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Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Introduction

Written by Dante Alighieri in the fourteenth century, The Divine Comedy is considered to be one of the most captivating epic poems in literature. Dante’s Inferno paints an edgy and imaginative vision of the Christian afterlife by combining classical Christian influences with a classic touch of Renaissance culture. The poem is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio which collectively chronicle the journey of the main protagonist Dante through nine circles of hell to the white gates of heaven. Each circle of hell is based on a separate form of suffering depending on the earthly sins that the person committed. After going through these circles, Dante passes through purgatory and ultimately reaches heaven where he encounters God. Dante’s Inferno offers a unique vision of the underworld which can be characterized by a specific representation of sinners, guardians, and punishments; as specific as this vision is, it still has strong universal elements.

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Uniqueness of Dante’s Vision of the Underworld

What should be mentioned above all is that Dante’s vision of hell is indisputably unique. In general, there exist four main views on hell which were described and explained by four Biblical scholars. These views are literal, metaphorical, purgatorial, and conditional. Literal view on hell is commonly shared by most of people. According to this view, people are incessantly and eternally burning in fire once they get to the Underworld. Metaphorical view on hell suggests that people are burning in fire in a figurative sense; they are made to suffer for their sins which burn them with shame and repentance. Purgatory view is a Catholic view on hell, which describes purgatory as an interim state. Finally, conditional view suggests that the wicked are subjected to destruction in hell with the hell being not the beginning of eternal torture, but the end of the life of rebellion.

Most of the writers and poets who have ever expressed their ideas on the vision of hell keep to these views or base their ideas on them. Dante, however, opted to combine Christian theological and mythological elements of hell making his vision unique. His representation of the underworld is similar to literary, though it has its own elements. Transference to the modernist descent has significantly affected Dante’s vision of the Underworld; his vision remains in a Christian framework, but his “representation of the contemporary world as hell remains convincingly secular.” (Lansing 106) After entering purgatory, Dante lets the readers know that he is dead, though earlier his death could not be identified. By this he expresses an idea that hell is imprisoned in the body:

Dante may have a more dialectical view of the body, but hell remains the only realm to which he does not expect to return: he narrates a descent through it only to illuminate its figural meaning for us, so that we also may learn from it without having to experience it literally in the afterlife, that is, analogically. (Lansing 106)

It seems that Dante’s main purpose is to show what the Underworld is like to the readers, rather than to prove somebody that this is the way it looks. After all, what remains the truth is that people suffer in the Underworld and it does not matter whether they suffer physically or emotionally. Dante turned the description of hell in a journey. It seems that this method helped to avoid evoking fear in readers. This served as a warning from Dante who displayed all the horrible and terrible features of hell without directly stating that the sinners have to go through the hell’s tortures. His presenting himself as a character who took a journey to hell made him an observer and even when he got to the purgatory and it became clear that the character is dead, he still did not go through the tortures directly, which is the message to the readers that not everybody is expected go through these tortures. Thus, Dante did not only have a unique vision of the Underworld; he has presented its description in a way that would frighten people but still leave hope for them.

Different representation of sinners, guardians, and punishments

Dante’s unique vision of the underworld resulted in the representation of sinners, guardians, and punishments different from that of other writers. The sinners are described as ordinary people, like the character himself. Such a representation helped Dante show that sin is a real threat for which people get punished. The ways in which the sinners are punished are symbolic, which helps to trace the connection between the sinner and his earthly sins. For instance, Dante describes the glutton, Ciacco, as wallowing naked in mud under the rain and hail; this reveals true animal nature of his sin. Likewise, though Brunetto Latini’s sexuality is not vividly mentioned in the text, “there is no escaping the parallel between the flames which rain down on his charred and blackened body in Hell and the fire and brimstone which destroyed the biblical Cities of the Plain.” (Dante and Cary xiii) Dante’s alive representation of the sinners compels the readers to feel compassion to them or to judge them, rather than to fear for them and be careful to avoid the repetition of their lot; moreover, the narration helps to define in which order the sins will be encountered, which makes it possible for the readers to anticipate further unfolding of the events. Thus, “Dante constructs a Hell in which the reader encounters figures like Francesca, Brunetto, and Ulysses, and is thereby induced to engage the challenges not just of death, but of life.” (Lansing and Barolini 476)

