what choices people will make, individuals must still choose how to act and face the consequences.
- Art and experience: The poem was intended to provide an example for readers, urging them to embrace salvation and, if necessary, change their lives.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Sin and Redemption
The theme of sin and redemption is central to The Divine Comedy. In the poem, Dante embarks on a journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso). This epic voyage mirrors a person's spiritual path through life as they grapple with temptation, strive to resist sin, and seek redemption to restore the purity of their soul.
In Inferno, Dante explores the consequences of sin and portrays various punishments corresponding to different sins. Sinners are condemned to specific circles of Hell according to their transgressions.
For example, those who succumbed to the grip of lust and even employed it for malicious deeds and actions face punishment by being tossed about by violent storms and hot, powerful winds.
Into a place I came
Where light was silent all. Bellowing there groan'd
A noise as of a sea in tempest torn
By warring winds. The stormy blast of Hell
With restless fury drives the spirits on
Whirl'd round and dash'd amain with sore annoy.
...I understood that to this torment sad
The carnal sinners are condemn'd, in whom
Reason by lust is sway'd.
As the journey progresses, Dante witnesses the horrible consequences of human sins and slowly begins to understand the importance of repentance. The journey through Inferno highlights the significance of redemption, personal accountability, and responsibility for one's actions, even in the face of wrongdoing.
In this context, divine justice serves as a secondary theme, acting as a poignant reminder that it is essential to acknowledge one's mistakes and accept the consequences of the choices made.
In Purgatorio, the theme of redemption becomes more pronounced. Here, souls work towards their salvation by repenting and atoning for their sins. Purgatory represents hope, as the souls have the chance to reach Paradise through their penance and willingness to change eventually.
In contrast to Inferno, lust in Purgatorio is portrayed as an excessive form of love, and those consumed by it must willingly pass through a wall of flame to extinguish the metaphorical fire burning within them.
...the' angel of God
Appear'd before us. Joy was in his mien.
Forth of the flame he stood upon the brink,
And with a voice, whose lively clearness far
Surpass'd our human, "Blessed are the pure
In heart," he Sang: then near him as we came,
"Go ye not further, holy spirits!" he cried,
"Ere the fire pierce you: enter in; and list
Attentive to the song ye hear from thence."
Finally, in Paradiso, Dante experiences the heavenly realms and encounters the redeemed souls basking in the presence of God. The theme of redemption reaches its pinnacle in this section, portraying the ultimate reward for those who have lived virtuous lives and sought redemption.
Throughout The Divine Comedy, Dante emphasizes the importance of acknowledging one's sins, seeking forgiveness, and working towards redemption, ultimately leading to the salvation of the soul. The poem remains a timeless exploration of the human condition and the potential for spiritual transformation and salvation.
Notably, The Divine Comedy reflects Dante's Christian worldview and can be seen as an allegorical representation of the Christian journey through life, sin, and purification, leading towards the heavenly paradise. Dante's exploration of Christian beliefs and teachings makes the poem a work of literature and a profound expression of his faith and theological reflections.
Throughout the poem, the theme of love exhibits various facets and holds a crucial significance. Dante's love beautifully intertwines both human and divine elements. For instance, Dante's love for Beatrice Portinari is a...
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central driving force in the poem and represents human love.
Beatrice, who symbolizes divine grace and spirituality, serves as Dante's muse and guide, leading him through his journey in paradise. It's important to note that Dante's love for Beatrice is not carnal but courtly, based on admiration and reverence. As a result, he often becomes entranced by her eyes and finds himself in awe of her beauty.
Yet may I speak; that, as I gaz'd on her,
Affection found no room for other wish.
While the everlasting pleasure, that did full
On Beatrice shine, with second view
From her fair countenance my gladden'd soul
Contented; vanquishing me with a beam
Of her soft smile, she spake: "Turn thee, and list.
These eyes are not thy only Paradise."
