Dante's Inferno: Summary & Characters

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  • 0:04 Dante's Inferno
  • 0:33 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

Dante's 'Inferno' is one of the most notable pieces of work within the Western literary canon. The work continues to impress readers with its imaginative vision of Hell. This lesson introduces the work as well as a number of its most important characters.

Dante's Inferno

Inferno by Dante Alighieri describes a journey into the Underworld, undertaken by Dante himself. It's one of the first works written in Italian rather than Latin, and part of the trilogy known as the Divine Comedy. Along the way, Dante not only explores many elements of Christian belief, but also gets the chance to criticize many in his own society that would otherwise be untouchable for a writer. In this lesson, we will briefly summarize Inferno before meeting its cast.

Summary

Dante starts on the eve of Good Friday in 1300 by losing his way in the woods. He stumbles into Virgil, the legendary Latin poet, who offers to not only get him out of the forest, but take him to the high mountain where his long-dead love, Beatrice, resides. However, Virgil warns that they must first go through Hell. They pass through gates that say ''Abandon all hope all ye who enter here'' and Virgil informs Dante that Hell is made up of different circles. Each circle features a different punishment that is a symbolic of the sin committed. For example, the first circle of Hell is called Limbo, because it's where the unbaptized and all those otherwise good people who didn't believe in Christianity end up. The second circle is for the lustful, where souls swarm in a storm without finding peace. The third circle is for the gluttonous where souls lie in mud as feces falls upon them. Then there's the circle for avarice and prodigality, where they push massive weights for eternity. In the fifth circle, the angry fight for eternity on a sheet of ice while the sullen gurgle beneath it.

Note that many of these punishments are somewhat poetic. For example, those that cannot find a place to secure themselves to in life, the lustful, never find peace. Meanwhile, those who consumed a great deal in life, the gluttonous, are covered in feces. Also, Dante chose to spare the virtuous pagans who were not Christian but still lead worthwhile lives. Non-virtuous people of all faiths are addressed at other points.

Dante and Virgil finally reach the city of Dis, at which point angels have to force open the gates as the demons refuse the pair entry. Also, there start to be different stages to some of the circles. In the sixth circle, heretics are burned in tombs. In the first ring of the seventh circle, people who were violent towards others boil in blood, while in the second ring, those who were violent towards themselves, suicide victims, are stuck as trees, forever plucked by harpies, and the profligate are chased by dogs. In the third ring, those who are violent towards God or nature are burned alive in a rain of fire.

The two men then reach the Eighth Circle, itself divided into ten bolgias, each like a step down into this conical circle, houses a different type of fraud. For example, those who simply lie are on the second bolgia, and are stuck in feces. Corrupt politicians are stuck in boiling pitch (tar), with demons poking them with pitchforks on bolgia five. Meanwhile, evil advisers are on bolgia eight, and are engulfed in flames.

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