In the Inferno in Divine Comedy, Dante uses endless symbolism to bring a deeper meaning to his thrilling adventure through hell. Nearly every aspect of the book contains a symbolic meaning. This is apparent in the punishments that Dante sets down from a wrathful God to the sinners. For each of the many different categories of sinners, Dante creates a punishment that fits the specific sin perfectly. There are also many other prominent instances of symbolism throughout the book, including the many settings in which the book takes place and Virgil and Beatrice.
First of all, Dante’s use of symbolism through the punishments is one of the main ways he conveys the wrong of the specific sin. Starting in canto three, one starts to see the connection between the sin and the punishment dealt upon the sinner. The opportunists are here, neither in hell nor out of it (showing that their sin wasn’t too severe). As they pursued the ever-shifting illusion of their own advantage, changing their courses with every changing wind, so they pursue eternally an elusive, ever-shifting banner. As their sin was a dark doing, so they move in darkness.
As their own guilty conscience pursued them, so they are pursued by swarms of wasps and hornets. And as their actions were amoral filth, so they run eternally through the filth of worms and maggots which they themselves feed. 1 After the opportunists is Limbo, where those who never had the chance to know Jesus Christ are put. They are not punished, but they have no hope of ever going to heaven. In Circle two are the carnal, who betrayed their reason to their appetites. As they were swept up in the tempest of their passion, they are swept up in the tempest of hell.
In circle three are the nasty gluttons, who made no higher use of the gifts of God than to wallow in food and drink, producers of nothing but garbage and offal. Here they lie through all eternity, themselves like garbage, half-buried in fetid slush, while Cerberus slavers over them as they in life slavered over their food. 1 The gluttons themselves are just like the garbage they gave up God for in their earthly life. In circle four are the hoarders and wasters. “In life, they lacked all moderation in regulating their expenses; they destroyed the light of God within themselves by thinking of nothing but money.
Thus in death, their souls are encumbered by dead weights (mundanity) and one excess serves to punish the other. Their souls, moreover, have become so dimmed and awry in their fruitless rages that there is no hope of recognizing any among them. 1 “This instance of symbolism is incredibly strong, for the difficulties which they deal with in Hell are the exact opposite of what they wanted in their earthly lives- extravagance where it was not needed. Now they wrestle with the pure opposite of them- the other side of the spectrum.
For the hoarders, it is the wasters, and vice versa. In circle five are the wrathful and the sullen. In a foul slime, the wrathful attack each other. Just as they did on earth, they are compelled to beat the living snot out of each other. Now, they suffer what they put others through, for not only are they attacking others, they are getting attacked by those who expelled the same fury on others as they did. This is symbolic of what comes around goes around, and they all are being hurt just as they hurt others.
Underneath the slime which the wrathful are on are the sullen, whose punishment is reflective of their laziness in their earthly life. Just as they did not welcome the light of the sun or the light of Christ, they are forever forbidden to see any form of it again. They try to sing some parody of a hymn, for that is like a punishment of not going to church, for they never left their home. In circle six are the heretics, who taught that the soul dies with the body. Because of this, they are to forever suffer in a tomb in the fire of God’s eternal wrath. The fact that they are in a tomb is symbolic of their false teachings.
They said that the soul dies with the body, and so their souls end up in a fiery tomb. There are three parts to circle seven. In round one are the violent against their neighbors, people who shed the blood of others. Just like they swam through the blood of their victims in their earthly life, they are to suffer in a river of boiling blood symbolic of that which they spilled. Each sinner is immersed according to the severity of their bloodshed, and they are shot with arrows every time they raise above their level of immersion, symbolic of the suffering they inflicted upon others.
In round two of circle seven are those who were violent against themselves, such as people who cut themselves or treated their bodies in a bad way (for in the bible it states that the human body is a temple which should be treated as such). Just as they felt they were only to express themselves when they mutilated themselves, they are forbidden to talk unless they are bleeding somewhere, and because they denied and tortured the body they were given, they are given a new body, which is a tree. “Only through their blood can they find their voice. 1 Three classes of sinners suffering differing degrees of exposure to the fire.
The Blasphemers (Violent against God) are stretched supine upon the sand, the Sodomites (Violent against Nature) run in endless circles, and the Usurers (Violent against Art) huddle on the sands. There are ten sections, or bolgias, to circle eight. In bolgia one, The Panderers and Seducers who make up two files are driven at an endless fast walk by horned demons who hurry them along with great lashes. In life these sinners goaded others on to serve their own foul purposes, so in Hell are they driven in their turn.
The horned demons who drive them symbolize the sinners’ own vicious natures, embodiments of their own guilty consciences. 1 In bolgia two are the flatterers, who are sunk in excrement. The excrement symbolizes the true equivalent of their flattery in life, and how it all amounted to crap. In bolgia three are the simoniacs, who are placed upside down in a mockery of a baptismal font. Their position symbolizes the mockery that is made of them due to their mockery of the holy office. In bolgia four are the fortune tellers and diviners.
Their eyes are filled with tears, therefore those who sought to penetrate the future cannot even see in front of themselves. Their heads are also turned backwards, because they attempted to move themselves forward in time, so must they go backwards forever. Also, just as their predictions were distorting the natural course of God’s plan, so their bodies are distorted in hell. In bolgia five are the grafters. They are hidden from men’s eyes in the boiling pitch which they are drowned in, just as their dirty deeds were hidden from men’s eyes.
