|The book Inferno by Dante Alighieri provides one a glimpse of the afterlife as it was perceived by Christians during the 14th century. Inferno opens with Dante finding himself lost in some dark woods in the middle of a valley. Dante attempts to climb out of the valley but he finds his way barred by a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Dante then encounters the shade of the poet Virgil, who had told Beatrice, Dante’s lover, that he would lead Dante out the woods towards heaven. As the pair heads towards the entrance of hell they pass by the Ante-Inferno, where those who never choose a moral extreme are punished along with the neutral angels by having to endlessly chase a blank banner while being chased by flies and wasps. After crossing the river Acheron into hell, Dante passes through the first circle, where the unbaptized reside in relative peace. Virgil and Dante then travel through the second circle of hell where the lustful are punished by having their souls cast about in the savage wind. Reaching the third circle Dante witnesses the gluttonous endure a constant barrage of freezing rain pouring down on them. After crossing into the fourth circle of hell Dante views two opposite groups of men pushing heavy weights in a large semicircle before crashing into each other and reversing direction. Virgil informs him that the two groups are the avaricious and the prodigal. At the fifth circle the pair runs into the river Styx, where the wrathful are constantly attacking each other using everything at their disposal. Virgil points out that the sullen are also punished in the fifth circle and he tells Dante that the sullen are located at the bottom of the river. Virgil convinces a being called Phlegyas to ferry Dante and himself across the river but, the pair is denied entry into the City of Dis (lower hell) by the fallen angles that inhabit it. After Dante is harassed by the three furies an angel from heaven appears and opens the gate into Dis. In the sixth circle Dante is immediately confronted by the sight of the fiery tombs of heretics. After talking to some of the souls there Dante comes to the realization that the heretics can only see future events due to their punishment. Virgil and Dante rest for a while after crossing into the seventh circle and Virgil tells Dante more about the layout of Dis. The seventh circle is for those who committed violence and is further divided into three different subsections, violence against one’s neighbors, violence against one’s self, and violence against god. Virgil then explains why fraud is the worst sin of all as it violates ones trust. Virgil states that the people who committed fraud are punished in the eight circle of hell and that the ninth circle of hell is reserved for those who committed betrayal. Following this explanation Dante and Virgil proceed into the seventh circle of hell. After slipping past the Minotaur, Dante and Virgil witness the torture of the souls who committed violence against their neighbors. They stand within a boiling lake of blood with the people who committed violence against many having more of their body covered. Centaurs surround the lake and shoot arrows at anyone who tries to climb out. A centaur named Nessus allows Dante to climb onto his back and he takes Dante and Virgil out of the first ring of the seventh circle. In the second ring Dante discovers that those who committed violence against themselves have been transformed into trees. In the third ring Dante first encounters the blasphemers who lie on hot sand with more burning sand constantly falling on top of them. He then meets the Sodomites whose punishment is to walk under a rain of fire. Dante finally encounters the usurers who are forced to sit in the rain of fire wearing purses around their necks. Dante witnesses various different punishments in the eighth circle and grows less and less compassionate towards the victims. After Virgil convinces Antaeus to lower them into the ninth circle of hell, Dante sees Caina which is a giant frozen lake where souls stand covered up to the neck in ice. Further into the ninth circle Dante discovers the devil himself standing in the lake. Vergil then climbs down Lucifer’s body along with Dante and they pass through the center of the Earth and the book ends with Dante looking towards the stars.
In Inferno the author employs indirect characterization to develop much of Dante and Vergil’s characters. For example when the reader is introduced to Dante, his age is not directly given. However, since the book says “Midway upon the journey of our life” (11) one can assume that Dante is around thirty five years old because according to Christian scripture the average life of a human was seventy years old. Moreover one can assume that Dante has made several bad decisions in his life and has committed sin, otherwise he wouldn’t be lost in the dark woods where the story opens. During his first encounter with Vergil one gets the first glance at Dante’s character. “When I beheld him in the desert vast, ‘Have pity on me,’ unto him I cried, ‘Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!’” (14). After being turned back by the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf, Dante finds himself stuck in the dark woods with no one to help him and nowhere to go. Thus, when he sees Vergil he implores him for help, despite not knowing who or what Vergil is. This lets the reader infer that Dante is the average Christian during the 14th century. He wants to leave the evil woods but he can’t do it by himself. He needs outside guidance and structure in order to fully escape the woods. Since the woods represent Dante’s past sins and mistakes, and Dante requires Vergil to help him escape them, one’s first impression of Vergil is one of a semi-divine guide. This inference is supported by the fact that Vergil tells Dante that Beatrice, Dante’s lover is the one who sent him to help Dante. That also lets the reader know that Dante had a lover and that his lover is dead and was good enough to go to heaven. When Dante first enter hell he is struck by the agony the souls in the Ante-Inferno suffer. “And I, who had my head with horror bound, Said: “‘Master, what is this which now I hear? What folk is this, which seems by pain so vanquished?’” (27). In addition to showing the reader that Dante is capable of sympathy, it also shows Vergil’s superiority because Dante defers to Vergil’s opinions and explanations. It also adds to Vergil’s sense of a divine guide sent from heaven because he knows about everything going on in the Ante-Inferno. Since Vergil is also the one who convinces Charon to let Dante and himself pass the river Acheron it makes it seem like Vergil is in charge and that Vergil knows what’s best for Dante. When Dante and Vergil first make it into Limbo the book says “Great grief seized on my heart when this I heard, because some people of much worthiness I knew, who in that Limbo were suspended.” (34). This reaction reinforces the idea that Dante