Irony in Dante's Inferno

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine some examples of different types of irony in Dante Alighieri's epic poem ''Inferno.'' This is an allegory about Dante's journey through Hell after losing his path to Heaven.

Background

What happens to sinners when they die? In Dante Alighieri's Inferno, Dante, the narrator and protagonist, gets the opportunity to find out. Midway through his life, Dante gets lost on the path to Heaven. The ghost of Virgil offers to lead him back on the right path, but first, they must travel through the gates of Hell. Along the way, they speak to the suffering souls that are condemned to eternal punishments for their sins. Throughout the story, the author uses irony to provide a meaningful look at how the choices people make affect their outcomes in the afterlife. Let's look at some examples of irony from this epic poem.

Situational Irony

Situational irony is when the way things turn out is the opposite of what one would expect, particularly if results are meaningful in some way. As Dante and Virgil move through the Circles of Hell, they discover that there is situational irony associated with the punishments for each sin. For example, the souls in the Styx say, 'We sullen were / In the sweet air, which by the sun is gladdened, Bearing within ourselves the sluggish reek.' The constant complainers that never saw happiness in the world are destined to spend eternity crouched in the mud, hitting and biting each other. This is situational irony because the way they chose to live their lives on earth is forced upon them in the afterlife as punishment.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is when one or more of the characters is unaware of the big picture, which causes them to act or speak in ways that they would not if they knew the whole story. In Canto XXVII, Dante talks to an Italian sinner about events that have occurred in Romagna since his death. Afterwards, Dante asks the soul for his name. The soul responds, 'If I believed that my reply were made / To one who to the world would e'er return, / This flame without more flickering would stand still; / But inasmuch as never from this depth / Did any one return, if I hear true, / Without the fear of infamy I answer,…' Because the soul is unaware that Dante is an exception and will have the opportunity to escape Hell, the soul speaks more freely to him than he would if he knew that Dante was an exception. This is dramatic irony because the soul is missing information that the reader and Dante have.

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