Dante’s Hell is a diorama of sin, enacted as both moral exhortation and poetic prophecy. Change is no longer possible here, and damnation is the irrevocable, total removal from God—a separation that is more terrible for being freely willed by Hell’s inhabitants. “What I was living, that I am dead,” one soul tells the pilgrim.
Some here are anonymous, bent under the weight of their sin, but the splendor of others is found in their very damnation. Farinata persists in his arrogance; the scorn he entertains is eternal. Yet we cannot but be impressed by him, by Ulysses, by all the towering personalities of Hell—even when their way was wrong.
The Inferno may not outline our circumstances, but it does outline our condition. Or as James Wood pointedly observed: it is less that Dante’s Hell is life-like, than that our life can be Hell-like.
The poem’s narration begins on the eve of Good Friday 1300, when the pilgrim Dante awakens in a dark wood, with no memory of how he came to be lost. Repulsed from the hill of Purgatory by three beasts, he appeals to the figure of the poet Virgil, who will guide him through Hell and Purgatory. Beatrice will then show him through Paradise, where Virgil, as “a rebel to His law,” may not enter. Three ladies in Heaven prompted Virgil’s rescue (Canto II). Allegorically, this locates the source of Dante’s conversion-journey not in reason or conscience (Virgil), but in divine grace (Mary, Lucy, and Beatrice).
The poets pass the gate of Hell, with its famous inscription, and a vestibule where the neutrals dwell who lived in neither evil nor good (Canto III). Here Dante compares the dead souls waiting to cross Acheron to autumn leaves being shed from their branches: sin permits ease of access to Hell. Purgatory has to be climbed; but souls rain into Hell. Dante himself does not pass by way of Charon’s boat. Instead there is an earthquake and he loses consciousness, reawakening at the edge of the abyss (Canto IV).
According to Dante’s poem, Hell is an inverted cone with its base at the earth’s center, farthest from God. The first circle houses the unbaptized, spoken for by Virgil himself: “without hope, we live in desire.” Dante asks if any have ever left this Limbo and is told of the “Harrowing” that removed Adam and Moses, among others. (The name of Christ, who did the harrowing, never occurs in the Inferno; part of the eternal darkness here is the absence of even God’s name.)
Minos, at the entrance to the second circle, assigns the damned to their appropriate depth in Hell (Canto V). Within, the souls of the lustful are blown about ceaselessly by the winds, as in life they were buffeted unreasoningly by passion. The pilgrim calls on two: the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, who had been overcome, she tells us, by that “Love, which absolves no one beloved from loving.” We sympathize with Francesca—as does Dante, who faints—yet her account of her trespass should not be taken at face value. Dante may have shown leniency to his sexual sinners, but he did put them in Hell.
As the poets move on, they see rain, snow, and hail descending endlessly on the souls of the gluttonous (Canto VI); the avaricious and the prodigal rolling weights back and forth (Canto VII); and the wrathful striking at one another in the marsh of Styx. Passing over the river, the pilgrim speaks sharply to “one that weeps,” Filippo Argenti, and is congratulated by Virgil for his vehemence (Canto VIII). At the city of Dis the Furies threaten them, until an angel arrives to open the gates (Canto IX).
Immediately within are an immense number of unbelievers’ tombs. From one of these rises Farinata, “lifting up his breast and brow as if he had great scorn of Hell” (Canto X). As he and Dante converse, Cavalcante interrupts to ask news of his son. Mistaking Dante’s words to mean that Cavalcanti is dead, he cries out in anguish. Farinata continues speaking as if there has been no interruption; we learn from him that the souls in Hell can know the past and future, but not the present.
Lower Hell, Virgil now explains, is partitioned into circles punishing violence, fraud, and treachery (Canto XI). Those who dwell outside Dis proper are guilty of crimes of incontinence, rather than of malice, and so are held less culpable than those within. Likewise fraud, a sin “peculiar to man”—and so more offensive because more perverse—is worse than mere violence; and treachery is the worst of all.
Centaurs patrol Phlegethon, the river of blood in which are sunk murderers and tyrants (Canto XII). In the dark wood beyond, Virgil instructs the pilgrim to break a branch, and Dante discovers the wails filling the air come not from people hidden among the trees, but from the trees themselves (Canto XIII). The souls of suicides, falling here, take root and grow, and Harpies feed on their branches. Or, as Francesco de Sanctis notes: “The hell of the suicides is suicide itself, repeated every moment to eternity.”
