Dante’s Inferno: A Summary

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Dante’s Inferno: A Summary

The Divine Comedy was written during the period of Dante’s exile
from his native city of Florence. It was begun perhaps as early as
1307 and the Inferno was complete by 1314. Dante worked on the remaining
two thirds of the poem. the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, in the remaining
seven years of his life.

The fictional setting of the narrative, however, is 1300, a year
and a half before his exile was to begin, during the great Jubilee
Year called by Pope Boniface VIII. In the fiction of Dante the exiled
poet, the younger Dante is at the height of his political success
(having just been elected to the governing council of Florence), and
is widely respected as a talented love poet and as an intellectual
of universal interests, who would have had no reason to anticipate
his precipitous downfall through partisan politics in the near future.

From the perspective of his later life, however, Dante the poet looks
back upon what the world would call his period of greatest success
and styles it retrospectively a time of moral failure. To be specific,
THE POEM BEGINS with Dante lost in a famous allegorical landscape
(lost in the dark wood). In the brief space of 60 lines, terror piles
on terror: the wilderness, the near drowning in “the lake of my heart,”
the “pass that none had ever left alive,” and then, just as the danger
seems ended, the beasts–the prowling leopard, the raging lion, and
the she-wolf that stalks our desperate hero back into the woods. The
context makes clear the symbolic implications of the scene.

The landscape forms the background to a psychological drama in which
Dante has strayed from the straight road and so must face circumstances
and creatures who represent threats to his soul’s survival. The movement
of the Comedy is the archetypal Christian one of conversion. From
this moment of spiritual confusion and moral isolation Dante takes
us with him on a journey through the realms of the dead until finally,
in the 100th canto, supposedly wholly reconciled to God, fellow humans,
and self, he describes to us his vision of God.

The main premise of the poem’s fiction is that at the end of the
poem Dante, the confused sinner of CANTO I, has become the poet whose
integrative vision can recreate the whole universe, and the saved
Christian whose self-knowledge can place into perspective his earlier

As Dante journeys through hell, purgatory, and paradise, therefore,
he is also going through states of personal and human potential, and
we accompany him on this pilgrimage from darkness to light, from ignorance
to wisdom. Part of the poem’s fun is involved in watching the pilgrim
grow in wisdom and confidence, approaching closer and closer to the
vision of the poet until, finally, in the last canto of the Comedy,
they merge.

In Inferno, therefore, TWO MOVEMENTS are involved, one external and
one internal. On the level of external journey, Dante moves down into
the center of the earth, to the Satanic core of Hell, through various
discrete regions where specific modes of sinfulness are punished in
symbolically apt ways. The general movement is of degree of severity.
The deeper the pilgrim goes, the more he – and we – learn
about the psychology of sin, of the sinful instincts we all share,
and of God’s justice. By the time the journey ends, Dante is sufficiently
aware of the evil to begin the purgative process that leads ultimately
to God.

The first step must be to understand this evil, and this is where
Virgil comes into the story. Three souls guide Dante through the otherworld:
Virgil, from the dark wood, through Inferno, up Mt. Purgatory to the
Earthly Paradise; Beatrice, from the Earthly Paradise, up through
the various circles of heaven; and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who takes
over in the Empyrean, in what medieval Christians would have thought
of as heaven proper, the permanent presence of God beyond time and

VIRGIL appears in the CANTO I of Inferno as Dante is forced back
into the woods by the wolf. He identifies himself and foretells the
journey in store. In Dante’s reaction to Virgil’s introduction of
himself, we can sense the special role the pagan poet played in Dante’s
life and will play in his salvation. Dante calls himself an apprentice
who learned from master Virgil how to ply his craft, and now he asks:
“Help me against her [the wolf], famous sage, for she makes my veins
and pulses tremble” (I, 89-90). Virgil was to the Middle Ages, the
greatest and wisest poet of classical antiquity, author of the Aeneid
(often Christianized by heavy allegory), and of the fourth eclogue
whose hyperbolic celebration of an aristocratic birth was seen as
prophetic of the birth of Jesus during the pax Augustana. Without
ever ceasing to be himself in the Comedy, Virgil is also a figure
of natural humanity at its best, of all that one can achieve artistically,
intellectually, and morally without supernatural aid. Left to one’s
own devices, a person can reason out and classify the various modes
of moral evil and can comprehend the value of systematic “purification”
through self-denial. Virgil, therefore, accompanies Dante on this
part of the journey, up to the earthly paradise. Beyond this point,
Dante’s experience can be comprehended only by understanding the truths
of Christianity, and so Virgil returns to hell.

