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.