The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem written by an Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. He was a philosopher and theologist involved with religion and political issues in medieval Florence, his hometown. He started writing The Divine Comedy in 1308, and finished it in 1321.
In the Middle Ages, poetry was primarily written in Latin, which made it available solely to the educated. Dante Aligheri chose not only to ignore this tradition, but wrote The Divine Comedy in a more primitive version of the Italian language—the Tuscan dialect. The work is regarded as a comedy because, in a classical context, as opposed to a contemporary one, a comedy is a work that deals with explaining the beliefs of an ordered universe. The Divine Comedy is considered one of the most important pieces of world literature. Many writers and artists were so greatly inspired by it that in turn, they have created their own masterpieces.
The poem, The Divine Comedy, is about a journey of the author himself, towards God. It has three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). Each part consists of thirty-three cantos. Such division reflects the medieval theology specific to Christianity. The purpose of Dante’s Divine Comedy was to show people the horrors their souls would go through if they did not obey God's laws, and did not live their lives righteously.
There is a lot of symbolism in connection with numbers throughout the novel. The number three is one of the most common and important ones. In Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy, we encounter three beasts, a three-headed dog—Cerberus, and a three-faced Satan. The reason Dante Aligheri chose the number three is specifically due to its significance in Christianity: there is a Holy Spirit, God—the Father, and Jesus (the three godheads). Another number significant to The Divine Comedy is seven. There are seven deadly sins and seven terraces in Purgatorio. Lastly, the number nine is used for the nine circles of Hell, and the nine spheres in Heaven.
In this article we will take a detailed look at all of the parts of the poem, paying most attention to Dante’s Inferno book. We will analyze the main characters and their significance to the plot.
Brace yourself, take a deep breath and let the hell begin!
Dante’s Divine Comedy Summary
In Dante’s Inferno, he finds himself lost in the forest and realizes that he has died. Virgil helps him on his journey, accompanying him throughout Inferno and Purgatorio. He encounters the horrors happening within Inferno and goes through the nine circles of it. We will take a closer look at each of the circles of hell and determine their specifics and differences, as well as look at Dante’s Inferno—Satan himself. Purgatorio is a part of The Divine Comedy in which Dante and Virgil travel through the seven terraces of the mountain, each of them representing a deadly sin. In Paradiso, the main character, with the guidance of his beloved Beatrice, travel through the nine celestial spheres of Heaven. As opposed to Inferno and Purgatorio, in the last part of the poem the protagonist encounters virtues, not sins.
The first part of The Divine Comedy begins with Dante lost in a forest. He is confused and does not know how he got there:
Canto 2 “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.”
Dante is the protagonist and main character of all three parts of the poem. His journey is an autobiographical portrayal where he includes many of his enemies and historical figures of the past to all intervene in a complicated world of Heaven and Hell. He is spiritually lost and is in need of guidance to find the way of righteousness to God—called the “True Way”. When he goes through the circles of Hell, he is often portrayed as having pity and compassion for the sinners. He realizes that they are guilty of their sins, but he still believes in the good in them and finds their suffering devastating. He is also terrified by all the horrors he encounters in Inferno and seems a little frightened. Though, Dante is very curious, so he attempts to talk with a lot of the sinners along his way.
Canto 28 “Who, though with words unshackled from the rhymes,
Could yet tell full the tale of wounds and blood
Now shown me, let him try ten thousand times?”
In this quote from Dante’s Inferno, we can see the vulnerability and sensitivity with which the protagonist speaks of his emotions throughout the journey. His compassion and love for the poor souls chained in Dante’s Inferno shows him as a good Christian and God-fearing man.
In the forest, he sees a mountain nearby and tries to climb it, but his path is blocked by a lion, a leopard, and a wolf. A spirit of Virgil, an Ancient Roman poet whose major work is titled Aenid, comes to help him get through this obstacle and lead him through Inferno and Purgatorio to Heaven. Virgil is a brave and courageous soul. He represents human reason and wisdom acquired throughout the ages. On their journey through Inferno they meet many beasts and scary creatures, but Virgil stands up to each and every one one of them. He is also incredibly smart and intelligent; he can trick any creature into helping them because he is a gifted speaker. He is a good friend as he supports Dante and comforts him when he feels scared or uneasy about the challenges he faces throughout Inferno and Purgatorio. Virgil understands that Dante and his fate are dependent on him. Despite this, he is fair to Dante, scolds him when he gets too soft, and pities the sinners a little too much. He encourages him to be strong and brave:
Canto 5 “Be as a tower, that, firmly set,
Shakes not its top for any blast that blows!”
