From a structural point of view, the first two cantos of Inferno function as an introduction, presenting the main dramatic situation and maneuvering Dante and Virgil to the entrance of Hell, the journey through which will constitute the main plot of the poem. In a larger sense, however, the opening cantos help to establish the relationship between Inferno and larger literary, political, and religious tradition, indicating their points of convergence and deviation.
Inferno takes the form of an allegory, a story whose literal plot deals entirely in symbols, imbuing the story with a second level of meaning implied by, but broader than, the events of the narrative. On a literal level, The Divine Comedy portrays Dante’s adventures in the fantastic realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but these adventures allegorically represent a broader subject: the trials of the human soul to achieve morality and find unity with God. From the opening lines, Dante makes clear the allegorical intention of his poem: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost” (I.1–2). By writing “our life’s journey” (emphasis added) and with his generic phrase “the right road,” Dante links his own personal experience to that of all humanity. The dark woods symbolize sinful life on Earth, and the “right road” refers to the virtuous life that leads to God.
In this way, Dante links his poem to the larger tradition of medieval Christian allegory, most famously represented in English by Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. A great deal of medieval Christian allegory portrayed a character type known as Everyman, a Christian protagonist (even named “Christian” in Bunyan’s work) representing all of humanity; the Everyman character undergoes trials and tribulations in his search to find the soul’s true path in life. By making himself the hero of his story, Dante casts himself in the role of Everyman; more broadly, Dante literally wishes each individual to put him- or herself in the position described at the beginning of the poem, since, according to Christian doctrine, all people know some form of sin and thus wander lost in a dark wood. Similarly, the path to the blessed afterlife awaits anyone who seeks to find it.
The opening tercet (a three-line stanza) of Inferno also situates the poem in time. The Bible’s Psalms describe a human lifespan as being “threescore and ten years,” or seventy years. Because of the many close links between The Divine Comedy and the Bible, most critics agree that Dante would have considered man’s lifespan to be seventy years; thus, “midway on our life’s journey” would make Dante thirty-five, locating the events in the year 1300.
These cantos contain many passages, however, whose analysis has produced more disagreement than accord. For example, one can reasonably assume that the three beasts that menace Dante as he tries to climb the sunlit hill represent dark forces that threaten mankind, but it is difficult to define them more concretely. Early commentators on the poem often considered them to represent the sins of lust, pride, and avarice. The three beasts also have a biblical analogue in Jeremiah 5:6: “Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, and a leopard shall watch over their cities.” Much of the allegory in Inferno takes a political tone, referring to the situation in Italy (especially Florence) during Dante’s lifetime, and to the conflict between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. It thus seems probable that the three beasts also carry political connotations, a theory reinforced by Virgil’s prophecy about the hound that will drive the she-wolf away, which some critics have read as a symbol for a great leader who would one day unite Italy.
Virgil tells Dante that he lived in Rome during the time of Augustus, in the age of “the false gods who lied.” The fact that Virgil recognizes the old Roman gods as “false” and “lying” (in other words, non-Christian) instances Dante’s use of a technique called intertemporality—the mingling of elements from different time periods. Having entered into eternity, Virgil—like many of Dante’s other characters—can now see into times other than those in which he lived. He is thus able to understand what Dante considers truthful theology. The use of intertemporality permeates much of the artistic and literary tradition of medieval times; biblical characters, for example, were almost always represented in art as wearing medieval clothing, and the “heathenism” of medieval Muslims was emphasized by portraying them as worshipping the ancient Greek god Apollo. Yet, while these forms of intertemporality often seem merely anachronistic, the technique is more aesthetically and logically satisfying within the context of Dante’s poem: his characters can see beyond their time on Earth because in death they exist outside of time.