Dante`s Inferno

An Introduction to Dante’s
ENG 251
Western World Literature
Stephen Wood
“Dante and Shakespeare divide the world
between them, there is no third.”
- T.S. Eliot
“Oh, hell.”
- Dante’s publisher
The Life of Dante Alighieri
Dante is born in
Florence, the city
that would
dominate his
political and literary
Dante’s family was a
noble one, but no
longer wealthy.
The Life of Dante Alighieri
Dante receives a solid education. Like the education of
most in western Europe, his education is based on the
trivium and the quadrivium, a pattern for education
popular since ancient times.
Trivium: Grammar, logic, rhetoric
Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music
The Life of Dante Alighieri
Dante’s family is very active in politics, as were all noble
families in Italy in the day. Politics in Florence is an
especially nasty business.
The two major political factions of the day are the Guelfs
and the Ghibellines. Further, the Guelfs are divided
into two factions, the Whites and the Blacks.
Primarily, these political divisions were focused on where
earthly power properly resided. The two main rivals
were the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the
Pope. Dante is a White Guelf, a supporter of imperial
The Life of Dante Alighieri
Dante first meets Beatrice Portinari, the woman who
would dominate his personal and literary life. He falls
in love with her at first sight, although both were
already betrothed to other people because of family
arrangement. Although he meets her at this time, he
would not actually speak to her for nine more years.
The Life of Dante Alighieri
This is a tumultuous year for Dante.
He and Beatrice actually speak to one another.
Beatrice passes him on the street a few weeks later and
ignores him.
Dante’s father dies.
Dante marries Gemma Donati shortly thereafter.
The Life of Dante Alighieri
Beatrice is married.
The Life of Dante Alighieri
Dante participates as a calvaryman in a battle between
the Guelfs and the Ghibellines
The Life of Dante Alighieri
Beatrice dies. In her honor, Dante writes his Vita nuova
(New Life), which recounts his love for her in verse and
prose. This was begun in 1292 after a vision and was
completed by 1294.
The Life of Dante Alighieri
As a member of the dominant White Guelf party in
Florence, Dante enters local politics.
Dante serves as one of the six highest magistrates in
Florence for two months. As part of his duties, he is
forced to banish a friend for causing a riot.
The Life of Dante Alighieri
Dante is sent to Rome as an envoy.
While Dante is away, the Black Guelfs take power in
Florence; this party is led by a cousin of Dante’s wife.
Dante is banished under a death sentence and never
returns to Florence. He never sees his wife again,
although a daughter and two sons eventually joined
him (the sons have to leave Florence when each turns
The Life of Dante Alighieri
Dante begins almost twenty years of wandering; he is
done with politics and Florence forever.
The Life of Dante Alighieri
Dante begins writing the Divine Comedy.
The first part of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno is
Dante dies; the second and third parts of the Divine
Comedy are published posthumously.
Dante’s Intentions
In his exile years, Dante wrote a letter to a
friend and patron named Can Grande.
In that letter, he explained his intentions
concerning his comedy.
Dante’s Intentions
“The subject of this work must be understood as
taken according to the letter and then interpreted
according to the allegorical meaning. The subject,
then, of the whole work, taken according to the
letter alone, is simply a consideration of the state of
souls after death; for from and around this the
whole notion of the work turns.”
Dante’s Intentions
This tells us that Dante intended his work to be
understood on two levels -- the literal and the
allegorical. The literal is the most fundamental;
Dante believes that his work is at its foundation
purely descriptive. The Divine Comedy is literally
what happens to souls after death, in Dante’s view.
Dante’s Intentions
“But if the work is considered according to its
allegorical meaning, the subject is man, liable to the
reward and punishment of justice, according as
through the freedom of will he is deserving or
undeserving … The aim of this work is to remove
those living in this life from a state of misery and
guide them to a state of happiness.”
Dante’s Intentions
The second level upon which to interpret Dante’s
work, then, is the allegorical level. Instead of being
purely descriptive, the Divine Comedy is also
prescriptive; it is allegorical instruction to help
human beings avoid sin and find salvation. Notice
Dante’s use of the twin concepts of justice and free
Dante’s Intentions
“The title of the book is ‘Here beginneth the
Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth
but not by character.’”
Remember that Dante wrote his comedy during his
years of exile from his home city of Florence, and his
bitterness toward his home is evident throughout
the work.
Dante’s Intentions
“And for the comprehension of this, it must be
understood that comedy is a certain kind of poetical
narrative which differs from all others. It differs
from tragedy in its subject matter -- in this way, that
tragedy is in its beginning admirable and quiet, in
its ending of catastrophe foul and horrible …
Comedy, on the other hand, begins with adverse
circumstances, but its theme has a happy
Dante’s Intentions
“… From this it is evident why the present work is
called a comedy. For if we consider the theme, in its
beginning it is horrible and foul because it is in Hell;
in its ending, desirable and joyful because it is in
Dante’s Intentions
Thus, the movement
of the plot mirrors the
movement of the
human soul, from sin
and destruction to
paradise and
salvation. Life is,
after all, a comedy.
Dante’s Plan
Dante constructed his
comedy in much the
same manner as a
cathedral. In a
cathedral, every
architectural detail,
every measurement,
every angle, every ratio - every detail is designed
to have spiritual
significance and to
glorify God.
Dante’s Plan
The divinity of the Holy Trinity and mystical
significance of the number 3
•The Divine Comedy is divided into three books: Inferno,
Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
•Each book contains 33 cantos (except for Inferno, which has
the introductory canto to the whole comedy, thus 33 + 1
•Each realm of the afterlife, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, has
9 (3 x 3) divisions.
•The poetic form of the work, terza rima, is based on tercets
(groups of three lines stanzas). The rhyme scheme of terza
rima is ABA BCB CDC, etc. Thus, the three (ABA) is centered
on a one (B), which produces the next tercet (BCB).
Dante’s Plan
Other important numbers that recur throughout the
comedy are 7 and 10, reflecting the seven days of
creation, and the perfection of the number 10.
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