The origin of VIRGIL’S MISSION TO DANTE, meanwhile, is explained
in CANTO II in response to Dante’s protest that he is not worthy of
the kind of journey Virgil promises. (“I am not Aeneas. I am not Paul.”)
The Virgin Mary (v. 94) takes pity upon the wayfarer struggling for
survival in canto 1, and so she goes to St. Lucy, who goes to BEATRICE,
who goes to Virgil, who appears to Dante. Mary had become by the High
Middle Ages considered “mediatrix of grace,” the mother of mercy whose
feminine tenderness on behalf of all her children can blunt the sword
of God’s justice. The medieval instinct for hierarchy may be at work,
however, in her going to Lucy, a martyr associated with moral steadfastness,
whose name is linked etymologically to the word light and who may,
therefore, have been considered a special patroness of intellectual
pursuit. It is as though Mary decided that the best way to save the
cowardly but intellectual Dante is through a saint famous for moral
stubbornness who may also serve as something of a celestial emblem
of intellectual vision. Lucy in turn decided to go to Beatrice, Dante’s
private saint, the saved soul most likely to effect the desired conversion.
Beatrice, finally, apparently acknowledging that Dante, in his confusion,
would respond to no divine summons, even from her, sends Virgil, the
only call to virtue Dante will respond to. In his apostasy, Dante
may have lost the intensity of his faith, but in his devotion to secular
learning lies his potential salvation. In elaborate allegorical fashion,
Dante seems to be proclaiming that it was his reading of pagan literature,
specifically of Virgil, that convinced him that he was, even in his
successes of 1300, on the wrong path and that inspired him to seek
the truth that he eventually rediscovered in Christianity.

VIRGIL is a marvelously complex figure. Not only was he literally
the author who exercised such a profound influence on Dante, and not
only was he representative of natural humanity, he also in his life
and work touched many concerns central to Dante. The overriding theme
of the Aeneid, the celebration of the Roman Empire, would have been
sympathetically received by Dante (who became increasingly committed
during his exile to the concept of a single world ruler), as would
Aeneas’s great sense of duty and purpose in rejecting the comforts
of Dido’s Carthage to renew his quest. Like Dante, Virgil was of a
learned and scholarly temper, and Dante seems to have deduced from
him more than from any one else how to tame that learning to the demands
of art and so avoid being a mere encyclopedist.

As one might expect, therefore, in CANTO XI, when Virgil explains
THE STRUCTURE OF THE INFERNO by classification of sins, he follows
pre-Christian traditions, an amalgam of Aristotle and Cicero. Pagans
are perfectly capable of discerning the effects of original sin, the
darkening of moral vision and weakening of will that afflicts all
the offspring of Adam and Eve. What they cannot do without God’s grace
is remedy the all-too-visible difficulties. In general, as one descends
into hell from the surface to the Satanic core, the sins punished
become increasingly grievous. The three general categories, Incontinence,
Violence, and Fraud, move from sins of self-indulgence where one injures
only one’s self or, if others, only cumulatively, to sins of more
sudden, catastrophic, and other-directed violence, and finally to
the worst sins of all, those that more specifically involve the intellect.
The external journey also typifies an internal one, however, so that
the descent into hell is also a descent into self, into the potential
for evil that exists at the core of us all.

The structure of Dante’s descent reaffirms the traditional Christian
psychology that each sinful act makes subsequent sin easier. Acts
of apparently harmless self-indulgence draw our sympathy, as well
as the sympathy of Dante the pilgrim, and make us forget that sin
is, for a medieval Christian, nothing but the soul’s decision to do
its own will rather than God’s. Giving in to ourselves in matters
of mere creature comfort leads inevitably in Dante’s scheme, in ways
we shall shortly examine, to increasingly serious destructive modes
of selfishness, unless we experience a conversion, literally a “turning”
away from this path. Before turning ourselves to a more specific consideration
of the “plot” of Inferno, we need to consider one last generalization.