Virgil was sent to help Dante by Beatrice, his beloved. Her character was inspired by a real woman, also named Beatrice, whom Dante met when he was a child and instantly fell in love with. Unfortunately, she died when she was only 25. Dante wrote many beautiful poems dedicated to her, praising her beauty and love.
Dante and Virgil approach the entrance to Inferno and see a group of souls whose fate will later be determined, as it is not clear whether there is more bad or good they have committed. In order to get to Hell, one must cross the river Acheron. Charon is an old man who takes souls across the river. He is hesitant to transport Dante at first, because, technically he is still alive, but Virgil convinces him to do so anyway, because Dante’s journey is overseen by God. When they enter Inferno, they see an inscription on its gate:
Canto 3 "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
First Circle – Limbo
The first circle consists not of sinners, but people who are not baptized; either they lived before Christ when baptism had not yet spread, or they never got baptized. They reside in a castle with seven gates, symbols of the seven virtues. Technically, it is an inferior form of Heaven where pagans are stuck and punished for eternity. Here, Dante and Virgil meet many Greek and Roman philosophers, poets, and artists, such as Homer, Ovid, Socrates, Cicero, and even Julius Cesar. Virgil is one of them, which he explains in the following quote:
Canto 4 “They sinned not; yet their merit lacked its chiefest
Fulfillment, lacking baptism, which is
The gateway to the faith which thou believest;
Or, living before Christendom, their knees
Paid not aright those tributes that belong
To God; and I myself am one of these.”
Second Circle – Lust
The second circle has a more traditional appearance of Hell. It is dark, full of screaming noises, and suffering. Near the entrance to the second circle stands Minos, a huge beast who decides where souls should be sent for torment. The second circle holds people who were lustful throughout their lives. They are punished by strong winds blown over them, throwing them back and forth. These winds symbolize the restlessness and instability of people guilty of lust. Dante and Virgil notice many people of Greek and Roman antiquity, mythology and history—such as Cleopatra, Tristan, and Helen of Troy. Among other sinners punished for lust, they meet the souls of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini—a couple condemned to Hell for their adultery and numerous love affairs. Francesca explains:
Canto 5 "Love, which quickly arrests the gentle heart,
Seized him with my beautiful form
That was taken from me, in a manner which still grieves me.”
Dante, so touched and devastated by their story, faints. When he wakes, he realizes that he has already arrived in the third circle of Hell.
Third Circle – Gluttony
In the third circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil encounter souls whose sin is gluttony. A worm-monster, Cerberus, watches over them. They are punished with icy, slushy rain that pours all over them without stopping. They are not permitted to stand, so the slushy water covers their entire body as they lie. The slushy rain is a symbol of personal destruction and the inability to stop eating. People who are in this circle of Inferno have weak will and cannot resist the earthly pleasures of indulgence—food and drinks. Here, the protagonist meets the soul Ciacco, his political opponent from Florence.
Fourth Circle – Greed
The fourth circle of Dante’s Inferno is guarded by Pluto, a Roman god of the underworld who is also regarded as the god of wealth. Here, the sinners are divided into two groups: those who hoarded their possessions, and those who spent sumptuously. Their punishment is to push very heavy weights up a mountain—mostly boulders, which symbolize their lust for never-ending money and possessions. There, Dante recognizes many people he is familiar with, such as clergymen, popes, and cardinals—all of whom have been greedy throughout their lifetime.
Fifth Circle – Anger
In this circle of hell, Dante and Virgil encounter people who are guilty of wrath and fury. Those found guilty of being angry and impatient are immersed in the river Styx, or simply are forced to fight among each other on its surface. They gurgle the water of the river, struggle, and drown. The water is made up of a black toxic liquid and they are left there to suffer. Dante encounters another political enemy of his, Filippo Argenti, who confiscated his possessions when he was banished from Florence. He tries to climb up into a boat, but gets pushed away.
Phlegyas is the boatman who helps Dante and Virgil get across this river. They are stopped by a group of fallen angels. Furies threatens to summon Medusa so that she can turn Dante into stone, because he does not belong in the world of the dead. An angel arrives and opens the gate for them before Medusa is able to get to them.
