The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem written by Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet. In his hometown of medieval Florence, he was a philosopher and theologian concerned with religion and politics. He began writing The Divine Comedy in 1308 and completed it in 1321.
Poetry was primarily written in Latin during the Middle Ages, making it available only to the educated. Dante Aligheri chose not only to disregard this tradition, but also to write The Divine Comedy in a more primitive form of Italian—the Tuscan dialect. The work is classified as a comedy because, in a classical context, a comedy is a work that deals with explaining the beliefs of an ordered universe, as opposed to a contemporary context. The Divine Comedy is widely regarded as one of the most important works of world literature. Many writers and artists were so inspired by it that they went on to create their own masterpieces.
The Divine Comedy is a poem about the author’s personal journey to God. It is divided into three sections: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). Each section has thirty-three cantos. This division reflects the medieval theology that is unique to Christianity. Dante’s Divine Comedy was written to show people the horrors their souls would face if they did not obey God’s laws and lived righteously.
Throughout the novel, there is a lot of symbolism associated with numbers. One of the most common and significant numbers is three. In the first part of The Divine Comedy, Inferno, we meet three beasts: a three-headed dog named Cerberus and a three-faced Satan. Dante Aligheri chose the number three for its significance in Christianity: there is a Holy Spirit, God—the Father, and Jesus (the three godheads). The number seven is also significant in The Divine Comedy. Purgatorio has seven terraces and seven deadly sins. Finally, the number nine is associated with Hell’s nine circles and Heaven’s nine spheres.
In this article, we will look at each section of the poem in detail, with a focus on Dante’s Inferno. We will look at the main characters and their roles in the plot.
Prepare yourself by taking a deep breath and letting the hell begin!
Dante’s Divine Comedy Summary
In Dante’s Inferno, he becomes lost in the woods and realizes he has died. Virgil assists him on his journey by accompanying him through Inferno and Purgatorio. He encounters the horrors of Inferno and travels through its nine circles. We will examine each of the circles of hell, determining their specifics and differences, as well as Dante’s Inferno—Satan himself. Purgatorio is a section of The Divine Comedy in which Dante and Virgil travel through the mountain’s seven terraces, each of which represents a deadly sin. In Paradiso, the main character travels through Heaven’s nine celestial spheres with the help of his beloved Beatrice. In contrast to Inferno and Purgatorio, the protagonist encounters virtues rather than sins in the poem’s final section.
The first section of The Divine Comedy begins with Dante becoming lost in the woods. He is perplexed and has no idea how he got there:
Canto 2“After traveling half of our life’s journey, I found myself in a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.”
Dante is the poem’s protagonist and main character in all three parts. His journey is an autobiographical portrayal in which many of his enemies and historical figures from the past all intervene in a complicated world of Heaven and Hell. He is spiritually lost and in need of guidance to find the “True Way” of righteousness to God. When he travels through the circles of Hell, he is frequently depicted as feeling pity and compassion for the sinners. He recognizes that they have committed sins, but he still believes in their goodness and finds their suffering to be devastating. He is also terrified by the horrors he encounters in Inferno and appears to be scared. Dante, on the other hand, is very curious, so he attempts to converse with many of the sinners he encounters along the way.
Canto 28“Who, even with words free of rhymes, could tell the full story of wounds and blood now shown me, let him try ten thousand times?”
We can see the vulnerability and sensitivity with which the protagonist speaks of his emotions throughout the journey in this quote from Dante’s Inferno. His compassion and love for the poor souls imprisoned in Dante’s Inferno demonstrates him to be a good Christian and God-fearing man.
He sees a nearby mountain and attempts to climb it, but his path is blocked by a lion, a leopard, and a wolf. A spirit of Virgil, an Ancient Roman poet whose major work is titled Aenid, appears to him to assist him in overcoming this obstacle and leading him through Inferno and Purgatorio to Heaven. Virgil is a courageous and brave soul. He represents human reason and wisdom accumulated over time. They meet many beasts and scary creatures on their journey through Inferno, but Virgil stands up to each and every one of them. He is also incredibly smart and intelligent; because he is a gifted speaker, he can trick any creature into helping them. He is a good friend because he supports and comforts Dante when he is afraid or worried about the challenges he faces throughout Inferno and Purgatorio. Virgil realizes that Dante and his fate are in his hands. Despite this, he is fair to Dante, scolds him when he becomes too soft, and sympathizes a little too much with the sinners. He encourages him to be brave and strong:
Canto 5“Be as a tower that, firmly established, does not shake its top for any blast that blows!”
