The Multidimensional Allegories of Inferno
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here” reads the Gates of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno. After awakening at the bottom of a hill, Dante learns that he must descend through Hell, the Inferno, to reach Paradise. Virgil appears to Dante as his guide after Dante’s vain attempt to climb the hill. The duo begins their plunge through the underworld and it quickly becomes apparent that Dante is the only living soul in Hell. Despite this fact, the two continue their journey through the Inferno, providing the reader with an in depth tour to the Dantean design of Hell. As the two travel through the different levels of Hell, Virgil introduces Dante to the sinners and punishments in each circle. The reader witnesses the emotional ups and downs as Dante empathizes with the sinners and eventually becomes callous to their suffering. The Inferno is the most popular installment in The Divine Comedy, and its fame has survived for over six centuries. The poem is a multi-layered allegory, which exists in a literary reality and contains religious, political, and spiritual references.
The Inferno is full of references to historical and literary characters. The protagonist, Dante, is not only the poet and narrator, but also the personification of mankind. At times, it is difficult to distinguish Dante the writer from Dante the character. For example, Dante the writer chose how to punish the sinners, but the character feels empathy towards the damned. This creates a twofold perception of the story and facilitates deep thought. His guide, Virgil, also has a multi-layered identity. He is both Dante’s guide and the Roman author of the Aeneid, as well as a figure of human reason. Virgil also has firsthand experience in Hell because he spends eternity in Limbo, where all pagans reside. This, in addition to his ability to reason and persuade, makes him an excellent guide through Hell. Many characters from Virgil’s works also make an appearance in The Inferno. In the first level of Hell, Dante is introduced to Dido, who committed suicide out of love. Consequently, she spends her death being carried around by winds that symbolize how, in life, she was swept by her passions. Countless other characters from literature and mythology make an appearance in Dante’s poem.
An interesting feature of this work is the mixture of Christian, Greek and Roman references. The work primarily consists inside a Christian framework, but includes many Greek and Roman allusions. Dante opens his journey through a very Catholic version of Hell on the afternoon of Good Friday, both Christian references. However, he encounters many non-Christian characters from both literature and mythology. These characters include Charon, the ferryman, and Minos, the judge sins and assigns a level of Hell. Both of these characters originate from Greek mythology. It also includes many ancient literary figures, such as Virgil, Ulysses, and Homer. Dante introduces these characters to equate himself with their renowned literary skills. Dante not only incorporates pagan characters but also mythological places, for instance, the rivers Styx and Acheron. These non-Christian allusions enrich the story and help it relate to a more broad audience that incorporates all human beings. This is due to Dante’s belief that his journey is one that all mankind should partake in.
Every soul in hell is justly penalized for the sins committed against God , just as with Dido’s punishment for her abandonment of reason for passion. Fortunately, Dido’s sin is considered the least offensive, so she is punished lightly. She probably should have belonged in the seventh circle, where people who committed suicide are converted into trees that can only speak while bleeding. Flatterers spend eternity submerged in excrement, while Traitors, the worst sinners, continually have their heads chewed on by Lucifer himself. Every sin is punished to the extent and severity at which it was committed. This shows that God punishes out of justice, not out of malice. The balance between sin and punishment shows Dante’s high reverence of God. Everything about The Inferno is exceptionally well balanced; whether it be structure, organization, or rhyme scheme.
Dante encompasses extensive political and religious symbols. He utilizes these representations even in the organization and structure of his poem. The Divine Comedy is comprised of three books, each with 100 chapters. The cantos symbolize the Trinity, three sets of thirty three cantos, with an additional chapter to represent the Holy One. The rhyme scheme is also a religious reference since the poem is comprised of tercets, which is another allusion to the number three. Based on the fact that Florence, Italy was in political turmoil during the construction of this poem, it is not surprising that there are also references that extend to politics. Every sixth and sixteenth canto has a primary political implication. These cantos typically portray Dante’s personal opinions and assumptions of his political opponents. The references to religion and politics show Dante’s intention for the literary work and creates an interesting aspect of the already multi-layered poem. It takes the poem from a entertaining story to a means of expressing religious values and political discontent. Through these symbols, Dante depicts the religious and political atmosphere of his life.
The Inferno is the zeitgeist of medieval Florence. According to Marriam-Webster, a zeitgeist is “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era”. Dante’s work accurately exposes the values of each of these categories. Not only does The Inferno precisely address these ideals in ancient Italy, but they also remain true to today’s society. This primarily explains why the poem remains exceptionally popular centuries after its conception. This popularity has inspired countless references to The Inferno. Pop culture is full of movies, music, and even video games that convey Dante’s personification of Hell. Many writers, both classic and modern, are influenced by Dante’s work as well. Classic authors, such as John Milton and T.S. Elliot, are known to cite quotations from The Inferno in their popular works. Evidence of Dante’s influence in today’s society is apparent in the #1 New York Times Best Seller, Inferno by Dan Brown. In this novel, Brown draws countless allusions, images, and citations from Dante’s work and applies them to his thrilling plot set in Florence, Italy. Dante captures human nature so accurately that people from all over the world and over time still admire this piece of complex literature. The impermanence of society makes it difficult for an author to transcend cultural and generational gaps; however, that is exactly what Dante Alighieri accomplishes in his poem The Inferno.
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