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What is Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno” really about?

It is iconic for a literary work to survive 700 years and still maintain its mesmerising capacity to capture a person’s attention, and Dante Alighieri has reached that status. Most people at least know of Inferno, a long poem whose narrative describes what amounts to the poet’s tour of the afterlife, even if they haven’t read it.

Guided by the poet Virgil, Dante plunges to the very depths of Hell and embarks on his arduous journey towards God. Together they descend through the twenty-four circles of the underworld and encounter the tormented souls of the damned – from heretics and pagans to gluttons, criminals and seducers – who tell of their sad fates and predict events still to come in Dante’s life.

Describing Dante’s descent into Hell midway through his life with Virgil as a guide, Inferno depicts a cruel underworld in which desperate figures are condemned to eternal damnation for committing one or more of seven deadly sins. As he descends through nine concentric circles of increasingly agonising torture, Dante encounters doomed souls including the pagan Aeneas, the liar Odysseus, the suicide Cleopatra, and his own political enemies, damned for their deceit. Led by leering demons, the poet must ultimately journey with Virgil to the deepest level of all. For it is only by encountering Satan, in the heart of Hell, that he can truly understand the tragedy of sin.


I was afraid at first to write about a story as amazing as Inferno; as a writer there is always this fear that you can’t do a story justice, because it is so powerful its hard to fully grasp it in words. In that way, words are like nets — we hope they’ll cover what we mean, but we know they can’t possibly hold that much amazement, or grief, or wonder.

Inferno, the first part of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, is a soaring epic that continues to echo through the centuries with its moving portrayal of human sin and the tragedy of those condemned to eternal damnation.

What Dante managed to do was fuse satire and humour with intellect and soaring passion to create an immortal Christian allegory of mankind’s search for self-knowledge and spiritual enlightenment.

At first, Inferno seems like a horror story, but actually the complete opposite. Dante’s real-life love for Beatrice Portinari is the main theme throughout Inferno and the Divine Comedy, where she is cast as none other than the saviour who guides him through paradise.

The thing I love most about this work of literacy, however, was its message. Inferno was not so much about the misery of hell as it was about the power of the human spirit to endure any challenge, no matter how daunting.

In Canto IX, the heavenly messenger offers an alternative to Virgil’s “persuasive word,” offering instead “holy words.” And unlike Virgil’s speeches, the heavenly messenger’s is very short and direct. Readers begin to suspect that the “holy word” surpasses Virgil’s style in its effectiveness, and effectively shows the message of the book.

 “O you cast out of Heaven, hated crowd,”
were his first words upon that horrid threshold,
“why do you harbor this presumptuousness?
Why are you so reluctant to endure
that Will whose aim can never be cut short,
and which so often added to your hurts?
What good is it to thrust against the fates?”…
After that he turned and took the filthy road,
and did not speak to us, but had the look
of one who is obsessed by other cares
than those that press and gnaw at those before him;
and we moved forward, on into the city,
in safety, having heard his holy words.
— Dante Alighieri, Inferno (Inf. IX, 91-105)

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. This is what Inferno was like for me. And pretty much the rest of The Divine Comedy.


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