Similes in Dante's Inferno

Instructor: Bryan Cowing

Bryan is a freelance writer who specializes in literature. He has worked as an English instructor, editor and writer for the past 10 years.

In Dante Alighieri's epic poem ''Inferno'' you may have noticed that the narrator uses 'like' and 'as' to compare two things. In this lesson we're going to define similes and take a look at four examples from the poem.

Simile Master

If you have compared two things by saying one is 'like' the other, you are already a master of the simile. For example, if you say ''That teacher sees everything. She has eyes like a hawk,'' you are using the word 'like' to compare the teacher's eyes to a hawk's eyes. Similes can also use the word 'as' to compare two things. For example, you could say ''He is as helpless as a baby.'' Now that we've established your skill with similes, let's take a look at a few examples from Dante's epic poem Inferno.

Burning Coals

One creepy example of a simile comes when the narrator is describing his descent into hell. We are told that the people are ''Weeping and cursing they come for evermore, and demon Charon with eyes like burning coals herds them in, and with a whistling oar flails on the stragglers to his wake of souls.'' In other words, the people in hell are being beaten by a demon who has eyes like coals. This descriptive simile uses the word 'like' to compare the demon's eyes to pieces of coal. One of the purposes of this simile is to help us imagine the darkness of this beast's eyes. Rather than just saying that the demon's eyes are red, our narrator calls to mind an item that we can all see in our imagination - a piece of red hot burning coal.

The Miser

Another example of a simile comes when the narrator talks about being chased by a starving wolf. He tells us that as he is being chased he is ''like a miser -- eager in acquisition but desperate in self-reproach when Fortune's wheel turns to the hour of his loss -- all tears and attrition I wavered back.'' In this passage, the narrator compares himself to a miser - someone who hoards their money. In other words, he is as desperate to get away from the wolf as a miser is to acquire riches.

Common Tare

An example of a simile using the word 'as' comes in Canto 13 when Dante discovers a forest where the trees are all made from souls. Virgil explains that when a soul is extracted, it falls ''into the wood, and landing there, wherever fortune flings it, it strikes root, and there it sprouts, lusty as any tare, shoots up a sapling, and becomes a tree. The Harpies, feeding on its leaves then, give it pain and pain's outlet simultaneously.'' In case you didn't catch it, the simile comes when the soul is compared to a tare - a type of common weed-like plant.

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