Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

World Literature Website












Time & Place

1302-1321. Late Middle Ages, early Renaissance. Italy

Language & Form

Epic poem in terza rima (tercets or groups of three lines with interlocking rhymes: aba, bcb, cdc, etc.). Italian original. A trilogy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. Each volume divided into sections called Cantos. Recommended translations: John D. Sinclair, Allen Mandelbaum


The Inferno is an account of Dante's own journey, guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil, through the nine levels of hell. During this journey Dante encounters and holds conversations with the souls of the damned. At the end of the journey, at the bottom of hell, Dante must face Satan and confront the problem of how to escape from the underworld.

Main Issues

writing of the Divine Comedy as a means of addressing personal and social, political, and historical problems

the other world (the afterlife) as a figure or symbol for the material realities, spiritual nature, and consequences of the secular world; humanizing drive of the story under guise of supernatural transcendentalism

concept of contrapasso: the sin equals the punishment, sinning is its own hell as it destroys the very life of the sinner

problem of Dante's anger against those who victimized him and exiled him from Florence; journey as working out and overcoming of that anger

Inferno as confrontation with the problem of evil and the realization of the reality of evil in the self; contradictions and problems of Dante's behavior in the Inferno; Dante influenced and affected by the sins of the damned; real danger of his permanent entrapment in hell

Dante's work of reassessment of the lives and deeds of the sinners in hell; Dante's sympathy as a form of redemption and re-evaluation of many judgments; questioning of various dogmas

Dante's journey presented as similar to that of Christ: redeeming and rescuing some of the souls in hell; veiled suggestions of many surprising changes that are to occur in the future to the structure of hell and its inhabitants

implicit reinterpretation of the meaning of spiritual death and of the Second Coming of Christ

ultimate challenge of the text is that of embracing love, forgiving, and rejecting anger and evil; reunion with Beatrice as symbol of that accomplishment

Study Questions

Why does Dante make himself into the epic/heroic protagonist of his own poem? Does this fit in with the medieval view of the human individual and his/her place in the universe? Why? Why not?

What may have been Dante's motivations in writing the Inferno? Do his personal desires and feelings (love/hatred, etc) play a role in this endeavor? Who does he place in hell? Why? Is there significance to this work beyond the expression of personal emotions and political or other opinions?

What was Dante's position toward the religion of his time? How about the pope? How do Dante's positions toward the Catholic faith and the papacy affect the composition of his poem? Why does Dante place some of the popes in hell? What practices of the Church of Dante's time are criticized in his work? What procedures does Dante employ for the expression of his views?

What specific dogmas are placed under questioning and scrutiny in the Inferno? What about the notion that hell is forever (notice the inscription on the gates of hell)? What of the case of the so called "virtuous pagans" (good people who were unfortunate enough to live before the times of Christ or did not practice Christianity and hence, according to dogma, had to go to hell)? Can anyone get out of hell ? Are there any characters in Dante's narrative which are said to have escaped from hell? What are the implications of such figures?

What symbolic meaning may underlie the literal representation of the spiritual life after death? What is death anyway? Is there only one kind? Does one go to hell only after physical death? How may one interpret the concepts of the "first" and the "second" death alluded to in the poem? How might such interpretations differ from the conventional and literal understandings of the first and second deaths? What images in the poem support such readings?

Why is Dante allowed to enter the underworld while still alive? Why does he suggest that he entered hell, "midway in our life's journey"? What may this imply regarding the character of the journey and its relation to the concepts of the first and second deaths? Are there any other "living" characters in hell besides Dante? What does this imply regarding Dante's symbolism of hell and damnation? When does one enter hell? At what points is it still possible to get out? When does it become impossible to escape?
What seems to be happening to the very structure and physical reality of Dante's hell over time? When did such a process begin? What does it represent or allude to? How might such images and issues relate to the concepts of the first and second deaths? Any relevance to the concept and/or interpretation of the Second Coming?

What is the relation between sin and punishment in Dante? What is the meaning of the concept of contrapasso?

What is the significance of the three symbolic beasts which Dante encounters before entering hell? What about the mountain which he is unable to climb? How do these symbols relate to the issues of responsibility for Dante's entrance into hell?

Why must Dante meet and speak with the souls of the damned? How is this important or useful to him?

Why does Beatrice act as the protector and ultimate guide of Dante toward salvation? Why is Virgil, a pagan poet, chosen to guide Dante through the underworld? What does the choice of such guides suggest concerning the significance and messages of Dante's work? Is there any hope of salvation for someone like Virgil? What is salvation according to Dante?

Why is Odysseus (Ulysses) placed by Dante in the underworld? In what circle of hell do we find him (see Canto XXVI)? What is his punishment? In what ways does Dante's work complete the story which Homer began? How does such an ending fit in with Homer's understanding of the character and life of Odysseus?

Why does Dante faint at certain points in his journey (e.g. just before crossing the river of death (Acheron), during his encounter with the souls of the lovers Paolo and Francesca)? What may the fainting symbolize or suggest in those different occasions?

Why is Dante moved to pity by the stories of some of the sinners in hell? Which sinners does he feel sympathy toward?

Why does Dante become so angry during the crossing of the river Styx (where the souls of the angry are submerged in mud)? How about Dante's behavior (lying, cheating, kicking, pulling hair) toward the souls entrapped in the ice in the ninth circle of hell?
Is there a pattern or significance to Dante's different reactions (sympathy, hatred, pity, anger, etc.) to the various sinners he confronts?

What is the symbolic significance of Cocytus, the frozen lake of ice at the bottom of hell? What about the figure of Satan himself, trapped at the center of the lake?

Is it surprising for the reader to discover that the bottom of hell is frozen solid? What does the cold symbolize? In what way does the place affect Dante?

What is the effect on the reader and on Dante of the discovery of the tears of Satan and the misery of his condition? Does this in any way contradict the reader's expectations? Why must Dante physically embrace the body of Satan before his departure from hell?

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