Beatrice, Dante’s beloved, sent Virgil to assist him. Her character was inspired by a real woman, also named Beatrice, whom Dante met as a child and fell in love with right away. Sadly, she died when she was only 25 years old. Dante dedicated many beautiful poems to her, praising her beauty and love.
Dante and Virgil approach the entrance to Inferno and see a group of souls whose fate will be determined later, as it is unclear whether they have committed more bad or good. To get to Hell, one must cross the Acheron River. Charon is a shaman who transports souls across the river. He is initially hesitant to transport Dante because he is technically still alive, but Virgil persuades him to do so anyway because Dante’s journey is overseen by God. When they enter Inferno, they notice the following inscription on its gate:
Canto 3“Forsake all hope, ye who come here.”
First Circle – Limbo
The first circle is made up of people who are not baptized; either they lived before Christ when baptism was not yet widespread, or they were never baptized. They live in a castle with seven gates, each representing one of the seven virtues. Technically, it is a lower form of Heaven in which pagans are imprisoned and punished for all eternity. Many Greek and Roman philosophers, poets, and artists, including Homer, Ovid, Socrates, Cicero, and even Julius Cesar, meet Dante and Virgil here. Virgil is one of them, as he explains in the quote below:
Canto 4“They did not sin; but their merit lacked its most important fulfillment, namely, baptism, which is the gateway to the faith in which thou believest; or, living before Christendom, their knees did not properly pay those tributes that belong to God; and I am one of these.”
Second Circle – Lust
The second circle has a more traditional Hell appearance. It’s dark, filled with screams, and filled with pain. Minos, a massive beast who decides where souls are sent for torment, stands near the entrance to the second circle. The second circle is made up of people who have been lustful throughout their lives. They are punished by strong winds that blow over them, causing them to sway back and forth. These winds represent the restlessness and instability of lustful people. Many people from Greek and Roman antiquity, mythology, and history are mentioned by Dante and Virgil, including Cleopatra, Tristan, and Helen of Troy. They meet the souls of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, a couple condemned to Hell for their adultery and numerous love affairs, among other sinners punished for lust. Francesca elaborates:
Canto 5“Love, which quickly arrests the gentle heart, seized him with my lovely form, which was taken from me in a way that still grieves me.”
Dante faints as he is moved and devastated by their story. When he awakens, he discovers that he has already entered the third circle of Hell.
Third Circle – Gluttony
Dante and Virgil meet souls whose sin is gluttony in the third circle of Hell. Cerberus, a worm-monster, keeps an eye on them. They are punished with icy, slushy rain that pours down on them in torrents. Because they are unable to stand, the slushy water covers their entire body as they lie. The slushy rain represents personal devastation and the inability to stop eating. People in this circle of Inferno have a weak will and are unable to resist earthly pleasures of indulgence—food and drink. Here, the protagonist meets his political opponent from Florence, the soul Ciacco.
Fourth Circle – Greed
Pluto, a Roman god of the underworld who is also considered the god of wealth, guards the fourth circle of Dante’s Inferno. The sinners are divided into two categories here: those who hoarded their possessions and those who spent lavishly. Their punishment is to push extremely heavy weights up a mountain—mostly boulders, which represent their insatiable desire for money and possessions. There, Dante recognizes many familiar faces, including clergymen, popes, and cardinals—all of whom have been greedy throughout their lives.
Fifth Circle – Anger
Dante and Virgil come across people who are filled with wrath and fury in this circle of hell. Those found to be angry and impatient are drowned in the Styx or forced to fight amongst themselves on its surface. They gurgle the river’s water, struggle, and drown. They are left to suffer in the water, which is made up of a black toxic liquid. Dante meets another political foe, Filippo Argenti, who confiscated his belongings when he was exiled from Florence. He attempts to climb into a boat but is pushed away.
Phlegyas is a boatman who assists Dante and Virgil in crossing this river. They are thwarted by a swarm of fallen angels. Furies threatens to summon Medusa in order for her to turn Dante into stone, claiming that he does not belong in the world of the dead. Before Medusa can reach them, an angel appears and opens the gate for them.
Sixth Circle – Heresy
The sixth circle of Inferno is reserved for heretics, or those who hold opposing views to Christian beliefs. They are buried alive in tombs there. Dante meets Farinata degli Uberti, a political leader and contemporary who does not believe in God. In addition to Epicurus, he sees Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and Pope Anastasius II.