A rain of fire descends on the souls of the blasphemous, the sodomites, and the usurers (Canto XIV). Dante’s ambivalence is particularly underscored in the canto of Brunetto Latini, whom he knew to be both immensely admirable as a leader of men—and guilty of sodomy, a sin before God (Canto XV).
Virgil now hurls into a canyon the cord with which, in the first canto, Dante tried to subdue the leopard (Canto XVI). A creature then rises out of the abyss, his face “the face of a just man” but his body that of a serpent; this is Geryon, the monster of Fraud (Canto XVII). He is to carry the poets down the cliff to the ten concentric valleys of Malebolge (“evil pouches”).
The first pouch houses panderers and seducers, who are lashed by demons; the second, flatterers who root in human filth (Canto XVIII). Simonists are plunged into holes with their calves exposed and the soles of their feet aflame (Canto XIX); and diviners, who set themselves against divine will, are grotesquely contorted so they can only see and walk backward (Canto XX).
The image of the barrators boiling in tar is typically Dantesque in its vivid evocation of earthly, even mundane, life: “Just so cooks make their scullions plunge the meat down into the cauldrons with their forks that it may not float” (Canto XXI). The sinner Ciampolo then tricks the demons, and an all-out scuffle erupts, from which the poets manage to escape (Canto XXII).
The hypocrites wear cloaks richly worked on the outside but heavy with lead on the inside (Canto XXIII). One among the thieves, Vanni Fucci, is continually burned to ashes and re-formed; still others are tormented by serpents that alter the forms of their bodies, as their crimes have altered the forms of their souls (Canto XXV).
The eighth is the pouch of false counselors; Ulysses and Diomed burn here, in a divided flame (Canto XXVI). Unlike Homer’s, Dante’s Ulysses is not constrained by love of home; instead, he subjected all to his passion for knowledge and experience; his canto itself reads like the “mad flight” it describes. Guido da Montefeltro, in another flame, believed papal absolution could protect him, but at his death his soul was seized for Hell (Canto XXVII).
The schismatics of church or state, in the ninth pouch, now are rent in turn: Mahomet has his body ripped open; Bertran de Born carries his own severed head (Canto XXVIII). Counterfeiters, impersonators, and perjurers are stricken with a range of diseases (cantos XXIX–XXX). And in the circle of the proud, giants are stuck impotently in the ground—among them Nimrod, responsible for the Tower of Babel; and Ephialtes, who challenged Jove (Canto XXXI).
The next souls refuse to identify themselves, but willingly give their fellows away, while they are then betrayed in turn—fittingly, in this circle of the treacherous (cantos XXXII–XXXIII). Among the most memorable of the Commedia’s figures are to be found here, on Hell’s floor. Imprisoned by Archbishop Ruggieri, Count Ugolini watched his four sons starve to death; now he gnaws perpetually at his tormentor, clinging to Ruggieri’s head like a hood. Other souls are held in the ice with their faces up, so that their tears freeze over their eyes to blind them. We learn that when Fra Albergio murdered his brother and nephew, his soul was taken by Hell even while his body continued to live.
What Dante initially takes to be a windmill turns out to be the giant figure of Satan himself, pinioned forever in the ice (Canto XXXIV). Satan, who aspired to the Godhead, is given three immeasurably ugly heads, in a parody of the Trinity, and bats’ wings instead of angels’. In his mouths are Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius, archetypal betrayers of Church and of Empire.
With Dante clasping him by the neck, Virgil descends along Satan’s body until they pass through the center of the earth. It is now the morning of Holy Saturday. The poets soon will be able to begin the ascent of the sunlit hill of Purgatory, and they make their first steps toward it by what is now for the first time visible: the light of the stars.
Anderson, William. Dante the Maker. New York: Crossroad, 1980.
Applewhite, James. “The Extended Simile in the Inferno.” Italica 41 (1964): 294–309.
Caesar, Michael, ed. Dante: The Critical Heritage, 1314(?)–1870. London: Routledge, 1989. Cambon, Glauco. Dante’s Craft: Studies in Language and Style. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1969.
Cook, W. R., and R. B. Herzman. “Inferno XXXIII: The Past and the Present in Dante’s Imagery of Betrayal.” Italica 56 (1979): 377–83.
Freccero, John, ed. Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965.