The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What happens in The Divine Comedy?

In this epic poem, Dante's alter ego, the Pilgrim, travels through Hell and Purgatory to reach Heaven. His journey is meant to impress upon readers the consequences of sin and the glories of Heaven.

  • In the first section, commonly known as Dante's Inferno, the spirit of Roman poet Virgil leads Dante's alter ego, the "Pilgrim," through the circles of Hell, where they witness the horrible punishments that sinners have brought upon themselves.
  • In the second section, Purgatory, Pilgrim meets the souls of those waiting to ascend into Heaven. There, the souls of the saved make penance for their sins, of which they must be cleansed before they can go to Heaven.
  • In the third section, Pilgrim reaches Heaven. On the way there, he sails through space and sees the planets, which are inhabited by saints. Upon witnessing the majesty of God in his true glory, Pilgrim returns to Earth to write this very poem.

Download The Divine Comedy Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Dante’s The Divine Comedy is the beginning of Italian literature and the single most significant work of the Middle Ages because its allegory emphasizes the importance of salvation and divine love in a work that is inclusive and tightly structured. It is so thoroughly infused with Christian ethics that any overview has to touch on major Christian themes, beginning with the plot being set during Easter week 1300.

The work is a complex narrative with many allusions to biblical stories, classical myths, history, and contemporary politics; however, the plot’s symbolism provides clarity in that it celebrates the ideal of universalism, where everything has its place in God’s world, and its ultimate goal of salvation triumphs over the contemporary reality of the power struggle between worldly and religious leaders.

The structure of the entire work, as well as of its parts, is symbolic of the story it tells, as the use of numbers shows. The number 3 (symbolic of the Trinity: God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) and the number 10 (the “perfect” number: 3 × 3 + 1) are the most conspicuous examples. The Divine Comedy has three “cantiche,” or parts (Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven). Each cantica has thirty-three cantos, or songs, with the exception of the first cantica, which has thirty-four cantos, adding up to a total of one hundred (the perfect number squared: 10 × 10). Each canto is written in terza rima, that is, in tercets that rhyme in an interlocking manner.

The first canto of Inferno, is considered to be an introduction to the whole work (making the structure even more symmetric: 1 + 33 + 33 + 33 = 100) because all three parts of The Divine Comedy are present in the first canto’s symbolic landscape. Dante finds himself lost in a dark forest. Looking for orientation, he decides to hike up a mountain, whose sunlit top represents Purgatory, while the sky and the sun represent Heaven. However, Dante’s path is blocked by three animals on the mountain’s slope: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf, which represent the three main types of sin that correspond to the three main divisions of Hell.

The spirit of Virgil appears and promises to get Dante to salvation the long way: through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Dante’s doubts are assuaged because Virgil has been sent by three heavenly ladies (the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucy, and Beatrice); in the combination of human reason with divine grace, Dante’s salvation may yet be achieved. After they enter Hell in the third canto, Dante learns through conversations with Virgil and individual souls that each sin is punished according to its severity, systematically going from the lighter sins of incontinence (giving in to one’s desires) to the more severe sins of violence (actively willing evil) and fraud (adding malice). Hell, which is presented as a huge funnel-shaped underground cave, extends in ever-smaller and more-constricting circles to the middle of the earth; there, in the pit of hell, sits Satan himself, forever stuck frozen in the ice of the lake Cocytus,...

(The entire section is 3,494 words.)