Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Perfection of God’s Justice
Dante creates an imaginative correspondence between a soul’s sin on Earth and the punishment he or she receives in Hell. The Sullen choke on mud, the Wrathful attack one another, the Gluttonous are forced to eat excrement, and so on. This simple idea provides many of Inferno’s moments of spectacular imagery and symbolic power, but also serves to illuminate one of Dante’s major themes: the perfection of God’s justice. The inscription over the gates of Hell in Canto III explicitly states that God was moved to create Hell by Justice (III.7). Hell exists to punish sin, and the suitability of Hell’s specific punishments testify to the divine perfection that all sin violates.
This notion of the suitability of God’s punishments figures significantly in Dante’s larger moral messages and structures Dante’s Hell. To modern readers, the torments Dante and Virgil behold may seem shockingly harsh: homosexuals must endure an eternity of walking on hot sand; those who charge interest on loans sit beneath a rain of fire. However, when we view the poem as a whole, it becomes clear that the guiding principle of these punishments is one of balance. Sinners suffer punishment to a degree befitting the gravity of their sin, in a manner matching that sin’s nature. The design of the poem serves to reinforce this correspondence: in its plot it progresses from minor sins to major ones (a matter of degree); and in the geographical structure it posits, the various regions of Hell correspond to types of sin (a matter of kind). Because this notion of balance informs all of God’s chosen punishments, His justice emerges as rigidly objective, mechanical, and impersonal; there are no extenuating circumstances in Hell, and punishment becomes a matter of nearly scientific formula.
Early in Inferno, , Dante builds a great deal of tension between the objective impersonality of God’s justice and the character Dante’s human sympathy for the souls that he sees around him. As the story progresses, however, the character becomes less and less inclined toward pity, and repeated comments by Virgil encourage this development. Thus, the text asserts the infinite wisdom of divine justice: sinners receive punishment in perfect proportion to their sin; to pity their suffering is to demonstrate a lack of understanding.
Evil as the Contradiction of God’s Will
In many ways, Dante’s Inferno can be seen as a kind of imaginative taxonomy of human evil, the various types of which Dante classifies, isolates, explores, and judges. At times we may question its organizing principle, wondering why, for example, a sin punished in the Eighth Circle of Hell, such as accepting a bribe, should be considered worse than a sin punished in the Sixth Circle of Hell, such as murder. To understand this organization, one must realize that Dante’s narration follows strict doctrinal Christian values. His moral system prioritizes not human happiness or harmony on Earth but rather God’s will in Heaven. Dante thus considers violence less evil than fraud: of these two sins, fraud constitutes the greater opposition to God’s will. God wills that we treat each other with the love he extends to us as individuals; while violence acts against this love, fraud constitutes a perversion of it. A fraudulent person affects care and love while perpetrating sin against it. Yet, while Inferno implies these moral arguments, it generally engages in little discussion of them. In the end, it declares that evil is evil simply because it contradicts God’s will, and God’s will does not need further justification. Dante’s exploration of evil probes neither the causes of evil, nor the psychology of evil, nor the earthly consequences of bad behavior. Inferno is not a philosophical text; its intention is not to think critically about evil but rather to teach and reinforce the relevant Christian doctrines.
Storytelling as a Way to Achieve Immortality
Dante places much emphasis in his poem on the notion of immortality through storytelling, everlasting life through legend and literary legacy. Several shades ask the character Dante to recall their names and stories on Earth upon his return. They hope, perhaps, that the retelling of their stories will allow them to live in people’s memories. The character Dante does not always oblige; for example, he ignores the request of the Italian souls in the Ninth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell that he bring word of them back to certain men on Earth as warnings. However, the poet Dante seems to have his own agenda, for his poem takes the recounting of their stories as a central part of its project. Although the poet repeatedly emphasizes the perfection of divine justice and the suitability of the sinners’ punishments, by incorporating the sinners’ narratives into his text he also allows them to live on in some capacity aboveground.
Yet, in retelling the sinners’ stories, the poet Dante may be acting less in consideration of the sinners’ immortality than of his own. Indeed, Dante frequently takes opportunities to advance his own glory. Thus, for example, in Canto XXIV, halfway through his description of the Thieves’ punishment, Dante declares outright that he has outdone both Ovid and Lucan in his ability to write scenes of metamorphosis and transformation (Ovid’s Metamorphoses focuses entirely on transformations; Lucan wrote the Pharsalia, an account of the Roman political transition and turmoil in the first century b.c.). By claiming to have surpassed two of the classical poets most renowned for their mythological inventions and vivid imagery, Dante seeks to secure his own immortality.
