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Dante's Inferno: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
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

One of the first works written in Italian rather than Latin, and part of the trilogy known as the Divine Comedy, Inferno by Dante Alighieri describes a journey into the Underworld, undertaken by Dante himself. 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 (Maundy Thursday) 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 is where the unbaptized and all those otherwise good people who didn't believe in Christianity end up. This chart details the circles, their respective sins, and how the guilty are punished:

Circle of Hell Sin Punishment
First Limbo Souls of non-Christian greats are kept here
Second Lust Souls swirl in a storm without finding peace
Third Gluttony Lie in mud as feces falls upon them
Fourth Avarice and Prodigality Pushing massive weights for eternity
Fifth Wrath and Sullen 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.

At this point, Dante and Virgil 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:

Circle Sin Punishment
Sixth Circle Heretics Burned in Tombs
First ring of Seventh Circle Violent towards others Boil in Blood
Second ring of Seventh Circle Violent towards themselves Suicides are stuck as trees, forever plucked by harpies; the profligate are chased by dogs
Third ring of Seventh Circle Violent towards God or nature Burned alive in a rain of fire

The two men then reach the Eighth Circle, itself divided into ten bolgias. Each bolgia, which is sort of 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 5. Meanwhile, evil advisers are on bolgia 8, and are engulfed in flames.

Finally, we come to the ninth circle of Hell. This is where those guilty of treachery are imprisoned and all of them are covered in ice up to their necks. This circle has four rounds. Round 1 houses the murderers, Round 2 those who betray their countries, Round 3 those who betrayed their guests, and Round 4 houses those who betrayed their lords. Those in this last round are completely covered in ice. Meanwhile, the three greatest traitors in history, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, are chewed by three different mouths of Lucifer.

After seeing Lucifer, the pair climbs out of Hell by way of Lucifer's frozen hair, crossing the river of forgetfulness, called Lethe, and emerge back on Earth on Easter morning.

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