Sixth Circle – Heresy
The sixth circle of Inferno is for heretics – people who have contrary opinions to Christian beliefs. There, they lie in tombs that burn them alive. Dante talks with Farinata degli Uberti, a political leader and his contemporary, who did not believe in God. He also sees Epicurus, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and Pope Anastasius II.
Seventh Circle – Violence
The passage to the seventh circle is blocked by a Minotaur—half-man, half-bull. Virgil insults him, and the minotaur bursts into a violent outrage, letting Dante and Virgil sneak past him. The seventh circle of Hell of Dante’s Inferno is divided into three rings. Nessus is a centaur who carries the protagonist through the first ring. In this circle, they see a forest inhabited by harpies – mythological creatures with birds’ bodies and womens’ heads. Dante tears off a branch from a tree that shrieks in horror and pain. The tree turns out to be the soul of Pier della Vigna. He ended his life because he was accused of conspiracy against the emperor. They blinded him for treason and threw him into jail where he killed himself. He explains that all the souls who commit suicide are kept in the seventh circle and become trees. There, their leaves are eaten by harpies, which cause the trees a lot of pain.
In order to get from the seventh to the eighth circle of Inferno, Virgil and Dante get help from Geryon – a giant Monster of the Fraud. He has a dragon-like body and wings, the paws of a lion, and a human face.
Eighth Circle – Fraud
This circle is divided up into ten Bolgias – ditches with bridges between them, that are placed around a circular well. Malacoda is the leader who guards the entrance to the eighth circle of Hell. He lies and deceives both the poet and Virgil by telling them that there are bridges in this circle, and that they have nothing to worry about. Nonetheless, their path is very dangerous. Each Bolgia has different kinds of people who sin is fraud:
Canto 11 “Of all malicious wrong that earns Heaven's hate
The end is injury; all such ends are won
Either by force or fraud. Both perpetrate
Evil to others; but since man alone
Is capable of fraud, God hates that worst;
The fraudulent lie lowest, then, and groan”
They encounter panderers, seducers, sorcerers, false prophets, corrupt politicians, hypocrites, thieves, evil counselors and advisers, alchemists, counterfeits, and perjurers. Pope Boniface VIII, Dante’s political enemy, is among the sinners they meet in this circle. In the journey from the eighth to the ninth of Dante’s Inferno circles of hell, they get help from Antaeus, a giant who carries them down the well, which is the path to the ninth, and final circle of Hell.
Ninth Circle – Treachery
This circle is made up of a lake – Cocytus. The sinners here are submerged in ice, only their heads stick out. Dante sees Bocca degli Abati, a Florentine traitor, who is so ashamed of his sins, he does not want to tell Dante his name, at first. As Dante and Virgil proceed through the lake, they see the giant figure of Lucifer, also stuck in ice. Lucifer is the Prince of Hell. He has three mouths, and in each of them he holds a sinner: Judas, Brutus and Cassius:
Canto 34 “Each mouth devoured a sinner clenched within,
Frayed by the fangs like flax beneath a brake;
Three at a time he tortured them for sin.”
In order to get out of Inferno Dante and Virgil must climb Lucifer’s body. They manage to crawl out of the hole and find themselves on an island where they see a lot of bright stars, and Mt. Purgatory. This ends the Dante’s Inferno book.
At the beginning of the second part of The Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil find themselves at the dawn of a new day. They stand at the shore and see a boat arrives. On the boat, there are souls brought by an angel who will climb Mount Purgatory, along with Dante, to rid themselves of sins and proceed to Heaven. Dante cannot waste any time, but he is forced to spend the night outside of Purgatory with other souls, who, unlike him, cannot travel at night. Dante falls asleep, and when he wakes up, Virgil tells him that St. Lucia helped him and carried him straight to the gates of Purgatory.
In Purgatory, they have seven terraces to journey through. Before they enter, an angel puts seven “P”’s on Dante’s forehead. They correspond to the seven deadly sins. The angel says that every time a terrace of a sin is surpassed, a “P” will be removed.
The first terrace is of Pride. There, Dante and Virgil see penitents carry heavy weights up the mountain of humility to cure them of their pride:
Canto 10 “Whatever makes them suffer their
heavy torment bends them to the ground;
at first I was unsure of what they were.
But look intently there, and let your eyes
unravel what’s beneath those stones: you can
already see what penalty strikes each.”
The second terrace is dedicated to Envy. The envious penitents there are treated by having their eyelids sewn shut with iron wire. Voices shout examples of punished envy to intensify the effect.
The third terrace has to do with Wrath. The penitents here are treated with black smoke that gets into their eyes and makes them blind.
