Dante’s Inferno is medieval allegory: a story designed to convey important spiritual truths through its setting, characters, and events. Dante explains that allegories such as the Inferno have several possible meanings, including what is literally happening in the story, what the story’s events say about Christian teachings, and how the story teaches humankind to act morally. Any character, event, or description in the Inferno has at least one (and likely more) of these meanings.

Virgil, for instance, is literally Dante’s guide through Hell, but because Virgil rescues Dante from the dark woods, Virgil also represents the Christian teaching that Jesus saves lost souls from spiritual darkness, while his wisdom represents the value of rational thought in leading a virtuous life. As Dante narrates his journey, he urges readers to “gaze on the doctrine that is hidden here,” indicating how important it is for readers of medieval allegory to pay attention not only to what is literally happening, but also to what those things mean. Medieval allegory is a complex genre that asks readers to approach texts such as Inferno thoughtfully, with attention to its moral and spiritual significance.

Read about another Christian allegory, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.