The Divine Comedy Summary Part 1: Inferno
The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia, written c.1308-20) is one of the greatest literary masterpieces ever written. Its author, Dante Alighieri, was so talented that he helped to shape modern Italian. He was so self-confident that he cast himself in the role of a prophet sent by God to rescue His people. And he was so bitter that he used his poem as an opportunity to savagely settle personal scores. This Divine Comedy summary covers the key points and briefly outlines what happens in each of the 100 cantos, or chapters, of the poem.
The Divine Comedy Summary: An Overview of the Poem
The poem is a fictional memoir, in which Dante tells the story of the time he was granted access to the three realms of the Afterlife – Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Dante got this special treatment – this unique chance to visit the Afterlife while still alive – because of the intercession of an angel called Beatrice. Beatrice had once been a girl whom Dante had loved before she died young; when Dante wandered further and further away from God’s love, Beatrice had begged the Almighty for the chance to show Dante the error of his ways. Heaven granted this request because not just Dante but the whole of Italy was ruining itself and turning away from God – so if Dante went on this special journey, he would be able to write about what he saw and use his poetry to guide people back to the true Christian path.
Obviously, it’s not a true story. But it presents itself convincingly as a real account of Dante’s experiences, and the Divine Comedy is a vivid, visceral read. And as far as Dante was concerned, his prophetic role was real: he was clearly constantly aware of the import of what he was creating and the truth which he passionately believed his allegories contained. His Afterlife is filled with three groups of people: famous Biblical figures and ancient Christians; important names from the classical tradition of Greece and Rome; and contemporaries of Dante, including political leaders and friends that he had known personally.
A Christian Crisis
Dante’s journey takes place at a time of crisis, both within himself and for Italy as a whole: the way forward to God’s love has been lost in the chaos of the times, and to rediscover the path, there must be a new understanding of the workings of God and of the human soul. Humanity must be guided to salvation by Rome’s “two suns,” Church and Empire – the Church being the continuation of the history of the Hebrews and of Christianity, and the Empire, of equal, separate importance, the fruit of the proud classical tradition – but these have both got disastrously out of kilter through bad leadership and have led the people astray. The idea of Church and Empire as the two distinct agents of God on earth, bringing truth and justice, and the culmination of the two reconciled Christian and classical traditions, is of central importance to Dante, and the ultimate wish of the Commedia is to restore both to how they should be: furthering God’s plan, both independent and interdependent.
The poem is set in 1300, when Dante was 35 – halfway through a natural lifespan, and years after the death of his beloved Beatrice. He is soon going to suffer the greatest trauma of his life: exile from Florence. His love for the city increases his bitterness every time he mentions the sinful contemporaries who make up its population. Lost in a dark wood – “una selva oscura” – he is on the verge of destruction when he is rescued by the shade of Virgil, the Roman poet who wrote the epic poem called the Aeneid. Virgil is a literary hero of Dante, and the Aeneid heavily influenced the Divine Comedy. Virgil has been sent by Beatrice in order to lead Dante to her, but Dante is not ready to appear in her presence and must first travel a hard road. Virgil, with the combination of symbolism and realism that underlies the whole poem, is simultaneously himself – Dante’s hero and model – and the embodiment of Reason. For now, Beatrice represents Faith.
The Divine Comedy is made up of 100 cantos, or “chapters.” These are evenly divided between the three parts of the poem: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Divine Comedy Summary 1: Inferno
Virgil leads Dante through the nine circles of Hell, descending to the centre of the earth where Satan is held at the furthest point from God. All the damned have physical bodies, so they can feel pain, but their bodies heal so that they can never be permanently destroyed. These shades have some insight into the future, but they cannot perceive what is happening on Earth in the present, so Dante and the people in Hell can exchange information. Some of the souls are excited by the chance to speak to a living human who can carry their messages back to the surface, while others are ashamed and aggressive towards him.
Down in the pit of Hell, Dante learns the causes and consequences of being cut off eternally from God’s love. Nature is God’s creation, imbued with His love, so anything that goes against nature or God, or any flawed love, will keep the soul from Paradise. The whole system is legalistic and logical: the punishment fits the crime, and the gravity of the offences increase with the crescendo of fear, horror, pity and revulsion experienced and evoked by Dante. Here is what befalls those who go against God, and not only Dante but the whole world is vividly warned of what awaits them if they persist in doing so. Along the way, Dante meets and talks to many of the dead, all of whom have some significance to Dante and his first audience and who collectively give a strong message regarding how a soul can go wrong and the disasters awaiting if it does so.
