The Inferno (Hell) is the first part of The Divine Comedy, followed by the Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). It is a classic Christian theological text that uses strong poetic imagination and allegorical allusion. Though originally written in Italian between 1308 and 1321 AD, the work is widely translated and its themes are drawn upon by generations of writers since. Written in first person narrative, the comedy is about the imaginative events and experiences of Dante as he traverses through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso in his afterlife. The people and conditions he encounters in these places pose moral dilemmas and questions to Dante. By successfully resolving such challenges, Dante (and by extension anyone with faith in Christ) steadily attains spiritual salvation. This essay concerns itself with Inferno and recurrent imageries and motifs found in this section of the epic.
The first part Inferno begins on the eve of Good Friday in the year 1300. The world of the Inferno is dangerous and dark. Dante is lost in a thick forest (a symbol for sin) and he is haunted by wild carnivorous beasts such as lions and wolfs. As Dante suffers in despair, the ancient poet Virgil comes to his rescue. Together, both of them seek repentance for their sins. Their sins are broadly classified under self-indulgent sins (lust, gluttony, wrath and greed), violent sins and malicious sins (dishonesty and treason). (Alvarez 89) Having successfully negotiated the diabolical challenges in this hellish underground, Dante and Virgil move on to the Purgatorio, which is an imposing mountain situated on an island.
While Dante as the protagonist travels through Inferno, he depicts his evidence using bright and dramatic imagery. One of the key motifs is that of music. Here the author is trying to integrate the visual experience of Hell with the aural. For example, the Inferno is described as a place ‘filled with cries’. Dante devotes “full terzinas to the sounds of the wailing, and mentions what he sees almost as an afterthought when he asks Virgil.” (Roglieri 149) The musical sounds produced in the Inferno, however, are not the sublime and the sacred as high music aspires to be. To the contrary, it is antithetical and can be termed as ‘anti-music’. The vile sounds made in this music are so unbearable that Dante resorts to closing his ears in a desperate attempt to block it. In this powerful imagery employed by Dante, the ‘anti-music’ represents
“…a perversion of everything that is conventional to music. Completely lacking in order, it is usually composed of cries and lamentations (a perverted form of vocal music); it is sometimes even produced by body parts (a perverted form of instrumental music); and it is often connected to writhing bodies (a perverted kind of dance).” (Roglieri 149)
Dante also employs imageries of music and song to describe the bleakness and utter horror of the Inferno. The lustful souls cry and the diviners are silent, sobbing and advancing, he notes. Virgil too joins in and parodies a “liturgical hymn traditionally sung during Holy Week in honor of the Cross in order to proclaim the presence of Satan (XXXIV, 1).” (Roglieri 150) Though the Inferno is based on the understanding of sin, hell and heaven as portrayed in the Holy Bible, it goes beyond these references. It is these extraneous flights of creativity that have propelled the work to the status of a literary masterpiece. For example, on his arduous course toward salvation, Dante encounters such luminous historical figures such as St. John, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. The story ends on a positive note, as Dante finally sees divine light. He at last gains a fleeting yet powerful insight into the true glory and magnificence of God.
To understand for what ends Dante employs imagery, we have to analyze the text with regard to writing as a medium. In Cantos XXIV and XXV we see openings
“…of the frost’s ephemeral writing on the earth and its fading soon away: “but not for long does its pen’s sharpness last” (1) Tellingly, the canto closes with images of black and white that clearly refer to the vicissitudes of contemporary Black and White Guelf politics: Pistoia will first grow thin of Blacks, but then Mars will bring turgid clouds and tempest and suddenly disperse the mist “so that every White will be wounded” (150). Yet these images also suggest black ink on white paper, and as such they are woven into the metaphorical fabric of allusions to phenomena of writing that runs through these cantos.” (Franke 346)
Written in epic verse form, the Inferno (as is the larger Divine Comedy) is both literature and theology. Through apt imageries, Dante deals with core biblical themes of sin and repentance. He also interrogates questions of virtue and ethics found in classical Greek and Roman mythology. There is thus symmetry and mathematical arrangement to the chapters and units. Though Dante’s epic poem fundamentally deals with Christian doctrine, it doesn’t allow itself to be dogmatic. This is evident from Dante’s description of a spherical earth, which is more in tune with the scientific view of the cosmos.(Alvarez 89) Dante even depicts varying time zones across different geographies such as Jerusalem and Ganges.
Alvarez, B. “The Cross That Dante Bears: Pilgrimage, Crusade, and the Cruciform Church in the Divine Comedy.” Arthuriana 16.1 (2006): 86+.
Franke, William. “Paradoxical Prophecy: Dante’s Strategy of Self-Subversion in the Inferno.” Italica 90.3 (2013): 343+.
Roglieri, Maria Ann. “Twentieth-Century Musical Interpretations of the `Anti-Music’ of Dante’s Inferno.” Italica 79.2 (2002): 149+.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: The Vision of Paradise, Purgatory and Hell, Illustrated by Gustave Dore, Translated by Rev. H. F. Cary, Released by Project Gutenberg on September, 2005. Retrieved from