Thus, Dante presents storytelling as a vehicle for multiple legacies: that of the story’s subject as well as that of the storyteller. While the plot of a story may preserve the living memory of its protagonist, the story’s style and skill may serve the greater glory of its author. Although many of his sinners die a thousand deaths—being burned, torn to bits, or chewed to pieces, only to be reconstituted again and again—Dante emphasizes with almost equal incessancy the power of his narrative to give both its subjects and its author the gift of eternal life.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
An unquestionably significant part of Dante’s aim in writing Inferno was to offer a large-scale commentary on the political nightmare of fourteenth-century Florence, from which he had recently been exiled. He makes his assertions in various ways. First, he condemns political figures with whom he disagreed by scattering them ruthlessly throughout Hell. Second, because Dante sets the action of Inferno several years before the years in which he wrote it, he can predict, as it were, certain events that had already taken place by the time of his writing. He issues these seeming predictions via the voices of the damned, apparently endowed at death with prophetic powers. In these souls’ emphasis on the corruption and turmoil of the so-called future Florence, Dante aims pointed criticism at his former home. Third, Dante asserts throughout the poem his personal political belief that church and state should exist as separate but equal powers on Earth, with the former governing man’s spirit and the latter governing his person. Thus, in his many references to Rome, Dante carefully mentions both its spiritual and secular importance.
The poem’s arresting final image provides another testament to the equal importance of church and state: Lucifer chews both on Judas (the betrayer of Christ, the ultimate spiritual leader) and on Cassius and Brutus (the betrayers of Caesar, the ultimate political leader). Treachery against religion and against government both warrant placement in Hell’s final circle. While Dante emphasizes the equality of these two institutions, he also asserts the necessity of their separation. He assigns particularly harsh punishments to souls guilty of broaching this separation, such as priests or popes who accepted bribes or yearned for political power.
Classical Literature and Mythology
Although the values that Inferno asserts are decidedly Christian, on a thematic and literary level, the poem owes almost as much to Greek and Roman tradition as it does to Christian morality literature. Dante’s Christian Hell features a large variety of mythological and ancient literary creatures, ranging from the Centaurs to Minos to Ulysses. He even incorporates mythological places, such as the rivers Acheron and Styx. In addition, Dante often refers to and imitates the styles of great classical writers such as Homer, Ovid, Lucan, and Virgil himself. He therefore attempts to situate himself within the tradition of classical epics while proving that he is a greater writer than any of the classical poets.
Dante incorporates this ancient material for other reasons too, including the simple fact that mythological elements contain much dramatic potential. More important, however, Dante includes mythological and classical literary elements in his poem to indicate that Christianity has subsumed these famous stories; by bringing many religious strands under one umbrella, Dante heightens the urgency and importance of his quest—a quest that he believes necessary for all human beings.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
It is impossible to reduce the iconic complexity of Inferno to a short list of important symbols. Because the poem is an overarching allegory, it explores its themes using dozens, even hundreds, of symbols, ranging from the minutely particular (the blank banner chased by the Uncommitted in Canto III, symbolizing the meaninglessness of their activity in life) to the hugely general (the entire story of The Divine Comedy itself, symbolizing the spiritual quest of human life). Many of the symbols in Inferno are clear and easily interpretable, such as the beast Geryon—with the head of an innocent man and the body of a foul serpent, he represents dishonesty and fraud. Others are much more nuanced and difficult to pin down, such as the trio of creatures that stops Dante from climbing the sunlit mountain in Canto I. When reading Inferno, it is extremely important to consider each element of the poem according to how it fits into Dante’s larger system of symbolism—what it says about the scene, story, and themes of the work and about human life.
Perhaps the most important local uses of symbolism in Inferno involve the punishments of the sinners, which are always constructed so as to correspond allegorically to the sins that they committed in life. The Lustful, for example, who were blown about by passion in life, are now doomed to be blown about by a ferocious storm for all of time. Other major types of symbols include figures who represent human qualities, such as Virgil, representative of reason, and Beatrice, representative of spiritual love; settings that represent emotional states, such as the dark forest in Canto I, embodying Dante’s confusion and fear; and figures among the damned who may represent something more than merely their sins, such as Farinata, who seems to represent qualities of leadership and political commitment that transcend his identity as a Heretic in Hell.