Allegory in Dante's Inferno

Instructor: Arielle Windham

Arielle has worked worked with elementary, middle, and secondary students in American and Japan. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in Education.

In Dante's version of Hell, his Inferno has several layers that make it a pretty epic allegory. In this lesson, we will look at what an allegory is, and the many ways Dante uses this literary device to make his Inferno even more meaningful.

What is an Allegory?

A big part of what made Dante's Inferno a classic is its layers of meaning. On the surface, it might seem like just a simple story of a man's hike through Hell, but careful readers catch on pretty quickly that there is much more to it. It is, in fact, one big allegory.

An allegory is a literary device where a poem or story has a hidden religious or political meaning hiding just under the surface. People, places, things, and even the plot all contribute to the allegory. And it runs through the entire piece, not just a chapter or verse.

Allegories aren't a popular as they once were, but maybe you recognize a few of these famous examples. Ever heard of the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis? Like the Inferno it is a religious allegory where Aslan, the lion, represents Christ and Edmund, one of the Pevensie siblings, is Judas.

A popular example of political allegory would be Animal Farm by George Orwell. On the surface, it is a slightly scary story about talking animals that take over a farm, but it is really an allegory of the dangers of socialism. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is another political allegory, but they made some changes with the movie that kind of erased the hidden meanings of the original story It was originally a cautionary tale about economics, believe it or not.

So what exactly does Dante use for his allegory? Let's take a look.

Allegory in Dante's Inferno

Like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dante's Inferno is filled with characters and images that are more than they seem. You might even call it the granddaddy of allegories. Not just because it is old, but because there are so many layers of meaning crammed into it. Level upon level of Dante's Hell is just packed with allegory.

You could fill volumes picking apart each example, and scholars have, but how about we go for the quick version? Dante's allegory is most evident in the overall story, the characters, and the punishments.

The Story

Dante loses his way
dante

If you thought the Dark Wood of the first cantos was a little bit more than just a patch of forest, congratulations, you were picking up on the allegory. While Inferno can be read as a straightforward story about Dante's journey through Hell, it is also a big, long allegory for man's descent into sin. Dante represents everyone. He loses the path of salvation in a shadowy world of sin. He travels the path through Hell trying to find his way back to God's grace.

And that's pretty much the whole point of the story. Inferno and the other two parts of The Divine Comedy are a story of man's struggle for eternal salvation.

The Characters

To help drive this point home, Dante uses characters that have special significance. These characters are scattered throughout the story. Pretty much everyone Dante meets, including Virgil, is a representation of an abstract idea.

Geryon
fraud

For example, Geryon, the monster that carries Dante and Virgil from Circle Seven to Circle Eight is an allegorical embodiment of fraud, the sin of the Eighth Circle. Geryon has the face of a man, the body of a beast, and the stinging tail like a scorpion. Think about any time you were ever the victim of fraud. Did the person have a kind face? Did they seem trustworthy? But they were hiding a vicious sting behind that façade, weren't they?

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