Quite interesting is the representation of punishments in Dante’s Inferno. The inventiveness of punishments and their diversity testifies to the fact that they were drawn from a number of sources. Some of them bear traditional motifs which the reader may be already familiar with. One of such motifs is the immersion of a sinner into a lake or a river (such a punishment can be found in the Apocalypse of Paul). Inferno may characterized by a unique concept on which the punishment of every sinner is based; this concept is contrapasso or “retribution.” The essence of this concept seems to lie in the fact that each sinner gets punished depending on the nature of his/her sin. For instance, Ulysses is punished for his pride; his sin laid in the pride of his pursuits which were not pursuits of the good. Dante evidently decided that a shipwreck would be a suitable punishment for Ulysses, because “he entrusted himself to reason alone and not to divine grace, to which he had no possible access since he was not born a Christian.” (Zoja 150) The guardians are also represented differently; traditionally they guide the damned and are the servants of God, but Dante represented them as monsters and demons from mythology. Each circle of hell has separate guardians and each of the guardians symbolizes the punishments of the sinners. Therefore, Dante’s representation of sinners, guardians, and punishments, differs from the traditional one, which adds uniqueness to his vision of the Underworld.

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Universal Elements

Nevertheless, Dante’s Underworld possesses a number of universal elements which can be found in other writers’ vision on hell. Firstly, the Inferno is presented as a big city or a part of the city where the events unfold. In all the presentations the characters have to go through nine circles where people (or their souls, to be more exact) experience punishments for their sins. In most of the descriptions one character is an observer to whom somebody explains the meaning of each circle. This gives an idea that somebody guides this character to the place from which nobody returns with the purpose of showing all the horror which the sinners should go through and then making him tell about this horror to those who are alive for them to avoid sins and, correspondingly, punishment.

Another common feature between Dante’s and other visions of hell is the presence of a basic element, either water or fire, which is destructive and which is used to punish the sinners. For instance, according to the Biblical vision on hell, this element is fire in which the sinners burn eternally. In Dante’s version, this element is water. Water is present in the deepest circle of hell as a frozen lake in which the souls of the sinners are trapped forever. The last universal element is using of well-known figures from history and mythology in all the descriptions of the Underworld. The most plausible explanation for this is that it facilitates the readers’ comprehension of the narrative. Reading about the characters who the readers are already familiar with helps them to understand the main idea of the writer. For example, the readers may know some facts about Charon from Greek Mythology, which would help them to understand why exactly this character was used in the narrative. Therefore, the existence of the universal elements of the representation of hell in Dante’s Inferno shows that each of the writers relied on one basic source; it is not excluded that this source was the Bible.

Conclusion

Dante’s vision of the Underworld, as well as his representations of sinners, guardians, and punishments, are indeed unique, because they differ from those of other writers and even scholars. In his vision of hell, Dante mixes Christian theological and mythological elements, which means that his vision was influenced by transference to the modernist descent. Dante describes sinners as ordinary people and this description is quite alive; this helps to produce a great impression on the readers. However, Dante’s Inferno still contains universal elements, such as presenting the Underworld as a big city, assigning a guide to the main character who leads him through all the circles of hell, and using the destructive power of one of four basic elements to punish the sinners. Dante’s vision of hell is indeed unique, but it won’t be possible to state for sure how verisimilar it is, because no one would be able to prove the existence of hell as such.

Works Cited

Dante Alighieri and Cary, Francis H. Inferno. London: Wordsworth Editions, 1998.

Lansing, Richard H. and Barolini, Teodolinda. The Dante Encyclopedia. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2000.

Lansing, Richard H. Dante: Dante and Classical Antiquity: the Epic Tradition. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2003.

Zoja, Luigi. Growth and Guilt: Psychology and the Limits of Development. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 22). Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/divine-comedy-by-dante-alighieri/

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1. StudyCorgi. "Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri." November 22, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/divine-comedy-by-dante-alighieri/.


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