Descent into Hell
Dante, lost and afraid in a dark wood, finds himself hunted by a leopard, a lion and a wolf. He encounters a stranger and begs for help, and the stranger turns out to be the shade of Virgil, the Roman author of the Aeneid and Dante’s great literary hero. Virgil tells him that he must take another road. He says he shall guide Dante away from this dangerous place, into the Afterlife. Dante follows him.
Dante is fearful of descending into Hell and expresses his doubts. Virgil explains that he has come because Beatrice appeared to him and instructed him to bring Dante to her. Dante was once in love with Beatrice, but she died many years earlier and is now an angel. Thrilled at the prospect of seeing her again, Dante commits himself to the difficult journey.
As they approach the border of Hell, Virgil and Dante see the swarm of Neutrals: people who lived empty, pointless lives – scarcely living at all, just existing. They did nothing truly good or bad, following the herd unthinkingly, so they do not deserve a place in either Heaven or Hell. Dante is contemptuous, not bothering to name any of them. Virgil leads Dante to the river Acheron, where Charon the demonic ferryman is ferrying souls to Hell on the far bank. Charon refuses to take Dante on board because his soul is not yet damned. The ground shakes with wind and fire, causing Dante to pass out.
Dante regains consciousness on the other side of the river, inside Hell. He and Virgil advance into the First Circle, where Virgil himself belongs: this is Limbo, the place of the Virtuous Heathens. Here, all the good people who were not Christians end up, in a fairly nice environment except for the fact that it is cut off eternally from God’s love. Dante spots Homer, Cicero, Aeneas and Socrates, among a number of others.
Sins of Weakness
At the start of the Second Circle, a demonic figure called Minos is judging the wicked and condemning them to their fates below. The Second Circle itself is filled with the Lustful – souls who loved so passionately that there was no space for God in their hearts. Stormy winds buffet the souls around, and they are subjected to the gales as they were once subjected to their desires. Dante stops to speak with Francesca and her brother-in-law Paolo, two doomed and murdered lovers, and Dante feels deep pity as he hears their melancholy story: everything about their joint fate seems deeply tragic.
Passing Cerberus, Dante and Virgil cross the Third Circle, where the Gluttons lie beaten down in stench and mud. One of them, Ciacco, recognises Dante because they knew each other in Florence. Ciacco tells Dante the depth of evil in Florence, and how much suffering the citizens will soon experience. As they move on, Dante asks Virgil what will happen to all the damned souls on Judgement Day, and Virgil says their suffering will become even greater.
In the Fourth Circle are the Avaricious and the Prodigal, those who were obsessed with wealth (whether hoarding it or spending it). They are now two bitter tribes, all individuality stripped away. Virgil gives a speech about fortune, and leads Dante through the Fifth Circle, where the Wrathful fight viciously in a boiling mire.
The City of Dis
The mire flows into the marshes of the Styx, and a ferryman appears to carry them deeper into Hell: Phlegyas, one of the Wrathful. As they cross the Styx, another of the Wrathful spirits rises from the marsh and tries to talk to Dante. Dante recognises him as Filippo Argenti, a fellow-citizen of Florence, and roundly abuses him, taking pleasure in Argenti’s suffering. On the other side of the Styx is the cursed city of Dis. It is heavily fortified, and as Dante and Virgil approach the gate a horde of rebel angels try to stop them. Dante is terrified and wants to turn back. Virgil tries to talk to them but they slam the gate in his face.
As the two of them stand there locked out, the Furies threaten to turn Dante to stone with Medusa. Then an angel appears, scattering the damned, and opens the door so that Virgil and Dante can proceed into Dis and the deeper realms of Hell. Inside the walls of Dis, in the Sixth Circle, they come across the Heretics, crammed together into tombs that are roasted by flames.
Dante encounters two leading Florentines from the previous generation, Farinata and Cavalcante. In life they led opposing factions, and were part of the civil strife that had caused so much damage to Florence – but in death they are forced to share a tomb, equally guilty of the heresies of their parties.
Virgil and Dante rest to get their breath back before descending into the three lowest circles of Hell. As they pause, Virgil takes the opportunity to explain to Dante the structure of Hell and the logic that explains the system. The earlier circles, outside the walls of Dis, were the sins of weakness; now they are within the realm of greater sins, those of wilfulness. The Seventh Circle is for the Violent, the Eighth Circle is for the Fraudulent, and the Ninth Circle is for the Treacherous. Fraud is worse than violence because it is using uniquely human abilities for evil purposes, and treachery is the worst kind of fraud because it betrays a sacred bond of trust.