Dorothy Sayers says that the Comedy is “THE DRAMA OF THE SOUL’S CHOICE,”
a point that had been made before, but perhaps not so concisely. The
fiction Dante insists upon is that no one has been consigned to a
position in the otherworld either through the generosity or through
the hostility of God’s justice; all the souls Dante meets are where
they have chosen to be. Those who have chosen to do the will of God,
to discipline and humble themselves and reunite themselves in this
life with the Ground of all Being, spend eternity in perpetual celebration
in His presence. Those who have made this same choice but need a bit
more schooling before actually entering His presence spend some time
first on Mt. Purgatory. Those who chose sin, however, spend their
eternity confronting an externalization of their peculiar mode of
sinfulness. Contrapasso is the awkward-to-translate and hence usually
adopted-into-English word for this phenomenon.

By an ingenious series of externalized metaphors, Dante reasserts
the idea that makes its way into the medieval consciousness via St.
Augustine, St. Gregory, and other early Christian thinkers that the
true PUNISHMENT FOR SIN IS SIN ITSELF. If one accepts as axiomatic
that the human spirit can only find ease and comfort in union with
God, and if sin separates the soul from God, then God’s worst punishment
is simply to let sinners continue unchecked to make themselves miserable.

HELL is the logical extension of this misery through eternity, with
the soul now deprived both of the value of human remorse and of divine
mercy. The sin is externalized in all of its ugliness, brutishness,
and evil, stripped bare of the veneer with which we all are wont to
plate our peccadillos. Any time we feel inclined to feel pity for
one of the souls Dante encounters, we would do well to remember that
the poem’s fiction is that the soul is exactly where (according to
the poet) it ought to be and where it has chosen to be (even if the
pilgrim–as opposed to the poet–sometimes expresses the pity we are
likely to share). The souls often present revisionist autobiographies,
but we would do well to be suspicious readers of them since Dante’s
fictional world is based on a moral geography: where the souls are
is our starting point in evaluating who they are.

THE DESCENT Dante conceives of hell as a funnel-shaped indentation
beneath the earth’s surface which grows increasingly narrow until
at the very center of the earth it converges upon the form of Satan.
At the moment of his fall (as we learn in the final couple of pages
of Inferno), Satan plunged headlong from heaven, crashed into the
earth, penetrated it to its center, and remains lodged there at the
point furthest removed from the outer edges of the concentrically
circular universe (and so, at least from that point of view, furthest
removed from God). In his descent to the center, Dante passes through
the Gate of Hell, crosses the River Acheron, bypasses three additional
areas in the circles of incontinence and comes to city walls inside
of which the most serious sins, heresy, violence, and fraud, are punished.
Surrounding the city walls as a moat is the Marsh of Styx, the fourth
circle of Incontinence. Immediately inside the walls heretics are
punished, and then, in perhaps the most elaborate of all the circles,
six categories of souls are punished for violence against neighbor,
self, and God, in a single circle with three very different terrains.
An impossibly deep and steep abyss separates violence from fraud,
both in fact and in Dante’s fiction, where a gigantic waterfall plummets
off the cliff into the blackness below. Geryon, the personification
of Fraud, carries Dante and Virgil on his back down into the abyss,
drops the poets off and vanishes, leaving them to survey the eighth
circle, the malebolge. Dante conceives of them as a series of ten
concentric ditches carved out of the inner wall of the funnel, crossed
by a series of spoke-like roadways that bridge the ditches and by
which the poets can make their way to the center. In each ditch a
different category of fraud is punished in a different, uniquely appropriate,
way. Finally the lowest area of all in hell is located at the bottom
of a deep circular well. Stationed around the perimeter of the well,
their torsos sticking up over the edge are a half dozen giants, one
of whom, Antaeus, gently deposits the poets down upon the frozen floor
of hell. Here, at the center of evil, all the infernal waters, and
all the tears and blood of suffering humanity gather and freeze in
the total absence of love. Here those souls are trapped in the ice
who have been treacherous, that is, fraudulent to those who especially
deserved loyalty. At the center of this frozen lake, his torso coming
up above the surface, Satan himself, with his three faces, perpetually
gnaws on Brutus and Cassius and Judas Iscariot.

