by: Dante Alighieri

Study Questions


Describe the narrative form of Inferno. How is it tied to the poem’s geographical structure? How is it tied to the poem’s central theme?

The narrative of Inferno is extremely linear and progressive; the actions unfold over a sequence of increasingly extreme scenarios. Unlike most works of fiction, in which action is driven by the complex traits and motivations of characters, Inferno concerns itself very little with the personal qualities of Dante and Virgil. Rather, the narrative structure of the poem is directly tied to its geographical structure; the changing settings of the novel enable its sequence of encounters.

In a sense, the narrative structure of Inferno is based on the idea of the degree of sin found among the damned: Dante and Virgil move forward from the realm of the least offensive sinners to the realm of the most offensive sinners, so that they find themselves surrounded by a continuously increasing degree of evil and danger. By the same token, the geographical structure of the poem is based on the idea of the kind of sin committed by the damned; each new circle of Hell is designed specifically to punish a certain kind of sinner. Because of the allegorical correspondence between the type of sin and the type of punishment, the type of sin determines a great deal about the physical environment in which each scenario takes place. This cohesion between geography and story, and between type of sin and degree of sin, links the poem thematically to the idea of divine retribution and God’s justice.


Think about the role of character, apart from setting and story, in Inferno. Does the poem contain any character development?

Inferno contains very little character development. The narrative is driven by the two main characters’ physical movement rather than psychological dynamics. Most characters appear in a particular canto, tell their story to Dante, and then disappear from the poem, as befits its episodic structure. In fact, one of the themes of Dante’s exploration of the afterlife is that the dead are doomed to retain all of the features that they possessed on Earth, making character development difficult or perhaps even impossible for the poem’s many shades.

Dante is the only character in the poem who can be said to develop. Virgil exhibits new behaviors from time to time, as when he castigates Dante in Canto XXX, but, in these moments, we sense that Virgil himself has not changed as a result of his experiences; rather, it seems that we see new sides of him as he enters new situations. Dante’s development essentially follows a linear progression: he goes from pitying the damned souls to passing cold judgment on them. This change of behavior may correspond to a moral and intellectual realization that sin should be unreservedly abhorred and God’s justice infinitely revered.

However, one may still question whether Dante’s changes in behavior and apparent attitude actually correspond to any true development. First, he periodically seems to regress and regain his old compassion. Second, some of the disgust with which he views sinners in the final cantos can surely be attributed to the increasing vileness of their sins and punishments rather than to a growing moral consciousness.


What is the role of politics in Inferno? How does it relate to the poem’s theme of divine justice?

Throughout the poem, Dante the character repeatedly meets damned Italian souls with whom he then discusses events in Italy. These encounters give Dante the poet a chance to insert many political opinions, some of which relate to the poem’s main moral and religious themes. Dante took politics very seriously, and his incorporation of so much political material into his journey through Hell serves the double purpose of situating his own political ideals in a larger moral scheme and warning his readers about the dangers of his enemies’ political ideals.

By the end of the poem, Dante manages to unite his main political theme with his main religious theme in a figurative manner—by showing Lucifer chewing on Judas (the betrayer of Christ) and also on Cassius and Brutus (the betrayers of Julius Caesar). If Christ is taken to represent the perfect spiritual leader and Caesar the perfect temporal leader, then the inclusion of their betrayers among the worst sinners in Hell underscores Dante’s politicized idea that church and state should be of equal importance in earthly governance. As Dante intended his work to ruminate more centrally on spiritual matters than on political ones, his discussion of human government in his religious allegory may constitute a plea for an earthly justice that might mirror the perfect justice of the afterlife.