The Seventh Circle
Virgil and Dante make their way down the cliffside, past the Minotaur, towards the Seventh Circle. The slope is scarred by a great landslide, from the convulsion of the Earth at the Crucifixion. The first part of the Seventh Circle is a boiling red river, in which tyrants and plunderers are suffering. The riverbank is guarded by centaurs, who fire arrows at any souls who venture towards the shore. Alone among the denizens of Hell, the centaurs are noble and dignified, and one of them carries Dante and Virgil on his back across the red river.
Dante and Virgil enter a sinister wood on the river’s far bank, home to those who were violent against themselves. Dante snaps off a twig from one of the twisted trees, to discover that the trees are the souls of suicides: they abandoned their bodies, so they are deprived of their bodies in Hell, constantly agonised by the harpies feeding off their leaves. Dante talks to Piero delle Vigne, one of the suffering trees, before seeing two spendthrifts – another form of self-destruction – hunted through the wood by hounds that tear them apart.
Beyond the wood is a fiery, barren plain, containing the naked souls of those who were violent against God, Nature and Art. They pass the Blasphemers, and follow a stream across the plain to protect themselves against its fires.
They pass the Sodomites – and Dante recognises one of them as his close friend and mentor, a Florentine writer called Brunetto Latini. Their emotional meeting is coloured by Dante’s pain of discovering someone so important to him condemned to this depth of Hell. But people cannot be spared from God’s judgement just because Dante personally likes them: this poem is about God’s message, not just Dante’s. They discuss Florence, and Brunetto Latini prophesises that Dante will transcend the wickedness corroding the city.
Three more highly-regarded Florentine Sodomites approach Dante, asking for news of their beloved city. They are devastated when Dante tells them how bad the city has become. Virgil and Dante reach the edge of the plain, where the stream gives way to a mighty waterfall dropping down into the abyss. Virgil takes Dante’s belt and throws it over the drop as a signal. Soon enough, a monstrous creature rises up towards them.
The monster is Geryon, and Virgil approaches it to persuade it to help them down to the next level. Dante, meanwhile, spots the Usurers and goes to have a look at them; the Usurers are obsessed with the money-pouches around their necks and they are bad-tempered towards Dante. Climbing onto Geryon’s back, Dante and Virgil take the terrifying flight down into the depths of the Eighth Circle.
The Eighth Circle, the Malebolge, is divided into ten concentric ditches, each containing different categories of the Fraudulent. In the first ditch, Panders and Seducers are forced to keep moving as horned demons whip them forward. In the second ditch, flatterers are flailing in excrement and filth.
The third ditch contains the Simonists, those who bought and sold the Church’s offices and influence. The souls are trapped inside rocks with only their legs sticking out, and their feet are burned by flames. Dante is curious about a victim being burned by a redder flame, whose legs are thrashing around in more agony than the others. Virgil carries him down to the rock so as to protect him from the flames, and it turns out to be Pope Nicholas III (died 1280). Nicholas is waiting for his successor, Boniface, to come and join him as a fellow Simonist. Realising that he is speaking to the late Pope, Dante roundly abuses him for selling out the Church.
In the fourth ditch are the Diviners: magicians and soothsayers, mostly classical examples. Their heads are twisted round so that they are looking backwards as they shuffle through the ditch. Virgil talks at length about Manto, who gave her name to his hometown of Mantua. He emphasises that that’s all she gave the city, because it was founded after she was already dead and her wickedness had descended into Hell.
Demons and Thieves
The fifth ditch of the Malebolge is filled with boiling tar, for the Barrators – the swindlers in public office. The travellers witness a demon hurl a Barrator into the tar, and a pack of other demons stand by with hooks and pitchforks to stab at any souls who surface. Virgil tells Dante to hide, and himself goes to demand safe passage from the demons. Intimidated by Dante’s invocation of the will of Heaven, the chief demon gives him a guard to lead the travellers along the ridge to a bridge where they can cross the sixth ditch. The demon mentions in passing that it is currently the Easter weekend.
As they follow the path, the ten demons try to stab the Barrators whenever they surface for a moment from the pitch. They hook one and haul him in. Dante is curious and they question the man, who is about to be ripped apart by the demons. He buys time and suggests that if the demons stand a little way off, he can call to some Italians whom Dante might be interested in meeting. As soon as the demons give him space, he makes a run for it and plunges back into the tar. The furious demons give chase and then fight among themselves, and two of them fall into the tar entangled with each other. Virgil and Dante slip off as the other demons try to haul them out.
