Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.