In CANTO III the DESCENT BEGINS. Dante and Virgil come to the Gate
of Hell, with God’s words carved over the entry as over an imperial
triumphal arch or gateway. Virgil explains that the souls inside have
lost “the good of the intellect,” takes Dante by the hand, and they
enter. Immediately, Dante gets a taste of infernal suffering in the
treatment of the opportunists (even though the souls are not, technically
speaking, “in” hell, being vomited forth even from there; Dante’s
lack of sympathy for those who lack zeal is one of the hallmarks of
his vision). Dante then comes to the River Acheron where the souls
crowd together like heaps of dead leaves, has a surly exchange with
Charon, is reminded that he would not be in hell at all if he were
not himself a sinner, and then, while God thoughtfully provides a
background of earthquake, windstorm, and lightning-flash against a
red sky, Dante faints.

He awakens in CANTO IV to find himself somehow transported over the
river and now in the circle of LIMBO with the virtuous pagans. They
have not participated in Christ’s redemption, and so cannot enter
heaven, but they are also, in their first circle spared the physical
torment of the rest of hell. The logic of Dante’s conception drives
this notion, too: If such torment is the externalization of moral
evil, then those guilty of no such evil face no such suffering. They
are “rewarded” with the afterlife they have chosen. Limbo was a place
postulated by early Christians as a haven for the souls of unbaptized
children. These Christians felt trapped by what seemed an inherent
contradiction in their system of belief. If no one could enter heaven
without baptism and if God were perfectly just and merciful, how could
He consign to everlasting pain the souls of babies unbaptized through
circumstances obviously beyond their control? The solution was to
surmise that there must have been a Limbo, literally a borderland,
a place free both from the suffering of hell and from the bliss of
heaven, in which the souls of these children would remain eternally.
Thus were preserved intact the doctrines of God’s mercy, of the discrete
immortality of each human soul, of eternal rewards and punishment,
and of the dependence of salvation upon the church and her sacraments.

An additional problem presented itself to early Christians. If Christ
is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and if God revealed Himself
through Jewish heroes and writers, they would, of course, have been
saved for their belief in Christ, “in anticipation.” Surely, however,
these souls who strove to do the will of God and who were in anticipation
among the saved, did not spend thousands of years in a place of suffering.
These souls were also believed to have been in Limbo, until called
by Jesus on the day after his death. (“The Harrowing of Hell,” as
this episode in Christ’s life is called, or sometimes “The Descent
into Hell,” is one of the most popular scenes in medieval art.) Dante
places these unbaptized infants elsewhere and adds in his Limbo to
the souls of those righteous Jews who have since gone to heaven the
souls of virtuous pagans, of the just who lived moral lives as far
as people could without the grace of Christianity. Dante puts Virgil
there in the company of other poets, and he adds a catalogue of military
heroes from the Aeneid and a catalogue of scholars. These souls spend
eternity in their private compound, a citadel at the center surrounded
by seven battlemented walls and containing an enameled green meadow,
the wall illuminated by a radiance that strikes away a hemisphere
of light from the darkness of hell. The accomplishments of these souls
is so great that it is recognized even in hell (God does acknowledge
human excellence). And yet, there is something pitiful about having
such great ones, Plato and Aristotle, Caesar and Aeneas, Homer and
Virgil, accept such a tawdry eternity, rather like being in a besieged
castle with nothing but bathroom tile to walk on. At this point in
hell we are inclined to think this an attractive alternative to the
torments of the damned, but from the perspective of heaven or even
of purgatory its limitations are all too apparent.