Dante's love for Beatrice motivates him to undertake his pilgrimage and strive for moral improvement and maturity. In this sense, love becomes a catalyst for spiritual growth and self-awareness.
As Dante advances through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, he encounters various expressions of divine love. God's love is showcased as the ultimate unifying force that governs and guides the universe, providing redemption and salvation for those who seek it.
...Here vigour fail'd the tow'ring fantasy:
But yet the will roll'd onward, like a wheel
In even motion, by the Love impell'd,
That moves the sun in heav'n and all the stars.
The theme of love in The Divine Comedy adds depth and emotional resonance to the poem, illustrating the profound connection between human emotions and the divine. It also serves as a reminder of the transformative power of love in shaping one's spiritual journey and understanding of the divine.
The Divine Comedy recounts the travels of Dante Alighieri’s alter ego and the reader's Everyman (a figure with whom every reader can relate) through three regions: hell, purgatory, and heaven. His goal is to reach spiritual maturity and an understanding of God’s love. Having achieved his goal, Dante has the ultimate vision, a face-to-face encounter with God.
Education and Salvation
Learning how to attain salvation is the main theme of Dante’s epic and subsumes all its other themes. TheDivine Comedy is, therefore, a tale of Dante’s education and, by association, the reader’s. The reader follows Dante through hell in Inferno and learns with him about sin’s pervasiveness. The torments of the sinners, who exist forever without hope of redemption or of an end to their suffering, graphically illustrate sin’s consequences. As the reader and Dante move through the underworld, the shades they see and speak with provide physical examples of and exemplary lessons on the seven deadly sins. At the end of Inferno, Dante and the reader are better able to recognize sin in its various forms and to avoid committing it. Salvation and further spiritual education are impossible without such knowledge.
In the second section, Purgatory, Dante and the reader move up the Mountain of Purgatory to the Garden of Eden at its peak. Along the way they learn the value of contrition and repentance, of having to suffer for causing suffering and for disobeying God. They learn this again by seeing and interacting with shades who represent the seven deadly sins but who here exemplify the desire for contrition and repentance.
The learning process concludes in the third section, Paradise, where a plethora of saved souls appear to Dante and explain the workings of grace and God’s love to him. In this celestial region, Dante takes a series of what we might call oral exams which test his growing knowledge. Schooled by his experiences in the three regions, having gained a firm understanding of sin and grace, Dante passes his exams and graduates to the vision of God. He, then, becomes a teacher, because he returns to earth with instructions to write about his experiences for the benefit of others.
Choices and Consequences: Providence and Free Will
Inextricably linked to the theme of education and to the soul’s salvation is the theme of free will and its relation to God’s Providence. Following the writings of Boethius and Thomas Aquinas, which permeate TheDivine Comedy, Dante shows the reader that God’s Providence, his vision, encompasses all events and all of time. Since God knows and sees all simultaneously, he knows exactly what we will do and when we will do it. Dante’s great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, explains to Dante in Paradise that this does not mean that our actions are predestined, only that God has full knowledge of them. We can and do choose how to act, how to employ our free will, and we must accept responsibility for those choices. As he does in the scene with Cacciaguida, over the course of the poem Dante comes to understand that his actions have consequences and that he bears ultimate responsibility for those consequences. This is of the utmost importance, for failing to understand this can damn one for eternity, as it has those in hell.
Art and Experience: The Power of Literature
Closely tied to the themes of education and the correct use of free will is that of literature’s power to influence its readers’ actions. Dante made the revolutionary decision to write his poem in Italian and not Latin—the language of epic, of the church and of lofty themes—so that it would reach a wider audience. Among other things, he meant his Divine Comedy to be an example, to focus the reader on the next life and, if necessary, to change the way the reader was living this life. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that Dante expected his poem to be read with the same seriousness as Scripture.
