Symbolism of the Three Beasts in Dante's Inferno

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  • 0:04 Dante's Inferno Background
  • 0:46 The Three Beasts' Description
  • 1:31 The Beasts as Symbols
  • 2:17 Alternative Interpretations
  • 3:17 Impact on the Story
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

In Dante's epic poem ''Inferno,'' his main character travels through hell on his way to heaven. He is prevented from taking a direct route to heaven by three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf.

Dante's Inferno Background

Sometimes the most direct path is not the right path. The character Dante Alighieri creates and names after himself in his Inferno tries to take such a path. In the first third of his epic poem called The Divine Comedy, the author details the journey of his character Dante through hell.

Before the journey through hell, comes the three beasts. The story begins with Dante the character traveling through a dark and scary forest. The darkness of the forest itself stands for corruption and sin. Before Dante can find his way through the forest to heaven, he encounters three beasts.

Let's continue this focused look at these three beasts by taking a look at what they look like, analyze their role as symbols, then explore how they affect the story.

The Three Beasts' Descriptions

We don't hear much about how the beasts appear, but what the author offers is telling. The first beast is the leopard, spotted and as ''all tremor and flow and gaudy pelt.'' He also refers to the leopard as a ''bright murderous beast.'' So this spotted leopard beast is lithe, beautiful, and deadly.

The second beast to come is a great lion that's ''raging with hunger, its enormous head held high as if to strike a mortal terror into the very air.'' This second monster is a ravenous lion who boldly tries to intimidate those around him.

The third and final beast, the she-wolf, gets most of the attention. She is ''a starved horror ravening and wasted beyond all belief.'' Dante notices she is ''gaunt and craving'', bringing ''endless grief.''

The Beasts as Symbols

Now that we have a good picture of how the beasts appear, let's take a look at what they represent. The leopard represents lust. The few descriptions the reader is given of the leopard suggest it can lure people with its seductive mystery. Its spots seem to ornament this beguiling and beautiful creature. Even its pelt is alluringly ''gaudy.''

The lion symbolizes pride. Dante exaggerates the lion so that it is ''great'' and its head is ''enormous.'' The lion seems to arrogantly lift its head, as if daring others to challenge its authority.

The she-wolf stands for avarice (extreme greed). Her wasting away seems to display her desire. She is empty and has wanted for so long that now she is desperate for anything. No matter what she gains or takes, she will always crave more.

Alternative Interpretations

This is not the only symbolic interpretation of the three beasts, though. There are several lenses through which a reader can understand a text and what it may mean. As with all literature, there are differing opinions as to the intended meaning of the author.

In one of the most common alternative interpretations, instead of the three beasts representing the deadly sins of lust, pride, and avarice, the beasts represent the three levels of hell. Later in the Inferno, Dante divides hell into three ''categories'' of sin, ranked from bad to worse: incontinence (doing wrong because they couldn't help it), violence (doing wrong because of anger), and fraud (doing wrong on purpose to hurt other people).

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