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Themes

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

Inferno | Themes

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Dante's themes in Inferno juxtapose the limitations of humanity with the divine judgment and love of God.

Sin and Punishment

Hell is where unrepentant sinners are punished for eternity. In Dante's allegorical version of Hell, God's justice requires that sinners' punishments be suited to their sins. This principle, called contrapasso, results in an elaborate system of categories of sin and, within each category, degrees of severity. In general, each type of sin has its own circle of Hell, and these circles are sometimes divided into subcategories. For example, the ninth and final circle is where the treacherous are punished. But within this general category, four subtypes are identified, and each is a little lower in Hell than the last and its punishment more severe. Each type of sinner is punished in a way that is somehow related to the sin committed; for example, those who were fortune-tellers, tricking people into thinking they could tell the future, have their heads attached backwards in Hell so they can only see behind them. However, one of the difficulties in reading Inferno is that Dante makes these sins seem so harsh. It is hard not to feel sympathy for the people who suffer so acutely forever, with no hope of relief. It is also hard to accept what Dante believes to be the truth: that it is just to punish people forever for the sins they committed during their lifetimes.

Love

To Dante, the power and nature of God is perfect love. In Canto 1 Divine Love is said to have created the sun and stars and set them in motion. In Canto 2 Beatrice says that Love prompted her to come to Virgil and speak with him about helping Dante find his way back to the true path, and it is Dante's love for Beatrice that prompts St. Lucia to bring Dante's struggles to Beatrice's attention. God's nature as the source of love requires the existence of Hell.

More human loves are also part of the plot of Inferno. The souls in the second circle of Hell are there because they gave in to lust, but when they speak, they speak of being overcome with love. Dante also expresses his love for Florence, his own city.

Language

In Dante's understanding, language is a singularly human ability. It is a mark of human reason. It also allows humans to relate to one another, tell stories, share memories, communicate ideas, and make art. Using language correctly, then, is an important part of living correctly. Misusing language—to deceive, to betray, to harm—is therefore sinful. In many of the levels in Dante's Hell are those who misused language. In addition, throughout Inferno there are suffering sinners who are unable to speak in words or who speak in incomprehensible nonsense. Many sinners also have their own explanations of why they are there or have unresolved anger or feelings of injustice. Their speeches provide another way of understanding the punishments of Hell and show that punishing sin does not always help the sinner understand the nature of what he or she has done wrong.

Language also provides a path to a kind of immortality. Throughout Inferno, various shades ask Dante to tell their stories, to remember them. By telling their stories, he extends their lives. Poets and philosophers also extend their lives through their great works.

Physicality

Hell in Inferno is not just metaphorical or representative. It is represented as having a clear geography with a gate, city walls, mountains, and so forth, and the reader is given dimensions for different levels of Hell. Moreover, while all the sinners in Hell suffer the same punishment as the virtuous unbaptized (the absence of God), everyone except the virtuous unbaptized also suffers excruciating physical torment. The Last Judgment, at which time souls will be reunited with their bodies, has not yet taken place, so this torture is actually in the sinners' minds, but they and Dante perceive it as physical anguish. The bodies of sinners are described as being torn open, deformed, and writhing in pain, and the elaborate descriptions of tortures are frequently graphic and unsettling. Dante is trying to evoke a visceral reaction in his reader by making Hell seem as real as possible.

Dante's still-living body presents frequent difficulties on his journey through Hell. Because most of those there are separated (temporarily) from their bodies, he is an anomaly. He causes boats to ride low in the water and moves rocks as he scrambles over them. Many sins punished in Hell are sins of excessive indulgence in the body's desires.

The Human Condition

Above all, humans are rational beings. Reason, symbolized by Virgil in Inferno, is a defining feature that sets humans apart from animals. The use of language and the ability to master the body's desires are marks of this reason.

Dante also represents sinners as multifaceted, complex people, rather than as flat representations of a sinful quality. They are often good people who simply had one fatal flaw, as with Dante's teacher Brunetto Latini, who is a good and wise man but who is punished with the other sodomites. By making so many of his sinners empathetic and even admirable people, many of whom his readers might actually have known, Dante brings home the fact that sins are not abstractions committed by evil people but wrong choices that anyone can easily make.

Humans are social. They relate to one another, form alliances, and establish civilizations. They create government, and Dante's focus on Florentine politics shows this aspect of human nature.

Humans need divine intervention to help them stay on the true path. Dante, left to his own devices, has lost the path. He needs Heavenly guidance to find the way back.

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