In bolgia six are the hypocrites, who are dressed with extremely heavy leaden robes. The robes are magnificently gilded and decorated, symbolizing the outward appearance of a hypocrite. The inside of these robes are filled with amazingly heavy lead though, symbolizing the true nature of the hypocrites that could not be seen through men’s eyes. In bolgia seven are the thieves, who are attacked by reptiles. “Thievery is reptilian in its secrecy; therefore, it is punished by reptiles. ”1 Because thieves use their hands to steal, their hands are bound up so they can no longer use them.
And because they make other people’s stuff disappear when they steal it, so they are made to disappear and are reduced to ash. In bolgia eight are the evil counselors. Since they sinned by fraud of tongue, so are the flames made into a fiery travesty of tongues. In bolgia nine are the sowers of religious discord, political discord, and discord between kinsmen. A very obvious instance of symbolism here is Bertrand de Born. He separated father from son, and for that offense he carries his head around by the hair, separated from his body.
In bolgia ten are the Falsifiers (Alchemists, Evil Impersonators, Counterfeiters, False Witnesses). They are punished by afflictions of every sense: by darkness, stench, thirst, filth, loathsome diseases, and a shrieking din. These many corruptions symbolize the corruptions they inflicted upon others in life. In the tenth circle of hell there are four rounds before reaching Satan. “The treacheries of these souls were denials of love (which is god) and of all human warmth. Only the remorseless dead center of the ice will serve to express their natures.
As they denied God’s love, so are they furthest removed from the light and warmth of His Sun. As they denied all human ties, so are they bound only by the unyielding ice. ”1 The sinners are all under ice to varying degrees based on their sins. In round one (caina, the treacherous to kin), the sinners have their heads and neck out of the ice. In round two (Antenora, the treacherous to country), the sinners have their heads out of the ice. Another great example of symbolism occurs here. Count Ugolino gnaws perpetually on the nape of Ruggieri’s neck, because Ruggieri starved Ugolino and his sons.
Therefore, Ugolino is forever to eat Ruggieri. In round three (Ptolomea, the treacherous to guests and hosts), half the sinners’ faces are above the ice and their tears freeze in their eye sockets, sealing them with little crystal visors. In round three (Judecca, the treacherous to their masters), the sinners are completely under the ice, with their bodies in distorted positions. Their bodies are distorted just as they distorted their loyalty to who they served. In the center of hell is Satan, the father of all lies. Because he never spoke a truth, now he is never allowed to speak.
Dante also uses the settings in which the novel takes place to convey more of a message than just the beasts and punishments. The first major setting is the Dark Wood, where Dante has lost his way. One could read into the dark forest in many ways. One way to look at it would be as a physical manifestation of chaos, which is the way many in medieval times would have seen it. Another way to look at it would be to consider how influential Virgil was on Dante. In one of Virgil’s works, the Aeneid, he describes the entrance to classical hell as a dark forest.
Dante, knowing this, could have built off of what Virgil had written since Dante admired him so. Dante also could have built off of the medieval romances where knights would have to make their way through a dark forest or some similar dark and scary wooded area. 2 Since this was familiar at the time, Dante knew that it would strike fear in the hearts of those who read it. Another important symbolic setting is in canto fourteen, where Dante and Virgil encounter a burning desert. This is where the violent against God, Art, and Nature are. The plain of burning sand is symbolic of many things.
Some instances of symbolism are in accordance with the sinners themselves. For example, the sterile sand of the punishment represent the sterile acts of the sodomites on Earth. The burning represents the cleansing that they should endure, but because of the treachery of their acts, they are in hell forever and experience not a cleansing fire, but a punishing fire reprimanding them of their sinful acts. The burning plains could perhaps be used to portray the empty womb involved in the sodomite’s acts. The burning plain equals sterility and wrath.
All three sins are unnatural and sterile actions, thus the burning desert, and the rain, which in nature should be fertile and cool, descends as fire. 2 The blood red rill, which the poets walk along to avoid the burning sands, could represent safety and life. Last but not least, symbolism in Virgil and Beatrice. Virgil, the poet of ancient Rome, represents human reason. 3 Dante had lost his way, and Virgil was sent to lead him from error. Beatrice, who will be explained shortly, came down from heaven to limbo to tell Virgil about Dante and her concern for him.
Virgil, representing Human Reason, can lead Dante as far as human reason can go. Because of this, Virgil will need divine assistance throughout the novel, for he is only so powerful. Beatrice comes in when it is time for Dante to be lead through heaven, because pure human reason cannot go that far. Beatrice is much more symbolic than Virgil even though she plays less of a role in The Inferno. Not only does she symbolize divine love, but she also symbolizes Dante’s love in real life.
In real life, Dante did love Beatrice Portinari. They both lived in 14th-Century Florence, Italy and she died when Dante was 25. He tells about the emotions he had for her and how he was affected by her in his work, La Vita Nuova, ‘The New Life. ‘3 Clearly, Dante’s use of symbolism in The Inferno was immense. He conveys many different things in his allegorical novel from life lessons to love, and he uses many different mediums within the medium of literature to express different things and portray many different meanings.
Many of the lessons present in this novel can still hold up today.