Literary Analysis: The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Historical/Cultural Context

Inferno was written in the 13th century in Italy. The language spoken at the time was Italian, but the scholarly language was still Latin. Inferno was written in Italian, but to describe certain things, Dante used Latin words. He helped to create part of the Italian language used today because of the words he created and used in Inferno. Christianity was the dominant religion of the time, at least in Europe; The Divine Comedy (of which Inferno is one part) was intended as a religious text. Although it is primarily Christian, it does include much of Greco-Roman mythology as well as notable Florentine politicians. Dante was born in Florence, Italy in 1265. He was obsessed with a woman named Beatrice. He was involved in Florentine politics until a rival political party exiled him in 1302. The work is describing the current point in time (Dante's time) in Hell (although one might argue that time does not exist within Hell). The author's cultural bias is that of a Christian of this time, although he is actually quite radical, considering his anti-papal views due to his exile from Florentine politics. The culture at the time that Dante was part of was entirely Christian, and this affected the cultural view considerably.

Setting

The novel takes place in Dante's time, if one is of the opinion that time has any measure in Hell. The journey through hell follows the novel linearly, and consists of nine circles, with sub-levels (bolgeas) of each.

Narrative Point of View

The novel is written from a first-person perspective. Dante the character narrates the novel (as opposed to Dante the author).

Protagonist

The protagonist in the novel is Dante. The character is created as a fictional version of the author himself. The novel is written as a journey happening to the character Dante as if it was happening to the author. He has pity for the sinners in Hell at first, but later realizes that they deserve their punishment because of their sins. His level of compassion for the sinners decreases as he descends through Hell. He is inquisitive, and asks Virgil (Vergil) for advice at every turn. He is also adventurous, seeming to have no fear while journeying through Hell. This is possibly because he knows he cannot be harmed, and can prevent himself from suffering the fate that the sinners suffer.

Other Characters

Virgil: the author of the Aeneid, a Roman epic poem. The real-life poet was well respected by Dante; Dante's work was based on the Greek and Roman epic poetry in the style of Virgil. In the novel, Virgil serves as a guide to Dante. He seems to know almost everything about Hell that Dante wants to know, and has wisdom that accompanies Dante's inquisitive nature. This helps the author to explain Hell while still using only character dialogue.

Beatrice: the woman whom the author Dante lusted for and obsessed about in real life. In the novel, Beatrice is an angel who tells Virgil to guide Dante through Hell. Dante the author was obsessed with Beatrice to the point that she was his raison d'etre. In the novel, Beatrice is Dante's muse... his inspiration for poetry.

Boniface: in real life, a pope in Dante's time. He was the leader behind the political party that exiled Dante. He was thus extremely resentful of the pope. In the novel, Dante's resentment is manifested as the planned punishment of Boniface in Hell.

Conflict/Resolution

  • Person vs. Person:
    Count Ugolino, in a desperate attempt to survive, eats his children. He is punished in Hell by being forced to eat people for all eternity while frozen.
  • Person vs. Society:
    Dante's political enemies take power in Florence, and expel Dante from the city Dante (the author) places his political enemies in Hell because he is resentful towards them.
  • Person vs. Nature:
    The sodomites, in Cantos 15-16, who commit "crimes against nature". They are punished for eternity in Hell by burning.
  • Person vs. God:
    Lucifer breaks away from God, and rebels against him, in a war between good and evil. He is punished in the lowest (9th) level of Hell, being frozen and forced to gnaw on the heads of Judas, Cassius, and Brutus.
  • Person vs. Technology:
    Dante vs. the Malebranches - Dante was threatened by a Malebranche and hid behind a rock. Dante tells them about his journey, and the Malebranches let him pass.
  • Person vs. Self:
    Mohammed tearing apart his own body in Canto 28, Page 237, line 30. Mohammed must spend eternity tearing himself apart, for that is his punishment in Hell.

Climax

The climax is the point at which Dante finally reaches Lucifer, at the lowest point in Hell. It is supposedly the exact center of the earth. It is in a way anticlimactic because Lucifer is not given the recognition of the great-and-powerful devil he is purported to be. Rather, his importance is de-emphasized, as Dante uses him as a mere ladder. It is this de-emphasis that helps to portray Lucifer as a defeated and powerless giant, nothing more. However, this is still the climax, because it is the bottom of Hell, and thus the end of the journey.

Theme

The primary theme of the novel is that no sin goes unpunished; retribution is absolute and all affecting. The contrapasso used in Inferno helps to emphasize this theme; it illustrates the relationship between sin and punishment. For example, the punishment of Bertran de Born is an exact contrapasso of his sin: in life, he caused a schism by advising a prince to revolt against his father, the king. He is punished by literally having schism caused to him: his head is severed, and he must carry it around in front of him in his hand.

Memorable Moments

The moment where Mohammed speaks to Dante is one particular memorable moment. The contrapasso is evident; Mohammed was a schismatic, and is thus split apart. His vivid description of his own mutilation creates a memorable mental image. Also, he appears to be in a psychotic state, talking to himself. This could also be a contrapasso - because the crime he committed was a sin of thought, he loses his ability to think.

Notable Quotes

The inscription "Abandon all hope, you who enter here" on the stone above the portal entering Hell is memorable, because it describes the nature of Hell in an emotional context.

Also, the quote of Mohammed stating to Dante, “Look how Mohammed claws and mangles himself, torn open down the breast!” is memorable because it is a vivid description of the horribly mutilation and insanity suffered by those in Hell.

Literary Elements

One notable literary element is Dante's rhyming method, Terza Rima. He invented this rhyming method, which consists of three line stanzas. The first and third lines rhyme, while the second line rhymes with the first and third of the next stanza. It is a primary reason for the flowing, expressive nature of the Inferno. This rhyming pattern was not exactly preserved in translation, as it would require changing the meaning to fit the lyrical pattern.

Another notable literary element is the allusion to Greek and Roman mythology. Throughout the novel, Greco-Roman mythological characters are used as characters or imagery in Hell. This is probably due to the influence of the great Greek and Roman epics on Dante; these consisted mainly of mythological characters and stories.

Significance of Title

It is ironic that this portion of Dante's Divine Comedy is titled Inferno, because it is in essence a misnomer. The lowest levels of Hell are actually extremely cold, not hot, as an "inferno" would suggest. However, the title "inferno" is significant because of the pain and suffering in its connotation. Much of Hell is actually extremely hot, and many of the punishments do involve heat or fire.


This analysis was done on Robert Pinsky's 1994 translation of Dante's work. It may differ in spelling or phrasing from other translations.

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