CANTOS V-VIII take us quickly through four additional circles of
hell, the so called circles of INCONTINENCE, creating thereby the
effect of a rapid and dizzying descent. The moral gravity of the sins
shifts greatly, too, as we move from lust, a sin where at worst, it
might be argued, no one is injured but the lovers themselves, to gluttony,
where the indulgence is totally selfish, lacking even the presence
of the other in the act of indulgence. The circle of hoarding and
squandering is the place of torment reserved for those who misused
their material wealth for their own self-interest, and the Marsh of
Styx the place for wrath, where the overtly angry break the surface
like frogs and the sullen lie grumbling and gurgling on the bottom.
The lustful are compared to birds buffeted in a storm; the gluttons
are submerged in mud and pelted by freezing rain; the hoarders and
wasters roll huge boulders across a dry plain, raising “waves” of
dust, and the wrathful are in a fetid swamp. Dante seems to be at
pains to emphasize that three of the four elements, air, earth, and
water, are implicated in the torments of the incontinent. (Fire, however,
the fourth element, is found only inside the walls of the city, after
canto 9, where the more serious sins are punished.) Moreover, one
mode of torment leads into another, perhaps to emphasize the way one
sin leads to another. Thus, the marsh of Styx is an effluent from
the circle of avarice, appropriate since in a sense anger or sullenness
can be said to “spill over” from disputes over money. The souls in
the marsh fight with each other, but no longer as in the circle above
in organized “teams” of hoarders and spenders, but in a free for all,
a barroom brawl.

Finally, the marsh of the wrathful serves in its turn as a logical
transition to the circle of violence inside the walls. In reading
CANTOS VIII-IX, it is essential to take seriously Dante’s attempts
to be terrifying. Devils were not mere decorative symbols of vague
malevolence to the Middle Ages, but as fallen angels were forces of
intelligence and cunning, committed in their hostility to the frustration
of God’s will. The best way to achievethis would be to pirate as many
souls as possible from the ark of the church and torture them eternally,
and this is precisely the threat Dante senses in these cantos. The
devils slam the gates of the city to the poets, and Virgil, who expects
reasonableness, is perplexed and for once in Inferno understands less
than the Christian Dante the significance of what happens. The two
are required to wait outside the walls until a heavenlymessenger comes,
like a courtier on a diplomatic mission to a medieval dungeon, to
open the gates.

CANTO X, the circle of HERESY, is one of those half dozen or so moments
of Inferno that most people find most memorable. As Dante wanders
among the fiery sarcophagi wherein heretics spend eternity, one of
them, FARINATA DEGLI UBERTI, a great Florentine military leader of
the generation before Dante, accosts him in conversation about their
city. Farinata’s “tomb- mate” Cavalcante, joins them for a while,
and the contrasts between the imperious Farinata and the cowering
Cavalcante and between the ghibbeline Farinata and the guelf Dante
makes this a startling and memorable passage. The canto also is interesting
for two parts of Dante’s machinery. Farinata is the second Florentine
Dante encounters in hell (Ciacco the Glutton had been the first) who
predicts Dante’s “future” exile. (The poem is set, remember, in 1300).
Throughout the poem we should expect this motif to continue: from
his fellow citizens Dante learns more and more about the sinister
fate in store for him. It is also clear from Cavalcante, however,
that the damned have no knowledge of the present. At the end of time,
when there will be no longer any future to be dimly known, the damned
souls, who cannot know the present, will have no alternative to the
memory of their own damning pasts.

AFTER THE XI CANTO, in which Virgil tells of the structure of hell,
Dante proceeds to the circle of the violent. We should not forget,
however, that in the way the poem presents itself to a first-time
reader, without notes or critical apparatus, not until canto 11 does
one understand the significance of the terrain thus far traversed.
For Dante the pilgrim, the succession of shocking images only now
begins to make sense, only now begins to fall into the pattern that
modern readers have laid bare for them from the beginning by obliging
editors. Two motifs dominate and help unify the realm of violence:
bestiality and infertility. If we humans are halfway between angels
and animals in the chain of being, violence is one of our connections
to beasts, and so we find here an assortment of beast-men, from the
Minotaur who stands as guardian to the whole region to the Centaurs
and Harpies, and finally to the Usurers who, though fully human, are
grotesquely bestial in their actions and whose money bags bear their
family coats of arms with their lions, geese, and the like. The second
notion is infertility; violent action would seem to be an attempt
to accomplish something, but in fact such attempts do not bear fruit.
Thus the violent against neighbors are in the boiling bloody River
Acheron, the suicides are transformed into gnarled trees that bear
thorns instead of fruit, and the violent against God, nature, and
art are lying, running, and squatting on a burning desert. Nothing
in this circle is capable of sustaining life.

