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Metaphors in Dante's Inferno

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Dante Alighieri uses metaphors not only throughout his poem 'Inferno,' but even sets the poem up as an extended metaphor. Read this lesson to learn more about Dante's use of metaphors and significance to the poem.

The Purpose of Metaphors

You do not have to look far to find metaphors in the Inferno - they are everywhere, even from the beginning of the poem! A metaphor is simply figurative language that describes something in terms of something else, like saying you are a ''fish out of water'' if you are out of element or new at something. Dante Alighieri, the author of Inferno, wrote his poem in the 14th century CE to explain how he found his way back to God and his faith and to provide political and religious commentary on events of his day. To do this, and to explain the consequences of sin, Dante makes extensive use of metaphors throughout his work: let's look at some of these.

The Setting Metaphor

Dante famously begins his poem by writing, ''In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to / Myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.'' This might remind you of your latest camping trip, but Dante's point here is not to explain something that actually happened, but something that metaphorically happened. He is explaining that, at some point in the middle of his life, he lost the ''straight way'' - the straight and narrow path that leads to God and salvation, as understood in medieval Christian thought. Not only is Dante implying that he lost this path, but that we all do, implied by the ''our.'' Dante acts as an everyman, a medieval trope used to teach morals applicable to all of humanity. The dark wood, through which Dante and we lose the straight path, represents sin, or anything that takes the focus away from and obscures the path to God.

Dante the pilgrim lost in the woods
Dante the pilgrim lost in the woods

Hell itself is a metaphor used by Dante. If you have ever heard the saying, ''if you're going through Hell, keep on going,'' that explains how Hell leads to Heaven for Dante. Dante the pilgrim, the character in the poem, wants to get to heaven, but has to journey through Hell and Purgatory first before he can get there. Before he can climb the mountain where Heaven is, he must first descend as far down as anyone can go - to where Satan himself is. Dante uses this set up to show, quite literally, how being in Hell is being separated from God. Using this journey through Hell to depict the various sins of humanity, Dante extends the metaphor to explain that sinning is being separated from God. By the time the reader gets to the circle where Satan is, it is cold, dark, and icy - metaphorical of the separation from the light and warmth of God.

Satan in the lowest circle of Hell
Satan in the lowest circle of Hell

Sins and Metaphors

Perhaps the most developed use of metaphor by Dante is in his depiction of the punishments for various sins. In the same way you might say ''the punishment fits the crime,'' Dante depicts the consequences of sin as metaphors of what the sinners did in their lives. For the lustful, who were caught up in the winds of passion during their life, they are punished with a similar wind: ''The infernal whirlwind, which never rests, drives / The spirits before its violence; turning and striking, / It tortures them.''

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