Seventh Circle – Violence
A Minotaur—half-man, half-bull—blocks the path to the seventh circle. When Virgil insults him, the minotaur erupts in a violent rage, allowing Dante and Virgil to sneak past him. Dante’s Inferno’s seventh circle of Hell is divided into three rings. The protagonist is carried through the first ring by Nessus, a centaur. In this circle, they see a forest inhabited by harpies, mythical creatures with the bodies of birds and the heads of women. Dante severs a branch from a tree, which shrieks in terror and pain. Pier della Vigna’s soul is revealed to be the tree. He committed suicide because he was accused of plotting against the emperor. They blinded him for treason and threw him in jail, where he committed suicide. He explains that all souls who commit suicide are imprisoned in the seventh circle and transformed into trees. Harpies eat their leaves there, causing the trees a lot of pain.
To get from the seventh to the eighth circle of Inferno, Virgil and Dante enlist the assistance of Geryon, a giant Monster of the Fraud. He has a dragon’s body and wings, lion’s paws, and a human face.
Eighth Circle – Fraud
This circle is divided into ten Bolgias, which are ditches with bridges in between that are arranged around a circular well. Malacoda is the leader in charge of guarding the entrance to Hell’s eighth circle. He deceives both the poet and Virgil by telling them that there are bridges in this circle and that they should not be concerned. Nonetheless, their path is perilous. Each Bolgia has its own set of people who commit fraud:
Canto 11“The end result of all malicious wrong that earns Heaven’s hatred is injury; all such ends are won by force or fraud.” Both cause harm to others; however, because only man is capable of deception, God despises the worst; the fraudulent lie lowest, then, and groan.”
Panderers, seducers, sorcerers, false prophets, corrupt politicians, hypocrites, thieves, evil counselors and advisers, alchemists, counterfeits, and perjurers are all encountered. Dante’s political adversary, Pope Boniface VIII, is among the sinners they encounter in this circle. They receive assistance from Antaeus, a giant who carries them down the well, which is the path to the ninth and final circle of Hell, on their journey from the eighth to the ninth circles of Dante’s Inferno.
Ninth Circle – Treachery
A lake – Cocytus – forms the center of this circle. The sinners here are encased in ice, with only their heads protruding. Dante encounters Bocca degli Abati, a Florentine traitor who is so ashamed of his sins that he initially refuses to tell Dante his name. As Dante and Virgil travel through the lake, they come across the giant figure of Lucifer, who is also encased in ice. The Prince of Hell is Lucifer. He has three mouths, each holding a sinner: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius:
Canto 34“Each mouth devoured a sinner clenched within, frayed by the fangs like flax beneath a brake; he tortured them three at a time for sin.”
Dante and Virgil must climb Lucifer’s body to escape the Inferno. They crawl out of the hole and find themselves on an island with many bright stars and Mt. Purgatory. This concludes the book of Dante’s Inferno.
Dante and Virgil find themselves at the start of the second part of The Divine Comedy, at the dawn of a new day. They are standing on the beach when a boat arrives. There are souls on the boat who have been brought by an angel to climb Mount Purgatory with Dante in order to purge themselves of sins and proceed to Heaven. Dante has no time to waste, but he is forced to spend the night outside of Purgatory with other souls who, unlike him, are unable to travel at night. Dante falls asleep, and when he awakens, Virgil informs him that St. Lucia assisted him and carried him directly to the gates of Purgatory.
They have seven terraces to travel through in Purgatory. An angel places seven “P”s on Dante’s forehead before they enter. They are analogous to the seven deadly sins. The angel claims that every time a sin’s terrace is surpassed, a “P” will be removed.
The first Pride has a terrace. Dante and Virgil see penitents carrying heavy weights up the mountain of humility to cure themselves of pride:
Canto 10“Whatever causes them to suffer their heavy torment bends them to the ground; at first, I had no idea what they were.”
But look there intently, and let your eyes unravel what’s beneath those stones: you can already see what penalty each bears.”
The second terrace is devoted to Envy The eyelids of the envious penitents there are sewn shut with iron wire. To amplify the effect, people shout examples of punished envy.
The third terrace has something to do with Wrath The penitents here are subjected to black smoke, which enters their eyes and blinds them.
