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Dante Alighieri

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Learn about symbols in Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno with Course Hero's video study guide.

Inferno | Symbols


The Path

In the opening scene of the poem, Dante reveals that he has lost "the path that does not stray." This was the path toward God—the path of virtue, repentance, and forgiveness. Virgil tells him he must follow a different path, and Dante embarks on this new, longer path that represents his spiritual journey to redemption. Virgil leads him along this path as it winds down through the circles of Hell, then up toward Mount Purgatory. As Dante progresses through Hell he appears to gain greater knowledge, wisdom, and clarity, suggesting that he is finding his way back to the path and, therefore, back to redemption. In the rest of The Divine Comedy, Dante's path will take him through Purgatory and on to Heaven.

The Dark

Darkness symbolizes life separate from God—the source of light. Dante begins his journey in a dark forest because he has strayed from the true path. As he journeys, the light is increasingly dim as he descends lower into Hell. Some levels are lit by fire but there is little other light along the way. In the lowest circles, it is so dim that Dante mistakes distant giants for tall buildings and Satan himself for a windmill. In the final lines of the poem, Dante sees the stars, showing that he is now out of Hell and on his way toward God.

Ascent and Descent

Dante must descend into Hell before he can ascend into Heaven. As he descends, he moves farther away from God. As the poem begins, Dante is blocked from traveling the upward slope toward God. He must go by a different path—one that descends ever deeper into Hell, a realm shaped like a funnel made of smaller and smaller descending circles. Even within Hell Dante must travel upward occasionally to climb over obstacles. He often finds even these small ascents difficult, showing that in Hell, upward motion is all but impossible. In the other parts of The Divine Comedy, Dante ascends Mount Purgatory as he moves upward toward Heaven.

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