Dante himself was profoundly influenced, poetically and spiritually, by sacred and secular texts from his own time and from the ancient past. Perhaps most telling for this theme was the impact Augustine's Confessions had on him. In book 8 of that important work, Augustine (354–430) writes about the power of literature to convert and uses himself as a moving example. He tells of sitting in a garden during a time of intense emotional and spiritual turmoil. In his moment of greatest anxiety, he heard a voice telling him to open the book he had with him to a random place and to read. Doing so, he finds St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the story of his conversion to Christianity (13:13). Paul's tale has such a profound effect upon Augustine that he puts down the book, reading no further. Immediately, his suffering is relieved and he converts to Christianity.
Dante used this episode from the Confessions to make a point about the power of literature and the need for correct reading. In Inferno (5), Dante has Francesca tell of the effect reading had on her and Paolo, her lover. They were not reading Scripture like Augustine, but a medieval romance, Lancelot. Francesca says that she and Paolo reached the place where the lovers in the tale kiss. Then, echoing Augustine, she says they read no further, implying that they consummated their adulterous relationship and that Lancelot inspired the act. The difference between these two reading episodes is clear: both readers were affected by the power of the tales they were reading, but Augustine read Paul’s account correctly and took up the faith. Francesca and Paolo allowed the medieval romance to negatively affect their actions. For “misusing” the text and their free will, they must spend eternity in hell.
The other major example of this theme, and one that counterbalances the Francesca episode, is the meeting between Virgil (70–19 BCE) and Statius (61–96 CE), the poet in Purgatory 22. Ecstatic at meeting Virgil, the great pagan poet, Statius tells him that his Fourth Eclogue, a poem that the Middle Ages read as prophesying the coming of Christ, inspired him to convert to Christianity. Unlikely as this might seem, Dante uses it as another example of the power of literature and the need for right reading, for correctly employing free will in the service of salvation.
Order and Disorder
Dante’s age was a chaotic one, and his poem, particularly Inferno, takes the fourteenth century’s sacred and secular strife as a dominant theme. He rails against corrupt popes and clergy and lashes out at politicians, assigning many of them permanent places in hell. Nonetheless, we must understand that Dante did not hate the institutions of church or state. As a political and religious conservative, he saw such institutions as vital to maintaining social and spiritual order. Indeed, Dante hoped for a reduction of papal political involvement and that an omnipotent Christian emperor would arise and restore order to his chaotic world. He had great faith in Emperor Henry VII’s ability to do so. Unfortunately, Henry was never able to overcome his political opposition nor to maintain papal support, and his unifying efforts failed.
A supporter of institutions in the abstract, Dante was angry with those individuals he thought abused their offices or who were corrupt in other ways. For example, he placed Pope Nicholas III (d. 1280) in hell, angrily stuffing him upside-down in a hole, where tongues of fire eternally "baptize" the soles of his feet (Inferno 19). He then goes a step further and prophesies that Boniface VIII (1217–1303) and Clement V (d. 1314) will join Nicholas in his hellhole, where they, too, will pay for perverting the papacy. Politicians fare no better, particularly the Ghibellines, members of the political party that exiled Dante from Florence. For instance, Dante finds the Ghibelline leader, Farinata degli Uberti, entombed with other heretics in hell (Inferno 10). Dante was not above condemning members of his own party, the Guelfs, to hell either, as we see in the circle of violence. There Guido Guerra and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi run after the green flag with the other naked sodomites.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is itself representative of the need he felt for the comfort that comes from order and stability. It is almost as if Dante, through the order he built into his poem, was trying to counteract the disorder he saw all around him. As the last great hierarchical epic of the Middle Ages, this intensely ordered poem attempts to synthesize and summarize the histories of pagan and Christian thought and to weave those systems into a cohesive whole. The sheer complexity of this whole, however, almost works against its author’s need for order and desire for comfort by illustrating just how difficult—if not impossible—constructing and maintaining such a complex system can be.