Why Read Dante’s Inferno?

In contemplating what fiction to give your students this year, consider Dante’s Inferno. As the article below indicates, through his masterful craftsmanship, Dante draws us into experiences of remembrance, honesty, courage, love and freedom. He explores the contours of individual and social disorder and how we begin to see the way out. Dante illuminates the contrast between what is real and what is not; he deepens our understanding of the need to reconcile loss with the possibility of redemption. His Inferno is, in other words, a profound exploration of our humanity. 

When Dante awakens from a deep sleep to find himself lost in a pathless, dark wood, he cannot account for how he came to this fearful place, and he cannot find the way out. In a desperate bid to escape the forest, he tries to climb the mountain beyond the trees, but he is confronted by three savage beasts that drive him back into the forest. Reflecting on the journey he eventually undertakes, the poet calls upon the Muses to aid him in his recollection of these events. The Divine Comedy is that act of remembrance, and the Inferno is the first installment of that story.

The biography of Dante is closely associated with the history of Florence, and both make their way into his epic poem. Dante’s story is partly a portrait of Florence and its depravity; and, in many respects, his character is representative of the disease that infects the city. His journey is a passage out of that political and spiritual disorder, and it is safe to say that the journey is only made possible because of the poet’s agonizing exile. This makes the Inferno primarily an exercise in self-examination. Dante must journey down into the stygian, often bewildering regions of his own heart to explore, confront and renounce them. The Inferno, then, is not so much a place as it is a state of being, a state of the pilgrim’s heart; and it is a condition that can be found anywhere on earth even now as the reader discovers in the closing cantos when the kingdom of hell comes to earth. The Inferno is thus an allegory of the soul, not merely of Dante’s soul but of all souls, as evidenced in the opening line of the poem: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray.” 

To undertake such a journey requires tremendous honesty and courage on the part of the pilgrim: honesty to face his frailty without a glamorous or self-pitying sheen and courage to renounce something he has grown accustomed to embracing as intrinsic to his identity. It will also require a wise, encouraging, sometimes exasperated, and often tender guide. The guide sent to rescue the pilgrim is Virgil, one of Dante’s greatest artistic heroes. Dante’s self-portrait is often comedic and endearing in its self-effacement, and Virgil plays the straight man who does his best with the material he has. 

To the pilgrim’s surprise, the souls gathering on the shores of the Acheron seem eager to pass over to some place where any residual fear that checks their enjoyment of the offense can be fully and mercifully transformed into unalloyed desire (Canto III). There, on the other side of the river, they can indulge their offenses without restraint or remorse, even though what they have attained is ultimately self-destructive. This is one of the great mysteries of the human condition so well reflected in the Inferno: Its residents long to be there, and it is the object of their desires that keeps them there. The Inferno, then, is not a prison; rather, it is a space set aside for those who wish to be there. When Virgil and the pilgrim approach the Gates of Dis, the Erinyes seek to block their entrance under the delusional notion that they own this kingdom; the angelic enforcer must remind them that they only occupy this space by divine dispensation, a dispensation made necessary by their rebellion. From the other side of conversion, the poet understands what the pilgrim must learn, expressed so well in Augustine’s Confessions: “[L]ove is the weight by which I act. To whatever place I go, I am drawn to it by love”(XIII: 9). Love dwells at the core of the human being, and it is the affections that orient an individual’s choices. In Canto XXXIV, the pilgrim experiences a powerful gravitational force that must be transcended as his heart is drawn upward and out of the Inferno, leaving behind all of the old affections that so injured him.

This leads to one of the poet’s greatest achievements: his portrait of the seductive nature of the offense that is simultaneously self-refuting. Each testimony of the Inferno’s inhabitants must somehow expose the offense, unadorned. In many respects, the Inferno is the portrait of a city of men who have finally chosen their one, all-consuming desire at the expense of all other possible goods. The deepest circle is marked by a sad and lonely silence where the warmth and comfort of human community is once and for all extinguished in service to that one desire. The teacher should permit the students to be deceived just as the pilgrim is misled so they can experience the awakening the pilgrim experiences when he finally encounters the offenses stripped of their allure.  

Drawing on a deep fund of poetic, scriptural, historical, mythical, philosophical (chiefly Aristotelian), and theological (principally Thomist) knowledge, Dante weaves his own confession in the tradition of Augustine and marries it to the epic poetry of Virgil. The pilgrim is the new Aeneas (Canto II), and later writers will imitate Dante’s achievement in their work (e.g., Milton, Joyce, Primo Levi, Camus, and Seamus Heaney) as they discover the special relevance of the Commedia to their own generation and their own predicaments. 

One of the most impressive features of Dante’s Inferno is his decision to populate his narrative with flesh and blood characters who have unique and individual stories to tell. As a result, his characters accumulate weight and substance as they transcend stereotypes and abstractions and as the poet shapes their stories to his purposes. They become memorable for their individual testimonies: Who can forget the oily swindler, Guido da Montefeltro, hoisted on his own petard, or the pompous and officious Farinata, or the eloquent recruiter par excellence, Ulysses? The pilgrim’s encounters with these characters endure because the poet has given them such powerful, concrete development and because the reader recognizes their testimonies as wholly possible. Remarkably, Dante sketches these characters in compact, psychologically astute portraits, often in just thirty-five to fifty lines.   

Another intriguing element of Dante’s Inferno is his hierarchy of offenses. Why are some offenses found deeper than others? Why, for instance, is slander considered in the depths of the ninth and tenth malebolge of Circle 8 in Lower Hell when murder is found so much further up in Circle 7? Dante’s choices are provocative of rich discussion and reflection among the students.    

Jeannette DeCelles-Zwerneman serves as the director of instruction and as a master teacher with Cana Academy. The article is adapted from the introduction to the newly released Leading a Discussion on Dante’s Inferno, by Jeannette DeCelles-Zwerneman. It is available here. A podcast interview with the author discussing Dante’s Inferno can be found here.