At the END OF CANTO XVII, Geryon carries the poets down into lower
Hell, into the region of fraud, and leaves them to make their way
to the center. The typical pattern in this circle (which is dealt
with from cantos 18 to 30) is to cross over a ditch via a bridge,
to look down upon the souls below, sometimes to descend into the circle
itself to speak with, or more closely observe, the souls, and then
to pass on to the next ditch. Finally while the movement from the
first to the tenth ditch is a geographic descent, all the ditches
are considered part of the same circle of fraud. Therefore, the ten
categories of fraud do not grow progressively and inevitably more
serious, but touch each other in other, more subtle ways. The bridges
between the fifth and sixth ditches, however, all broke at the moment
of Christ’s death, creating a distinction between the two halves of
the circle, with the second five ditches perhaps reserved for sins
of somewhat greater intellectual manipulation. The different kinds
of fraud do touch and illuminate each other. Panders of bodies are
followed by panders of language and then panders of Church offices.
The simoniacs, who used materially what should have had exclusively
spiritual value, are followed by fortune tellers, who seek a wholly
non-Christian spiritualexperience. If the simoniacs threaten ecclesiastical
stability, the grafters are simoniacs of the earthly city, putting
a price tag on civic trust and so undermining communal stability.
The logical implications of graft is that order can be imposed only
by a police state such as the demons provide; the alternative to such
arbitrary authority, however, if officials compromise their principles,
would be the crime-in-the-streets found among the thieves. If the
souls in some of the earlier ditches seem akin to the panders, others
are akin to the seducers, such as the counselors of fraud and sowers
of discord. Finally, hypocrisy and impersonation of one form or another
are involved in several of the other, more specific forms of fraud.

provide a frightening overview of the various ways people can use
their God-given intellect for their own pervertedly selfish ends,
and not to do what is best for God or for others. In CANTO XXXII,
Dante finds himself deposited at the bottom of the giant-ringed well,
at the final circle, the great frozen lake, Cocytus. Four categories
of TREACHERY are punished there, those who are traitors to kin, to
country, to guests, and to masters, each group frozen into the lake
in different postures and different degrees of submersion.

At the center of the whole lake the GIGANTIC FORM OF SATAN towers
up above, his six cherub wings, turned bat-like, flapping madly, while
he eats Judas, the betrayer of Christ, and Brutus and Cassius, the
betrayers of Julius Caesar, the first Roman emperor. Satan, whose
sin had been to aspire toward divinity, has become a grotesque parody
of God, three faces on one head recalling the Trinity, the eating
recalling the Incarnation and the sacrament of the Eucharist, the
symbolic attributes of the faces being the opposite of those of the
divine persons (impotence, ignorance, and hatred, instead of power,
wisdom, and love).

THE LAST MOVEMENT OF INFERNO is the leaving of it: Dante and Virgil
descend down the shaggy body of Satan to the center of the earth.
There they turn around and climb the Satanic haunch up to a cave near
the shore of the River Lethe (which flows from the earthly paradise
atop Mt. Purgatory carrying even the memory of sinfulness down to
Cocytus, to freeze with the infernal waters). They then complete the
climb to the surface of the earth at the antipodes, where the gigantic
Mt. Purgatory rises up out of the ocean.

The descent into hell which had begun on GOOD FRIDAY ends as Dante
and Virgil emerge from hell at dawn on Easter Sunday morning. Dante’s
descent and ascent recapitulates those of Christ and of the Church’s
annual ecclesiastical calendar. Having completed his voyage to the
heart of darkness, Dante is ready to begin his climb toward the light.