is just the average person as he feels sorry for the souls are contained in Limbo. When Dante then enters the second circle he says “Then unto them I turned me, and I spake, and I began: ‘Thine agonies, Francesca, sad and compassionate to weeping make me.’” (45), this quote lets one know that even though Dante knows that Francesca has committed sin, he still feels sympathy for her. We learn of Dante’s political ambitions when he starts talking to Ciacco in the third circle of hell. “I answered him: ‘Ciacco, thy wretchedness weighs on me so that it to weep invites me; but tell me, if thou knowest, to what shall come the citizens of the divided city; if any there be just; and the occasion tell me why so much discord has assailed it’”(51). This lets the reader know that Dante was involved in politics while he lived in Florence and that he cares very much about his city’s future. We see a darker side of Dante when he after he enters into the fifth circle and starts to cross the river Styx. When Philippo Argenti tries to talk to him Dante requests to Vergil that they wait and watch Philippo get assaulted by the other souls in the river. With this quote “A little after that, I saw such havoc made of him by the people of the mire, that still I praise and thank my God for it.” (63) Dante reveals that he takes brutal pleasure at watching the demise of Phillippo, who was a member of the opposite political party in Florence. This adds to the idea that Dante is the just the average person as he actively seeks out the path to heaven, feels sympathy for others, but still enjoys watching the destruction of his foes. However, this scene makes Vergil seem less divine and more mundane, as he witnesses Dante’s reaction towards Phillippo’s demise and doesn’t comment on it. It makes it seem like Vergil isn’t really a perfect being, but that he is simply there to guide Dante. It makes the point that one’s guides in life don’t have to be perfect and that people with flaws can still be capable leaders. It also makes the point that Vergil has flaws of his own but, he still knows what is best and that he can still guide Dante on his way through hell. Dante’s dependence on Vergil is further exposed in Canto nine when it says “that hue which cowardice brought out on me, beholding my Conductor backward turn, sooner repressed within him his new colour.” (68). Dante turns pale because he doesn’t know what to do if his leader doesn’t know what to do. Since Vergil is turned down by the fallen angels regarding their entrance into Dis; it makes Vergil seem more human by letting the reader know that Vergil is also capable of failure. Later on in the book Dante loses much of the sympathy he displayed earlier towards the victims. For example in the ninth circle when Friar Alberigo asks Dante to remove the ice covering his eyes Dantes states, “but hitherward stretch out thy hand forthwith, open mine eyes;” – and open them I did not, and to be rude to him was courtesy.” (239). Dante had told the Friar that he would remove the ice from his eyes but he changed his mind once the Friar told him his story. Dante shows that he is willing to break his word and that he also feels less sorry for the people that he thinks deserve their punishment. Almost everything we learn about Dante and Vergil comes from inferences; there is little to no direct characterization employed within Inferno.
A literary device that is employed in Inferno is the theme that God’s punishment is perfect. Examples of this idea can be seen with every sinner’s punishment in hell. Right at the beginning of the story in the Ante-Inferno Dante first encounters the punishment of the people and angels that stayed neutral. “These miscreants, who never were alive, were naked, and were stung exceedingly by gadflies and by hornets that were there.” (28). The men and women that never choose to be either good or evil in their life are forced to eternally chase around a blank banner while being compelled into action by the flies and hornets that chase after them. Their punishment is fitting because since they never picked a side during their life they have to chase the blank banner, which represents neutrality and the constantly changing and shifting minds of its followers. Since they also stayed neutral and chose not to get involved they are coerced into action by the stings of the hornets following them. Maggots thrive in the bloody tears that the neutral souls shed, and that could symbolize the insignificance of the neutral souls. As the maggot was regarded as the lowliest of the low, the fact that they exist in the neutral soul’s tears also suggests that the neutrals have no value in the afterlife because neither heaven nor hell wished to claim them. Another great example of this theme can been since in the sixth circle where the heretics lie in their tombs. “‘We see, like those who have imperfect sight, the things,’ he said, ‘that distant are from us; so much still shines on us the Sovereign Ruler. When they draw near, or are, is wholly vain our intellect, and if none brings it to us, not anything know we of your human state.’”(78). This quote tells the reader that the heretics can only see future events. This is a fitting punishment for the heretics because while they resided on Earth they only cared for the present and didn’t plan for what would happen to their souls after their bodies perished. They are also encased in fiery tombs, which is also fitting because fire is cleansing and the heretics are being cleansed of their heresy. This theme is prevalent throughout the entire story and provides a cautionary warning to the audience of the story. As Inferno was intended for a primarily Christian audience its main goal was to inform people that those who committed sin were punished for it in hell. This theme helps accomplish that goal by telling the readers that God is omnipotent and will make one suffer in the perfect manner for their sins.
I thought that Inferno was a well written and interesting story. Dante’s masterful use of imagery throughout the story contributes well to the overarching theme that God’s punishment is perfect. I really enjoyed how the intensity of the surroundings increased as Dante progressed further and further into hell. It was intriguing that Dante, the character, seems to exhibit less and less sympathy as he delves deeper into hell. It was also noteworthy that Vergil seemed to encourage Dante’s lack of sympathy. If Dante was the average Christian male, then Vergil was probably the average clergyman as he led Dante towards his ultimate goal of heaven. I think that by publishing this story Dante was trying to lead a resurgence in Christian faith and belief. By painting such a dismal view of hell he ensures that no one would ever want to spend any iota of time there. As such, devoted Christians who read Inferno would be inspired to lead good and virtuous lives. All in all I think that Inferno was a masterful story and it probably accomplished the goals that the author set out to do.