Dante’s Inferno is the story of his (imagined) voyage through Hell, guided by the poet Virgil, with the purpose of comprehending and rejecting human vice in order to draw closer to God. The story is highly symbolic. As Dante witnesses the bodily punishment experienced by the sinners and encounters various monsters who inhabit Hell, he learns about the ways that wrongdoing distorts and endangers who a person is made to be.
Dante’s learning curve is slow: while Dante is not opposed by a traditional antagonist, the progress of his spiritual growth is hindered both by his own sympathy for sinners who justly deserve their place in Hell, and by the dangers of Hell itself. Yet Dante perseveres; with Virgil’s guidance, he learns to condemn wrongdoing and to act courageously. At the climax of the story, he looks Lucifer, the devil himself, in the face and passes by, symbolizing a readiness to leave sin behind. When he successfully emerges from Hell, Dante is ready to renounce his own sins and begin the journey nearer to God.
The inciting moment, or starting point, of the Inferno occurs when the Roman poet Virgil arrives to rescue Dante from the dark woods where he is lost. The dark woods represent Dante’s spiritual condition. Distracted by his civic commitments, Dante has wandered from his faith and, though he realizes his spiritual danger, is now unable to return. When he tries, a lion, leopard, and wolf block his way, symbolizing how common human sins such as envy and pride prevent spiritual growth. Dante is thus utterly unable to help himself. Then, Virgil shows up. Because the Roman poet is known for his virtue, he was sent by Beatrice to guide Dante through Hell. The planned trip is not afterlife tourism but a spiritual rescue mission. Only by going through Hell, as Virgil explains, will Dante arrive at the entryway to Purgatory. Dante readily accepts Virgil’s offer of guidance, setting the plot in motion. In traveling through Hell, Dante will confront the monsters who dwell there, and the seriousness of human sin, in order to restore his own faith.
Dante is initially confused and overwhelmed by Hell, and his attempts to make sense of what he sees reveal how little he understands about spiritual realities, as does his alarm at the dangers of Hell. Several times Dante glosses over the sins of the people he meets. He faints with sympathy for Paolo and Francesca’s tragic love story, despite the fact that their love story involved cheating on Francesca’s husband, and he bets Virgil that he can recognize a few sinners punished for their greed, despite the fact greed has made the sinners “foul . . . beyond all recognition.” The fact that Dante does not initially see these sins as serious, with far-reaching effects on human identity and well-being, recalls his spiritual confusion at the beginning of the Inferno. Clearly in need of spiritual maturity, Dante at this point relies heavily on Virgil to correct his errors and point out the consequences of sin.
Dante also depends on Virgil’s protection from the monsters that threaten Dante’s spiritual progress. Dante clearly describes Hell as a frightening place, from the wording over its gates urging those who enter to “abandon all hope” to monsters such as the ghost boatman Charon, the three-headed dog Cerberus, Medusa, and a band of demons with hooks and spears. Dante is obviously terrified and at one point even talks about avoiding the monsters by abandoning the journey through Hell, which would end his spiritual progress altogether. Yet Virgil consistently protects Dante and gives him the courage to move forward. One of Virgil’s greatest acts of protection occurs as he and Dante descend into the circles where fraud is punished. Virgil summons the monster Geryon, a huge winged creature with a human face and a scorpion tail, to carry them over the gulfs of Hell, to the next ledge. Dante is frightened, yet Virgil puts himself between Dante and Geryon’s tail and holds fast to Dante. This gives Dante the courage he needs to go through with the ride and thus to make progress on his spiritual journey.
The further Dante descends, the more spiritual insight he gains; while he still grieves for the damned, he also condemns their evil deeds, showing an awareness of sin that he lacked at the start of the Inferno. Dante shows reverence and gratitude to his honored teacher, Brunetto Latini, when he meets the old man in Hell, yet Dante also acknowledges that Latini was “made filthy in the world” by his sin, refusing to make excuses for him as he did for Francesca. Likewise, Dante shows discernment in his response to Ugolino and Ruggieri. Encountering Ugolino and Ruggieri frozen together in the ice, with Ugolino gnawing on the back of Ruggieri’s neck, Dante learns that while both men were political traitors, Ruggieri tricked Ugolino and his sons into a tower and left them there to starve. Dante acknowledges that Ugolino’s original political treason was wrong but exclaims that Ruggieri “should not have nailed his sons / to such a cross!” Dante’s reaction shows that his spiritual confusion has been resolved, as he empathizes with the real tragedy of the death of Ugolino’s sons without compromising the truth that Ugolino himself is justly punished in Hell for his treason.
While there is not a single climactic moment in the Inferno, Dante’s final encounter with Lucifer and exit from Hell represent his readiness to move forward in his spiritual journey. The last sinner Dante meets in Hell is Lucifer himself, who traitorously “raised his brow against his Maker.” Lucifer is both the archetypal sinner and the cause of all other sins, and the existential dread Dante feels upon seeing Lucifer causes Dante to realize the horror of sin as a rejection of divine goodness and as an action which unmakes, or destroys, the self. Fully knowing the terror of sin, Dante flees from it. Virgil helps him climb down Lucifer’s legs into a little cave, and then they walk out of the cave until they can see the moon and stars. In the medieval world, the moon and the stars represent divine truth and grace. Dante, having renounced his sin, is at last ready to perceive and move closer toward spiritual realities.