Dante’s Divine Comedy is an important book in world literature. Not only did it touch on human struggles both contemporary and eternal, it ushered in the use of common languages in literature. Before its publication, most major works in the West were penned in Latin. Dante broke the mold by issuing his verse in Italian, establishing a precedent that would eventually send Latin to a death all its own. For my reading, I used the English translation made by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
You are entering a dark place of spoilers.
The Divine Comedy documents a similitude of Dante, where he travels through the afterlife regions of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Each region appears as a distinct section in the full book. I will divide this review into the same three parts. Welcome to Inferno, the first 34 chapters of the book describing Dante’s descent into Hell.
Dante, it seems, had led a life of cowardice, and Beatrice, his former love interest who has since died, sends the poet Virgil to shake some sense into his heart. And what better way to do that then to send someone to Hell. “All hope abandon, ye who enter in!” says the sign as Virgil and Dante begin their descent
In the Inferno, Hell is a series of concentric circles, with those whose sins were mild consigned to the outer, higher circles, and those with grievous transgressions placed in the innermost, tortuous pits. In case you were wondering about potential destinations, here are the sins assigned to each circle.
- Limbo, containing generally good people who were never baptized, or who never sought after God. When he’s not playing tour guide, Virgil lives here with other famous poets.
- The lustful. As is true throughout all the circles, Dante runs in to some people he knew back on earth. Dante seems to know pretty much everyone in Hell.
- The gluttonous. While here, Dante points out that Hell is a place of poetic justice, where “all these suffer like penalties for the like sin.” The punishments experienced in Hell are descriptive, imitative, or inverse of the earthly sin.
- The greedy and the prodigals, those who hoarded riches and those who spent without limit. I discovered that I really never knew what “prodigal” meant before.
- The angry. The remaining four circles are contained within the “City of Dis.”
- The heresiarchs, those who invented or promoted heretical beliefs.
- The violent offenders. This section is divided into three parts, for those who were violent towards (1) others, (2) themselves (suicides), and (3) God (blasphemers).
- The frauds. This circle has ten “bolgias,” or ditches, each containing ever worsening perpetrators of fraud, including mediums, flatterers, and liars.
- The betrayers. Lucifer himself resides here, as does Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus Christ.
As the two poets descend into the underworld, the punishments they witness become progressively worse. While those in the first circle suffer only mild discomfort, those in the inner reaches of Hell are bitten by serpents, have limbs torn off, have their heads twisted on backwards, or in the case of Judas, must spend eternity with his head in a frozen lake while his body flails about on top. I found myself feeling sorry for this wretched lot, as the punishments inflicted on them by Dante were much worse than anything hinted at in the Bible.
Another source of suffering was Dante’s constant discussions of Italian politics. He was particularly fond of chastising the entire city of Florence for its pride and extravagance. He also found plenty of opportunities to criticize various popes, some of whom didn’t have much nice to say about Dante back on earth.
The story and this review continue next time with a discussion of Purgatory. Hope to see you there, instead of in Hell.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.