Introduction: Text Details and Context
Being one of the best-known poems of the 14th century and the best-known poem by Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy fascinates with its humorous and nuanced way of describing the complicated relationships between an individual and Christian God. The poem serves as a humorous guide through the foundations of the Christian religion, namely, the darkest parts of its realm, which portray the outcomes of engaging in sinful behaviors directly and quite unabashedly.
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Although Inferno portrays quite atrocious sins and, therefore, rather deplorable people that decided to challenge the very fabric of innate morality, it still carries the sense of sympathy for the souls of these people as the manifestation of the narrator’s humanity. The observed characteristic can be seen in the observations and commentaries that the narrator makes as Virgil navigates him through the circles of Hell.
Summary and Themes
Inferno, or Hell, is the first part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which describes the structure of Hell, namely, its nine circles and the limbo while delineating which punishments are assigned for which sin. In the lowest circles, sinners who have committed the most atrocious crimes are located, whereas, in the center, Dante finds Satan himself frozen in ice. Thus, the concepts of morality and the Divine Justice that administers appropriate punishments for failing to meet the said criteria for morality should be seen as the key themes of Dante’s Inferno. The poem is drenched in Christian philosophy and the related theme of penance, sin, and redemption, pointing out that there are different degrees of sin and, therefore, ranging extents of punishment.
Analyzing the Text
The very concept of Inferno as a part of the Divine Comedy appears to serve as a cautionary tale about what might happen to sinners if they do not reconsider their behavior and do not redeem themselves by means of repentance. However, the specified part of the poem appears to be more sympathetic toward sinners than the Christian values should allow it. Indeed, the choice of words that the protagonist uses as he descends into the darkest realms of Hell indicates that he is quite sympathetic to the poor souls trapped in the eternity of suffering: “Here sighs and cries and wails coiled and recoiled/on the starless air, spilling my soul to tears” (Alighieri 939, lines 22-23). Therefore, the poem introduces a sympathetic look at the people who have committed drastic mistakes in their lives only to be doomed to the lifetime of suffering. The religious and cultural background of the protagonist is particularly important in reinforcing the role of empathy as the main Christian value, especially when compared to Virgil’s atheism: “I come to lead you to the other shore” (Alighieri 941, line 83). Therefore, the poem does a stellar job at using the traditional Christian beliefs to build a unique hierarchy of sins, while also introducing a chance of redemption.
Moreover, despite the presence of an obvious moral in the poem, Dante does not use the setting of hell as the ploy for scaring his readers into being pious and well-meaning. Instead, he guides them through the concept of choosing virtuous behavior as the means of retaining one’s basic humanity and becoming better people: “The signature of Honor/they left on Earth is recognized in Heaven” (Alighieri 945, lines 76-77). In fact, the significance of humanity with its propensity to err and sin, as well as repent and grow spiritually, is emphasized several times throughout the text, using both direct reference sand metaphorical elements. One of the more subtle nods to the specified role of the narrator occurs when Dante encounters Charon: “I am the way into the city of woe” (Alighieri 939, line 1). The fact that Charon does not let Dante through indicates that he acknowledges the leading character’s humanity and, thus, deemed him to be out of place in Hell – not because Dante’s protagonist has never sinned, but because he has the chance of redeeming himself.
Therefore, Dante makes it clear that the ability to sympathize and feeling true sorrow for those that have been in agony is what serves as the main link connecting people to the remnants of their humanity and allowing them to follow the path of virtue. Remarkably, in the poem, the specified notion of a guiding force and the opportunity for salvation, which manifests itself in empathy, is impersonated in Beatrice: “A Lady/So blessed and so beautiful, I prayed her/to order and command my will, called to me” (Alighieri 936, lines 32-34). Serving as the only character to whom the narrator can relate on an emotional level, she serves as the force for salvation for the leading character: “Beatrice, true praise of God,/why dost thou not help him who loved thee so /that for my sake he left the vulgar crowd?” (Alighieri 937, lines 103-105). In the specified lines, the narrator refers to Beatrice as the beacon of hope and his opportunity for keeping his sanity intact in the devastating environment of Hell.
By introducing the protagonist whose culture is rooted in Christian values, primarily, in the concept of empathy, into the poem, Dante uses the observations made by his leading character very wisely to emphasize the importance of sympathy as one of the foundational values that allow people to keep their humanity. As a result, Dante introduces the opportunity for redemption to readers, creating an urgency in fighting sin and finding the source of spiritual development.
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Alighieri, Dante. “Inferno.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature (Shorter Fourth Edition), 4th ed., vol. 1, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 925-1084.