The fourth terrace is a member of the Slothful. They are punished by running nonstop for an extended period of time.
On the fifth terrace, They punish avaricious and greedy souls. The condemned are bound by their feet and arms and placed face down on the ground. They must shout examples of poverty and generosity to cleanse themselves of these sins.
The sixth terrace Gluttony has its own page. Penitents cleanse their souls here by going through extreme hunger and thirst.
The seventh and final terrace is of Lust, in which penitents walk through flames while shouting out examples of chastity.
At sunset, they arrive at the last terrace’s exit, and the angel removes Dante’s final “P.” However, in order to proceed, he must pass through a wall of flames that separates Purgatorio and Paradiso. He is terrified and hesitates a lot, but Virgil persuades him to cheer up and be brave because once he gets through this obstacle, he will finally see Beatrice. When Dante passes through the flames, he falls asleep. He wakes up the next morning, eager to begin his journey through Paradiso. As they approach the Lethe River’s banks, Virgil vanishes, and Beatrice appears in front of the protagonist. He is devastated by his friend’s death and weeps.
Beatrice is portrayed as Dante’s tour guide through Purgatorio. She is very knowledgeable, a little strict, and obviously believes in Dante’s goodness. She believes that this journey will save his soul and grant him salvation. She is the personification of divine knowledge, wisdom, and good, righteous judgment.
Dante confesses to Beatrice all of his sins. She condemns him for them and expresses her disappointment in this quote:
Canto 2“What trenches did you come across, what chains or rope did you find impeding your progress, that you should have given up all hope?”
When Dante falls asleep, a woman named Matilda washes them in the river Lethe. When he awakens, Beatrice tells him that he can go on as long as he writes about everything he sees in Paradiso when he returns to earth.
Then, Matilda immerses Dante in the Eunoe River, preparing him to ascend to Heaven alongside Beatrice.
Paradiso consists of nine spheres:
- The first sphere represents the Moon. Beatrice explains the universe’s structure to Dante. She claims that the Moon is a haven for souls who have broken their vows. Their words lacked bravery and can’t be trusted.
- Mercury is represented by the second sphere. There, Dante and Beatrice meet Justinian, who tells them about Ancient Rome’s history. This sphere is too close to the sun; it represents those who performed good deeds for the sake of fame and glory.
- Venus is represented by the third sphere. Dante meets Charles Martel of Anjou there. He tells Dante about the importance of societal diversity and how it can be improved by incorporating people from various backgrounds.
- The fourth sphere is the Sun’s sphere. St. Thomas, along with eleven other souls, explain to Dante the importance of not judging hastily and being mindful of prudence.
- Mars is the fifth heavenly sphere. It has to do with warriors who sacrificed their lives for their faith and God. There, Dante meets Cacciaguida, who tells him about Florentines’ noble past and Dante’s mission to deliver all the knowledge he has gained on his journey to Florence and its citizens.
- Jupiter is represented by the sixth sphere. It is a place where kings demonstrate justice. Dante is visited by a giant eagle who speaks to him about divine justice and past rulers such as Constantine and Trajan.
- Saturn’s sphere is located on the seventh level of heaven. It is dedicated to those who have lived a life of temperance and fervent prayer. He sees people climbing up and down a golden ladder. Dante meets St. Peter Damian here, who lectures him on clergy corruption and predestination. They discuss the moral decline of the church’s institute.
- The eighth level is known as the Fixed Stars. Dante and Beatrice encounter the Virgin Mary as well as other Biblical figures such as Adam, John, Peter, and James. They explain the complexities of Heaven and Eden to Dante.
- The ninth sphere is referred to as Premium Mobile. It is specifically controlled by God and thus has an impact on all of the lower spheres. It is a residence for angels. Beatrice tells Dante the story of the universe’s creation and the lives of angels. They gradually ascend to the highest point in heaven, Empyrean. When they arrive, Dante is enveloped in light, allowing him to see God and the Holy Trinity.
Dante realizes that God’s love is eternal after his journey is over. He now fully comprehends the enigma of Incarnation. Dante is blessed by God’s hand with the answer, and he now has a complete picture of the world.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is a difficult work of art to comprehend. It takes the reader through Hell’s nine circles, Purgatory’s seven terraces, and Paradise’s nine spheres. Each stage of the journey is filled with dead souls who are trying to atone for their sins or simply survive in the afterlife. It is full of historical figures as well as mystical and mythological creatures.