The fourth terrace is of the Slothful. They are punished by running without stopping, or any rest.
On the fifth terrace, they punish greedy and avaricious souls. The punished are tied by their feet and arms, face down on the ground. In order to rid themselves of these sins, they must shout examples of poverty and generosity.
The sixth terrace is dedicated to Gluttony. Here, penitents clean their souls by experiencing extreme hunger and thirst.
The seventh and final terrace is of Lust, where the penitents walk in flames and shout out examples of chastity.
At sunset, they reach the exit of the last terrace, and Dante’s last “P” is removed by the angel. Although, in order to proceed, he must go through a wall of flames that separates Purgatorio and Paradiso. He is very scared and hesitates a lot, but Virgil convinces him to cheer up and be brave, because, once he is through this obstacle, he will finally see Beatrice. When Dante passes through the flames, he falls asleep. He wakes up the following morning ready to start his journey through Paradiso. They approach the banks of the river Lethe, and suddenly, Virgil disappears, and instead Beatrice appears in front of the protagonist. He is devastated by the loss of his friend and grieves.
Beatrice is portrayed as Dante’s guide through Purgatorio. She is very knowledgeable, a little strict, and obviously believes in the good in Dante. She believes that this trip will save his soul and grant him salvation. She is a personification of divine knowledge, wisdom, and good, righteous judgment.
Dante confesses to Beatrice all of his sins. She judges him for them and expresses her disappointment in this quote:
Canto 2 “What trenches did you meet, what chains or rope
Did you find barring you from passing on,
That you should have divested all your hope?”
A woman named Matilda washes them off in the river Lethe when Dante falls asleep. When he wakes up, Beatrice tells him that he can proceed under one condition: he has to write about everything he sees in Paradiso when he returns to earth.
Then, Matilda submerges Dante in the river Eunoe, which makes him ready to ascend to Heaven alongside Beatrice.
Paradiso consists of nine spheres:
- The first sphere is of the Moon. Beatrice explains to Dante the structure of the universe. She says that the Moon is the home for souls that broke their vows. Their words lacked in courage and cannot be trusted.
- The second sphere is of Mercury. There, Dante and Beatrice meet Justinian, who explains the history of Ancient Rome. This sphere is situated too close to the sun, it represents those who did good deeds for fame and glory.
- The third sphere is of Venus. There, Dante encounters Charles Martel of Anjou. He talks to Dante about the importance of societal diversity and improving its function by the inclusion of people with different backgrounds.
- The fourth sphere is the sphere of the Sun. There, St. Thomas, along with another eleven souls, explain to Dante the importance of not judging hastily and being aware of prudence.
- The fifth heavenly sphere is Mars. It has to do with warriors who died for their faith and God. There, Dante meets Cacciaguida, who tells him about the noble past of Florentines, and Dante’s mission in delivering all the knowledge he has gained on his journey to Florence and its citizens.
- The sixth sphere is of Jupiter. It is a place of kings who display justice. A giant eagle speaks to Dante of divine justice and the rulers of the past, such as Constantine and Trajan.
- The seventh level of heaven is the sphere of Saturn. It is dedicated to those who live by temperance and pray vigorously all their lives. He witnesses people who climb up and down a golden ladder. Here, Dante meets St. Peter Damian, who lectures him on corruption of clergy and predestination. They discuss the moral decline of the institute of church.
- The eighth level is called the Fixed Stars. Here, Dante and Beatrice find the Virgin Mary and other Biblical characters, such as Adam, John, Peter, and James. They explain to Dante the complexities of Heaven and Eden.
- The ninth sphere is known as the Premium Mobile. It is controlled by God specifically and therefore affects all the lower spheres accordingly. It is the place where angels live. Beatrice explains to Dante the story of the creation of the universe and angels’ lives. They slowly ascend to Empyrean, the highest place in heaven. Once they get there, Dante becomes covered in light, and it allows him to see God and the Holy Trinity.
After his journey has ended, Dante realizes that God’s love is eternal. He now fully understands the mystery of Incarnation. The answer is blessed upon Dante by God’s hand, and now he fully grasps the complete picture of the world.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is a complex work of art. It takes the reader through the nine circles of Hell, the seven terraces of Purgatory and the nine spheres of Paradise. Each of the parts of the journey are full of dead souls who suffer trying to rid themselves of their sins, or simply survive in the afterlife. It is filled with many historical figures, and mystical and mythological creatures.