The demons give chase, and Virgil picks up Dante and flees down the slope into the depths of the sixth ditch. Down here are the Hypocrites, weighed down by hoods and cloaks which have an attractive appearance but are actually exhaustingly heavy. The hypocrites shuffle along, wearied from their deceptive burden. Caiaphas and the other Jews who arranged Jesus’s crucifixion are stretched naked on stakes, to be walked upon by the other Hypocrites. When Virgil asks how they can climb out of the ditch, it becomes apparent that the demons lied to him: there are no bridges to cross this deep valley.
The climb out of this valley is arduous, and Dante has to dig deep into his physical, emotional and spiritual reserves to keep going, urged on by Virgil who reminds him of the challenges he must still face. They venture down into the seventh ditch, where the Thieves are kept. Their hands are bound behind their backs by serpents, and the foot of the ditch is writhing with snakes. The Thieves try to pick their way through, perishing if they are bitten, only to regain their form a moment later. A notorious Italian called Vanni Fucci speaks to them, and deliberately upsets Dante by telling him of how Italy’s faction-fighting – which Fucci was part of – will bring Florence and Dante to ruin.
Watching the Thieves, Dante sees a centaur gallop past, weighed down by a mass of snakes and even a small dragon. Then come five Florentines, fully or partially transformed into serpents, passing on the infection of the serpent-form by biting each other. Their forms and bodies morph together, the human forms taking on serpent characteristics and blending horribly with the beasts that strike them; the snakes themselves partly regain their human forms by attacking their fellow sufferers.
The worst part of the Malebolge
Dante and Virgil climb back the way they came and look down upon the eighth ditch, where the False Counsellors are each consumed in tongues of flame. The travellers approach Ulysses, also known as Odysseus, hero of The Odyssey (read a summary of The Odyssey here). His fire is twinned with that of Diomedes, because of their joint trickery during the Trojan War. From inside the flame, Ulysses tells the story of his final voyage, when he could no longer resist the yearning for knowledge and exploration. His hunger to push against the limits of human possibility led him to captain his ship out into the Atlantic and beyond, until he and his crew saw a mysterious, vast mountain in the distance and their ship was sunk by a storm. This reference to the mountain foreshadows Purgatory, which Ulysses and his companions were not permitted to reach, but which Dante will soon see for himself.
Guido da Montefeltro asks Dante for news about the state of Romagna, where he had been the preeminent man. He then tells Dante how he ended up here: after a successful worldly life, he retired to become a friar and look out for his own soul. But then the villainous Pope Boniface VIII – one of Dante’s great enemies, already referred to in Canto XIX as a terrible simonist, and still Pope in 1300 when the poem is set – hired Guido as an advisor in his wicked schemes. Boniface reassured Guido that, as Pope, he could ensure that Guido would be absolved of any sins he incurred, and Guido took the bait. Upon his death, he was horrified to discover that this was not the case at all, and Guido was dragged down to burn among the other False Counsellors.
In the ninth ditch, the Sowers of Discord have been savagely maimed, their bodies cut asunder to reflect the way they once divided society. Dante learns that a demon stands at a certain point in the ring, slashing at them with his sword to renew their wounds as they pass him. He encounters several of the mutilated souls here, including Mohammed, and Curio, who encouraged Caesar to cross the Rubicon.
Dante is reluctant to leave the ninth ditch because he is overwhelmed by the sight, and because he thinks he glimpses a kinsman. The kinsman’s unavenged murder makes Dante feel shame, and he is at risk of being drawn into the feuds that have caused so much discord. Virgil insists that they press on, leaving this place, and they reach the tenth and final ditch of the Malebolge. In here are the Falsifiers, suffering horribly from every kind of sickness, and Dante speaks to two leprous alchemists.
Dante watches the grim fates of the Falsifiers, such as a man who notoriously impersonated a dead man to alter his will and who is now little more than a maddened beast. He gets drawn into conversation with a counterfeiter, Master Adam, who is now grotesquely swollen. Master Adam gets into a vicious argument with Sinon the Greek, and Virgil rebukes Dante for being absorbed by the dispute.
The Deepest Circle of Hell
Through the gloom, Dante sees the giants that ring the innermost circle of Hell. They are standing in the Ninth Circle, but their heads and torsos rise above the rim of the Eighth Circle like the aristocratic Italian towers that represented the cities’ bitter faction fighting. Virgil finds a giant whose limbs are not bound, and he gets it to lift the two travellers down to the deepest part of Hell.
The Ninth Circle is a lake of ice called Cocytus, where the Treacherous are imprisoned. The traitors are frozen in the ice, with their heads or faces sticking out pitifully. First is the region called Caina, where traitors to kin are found. As Dante walks across the ice, he passes imperceptibly into Antenora, for traitors to cause and country. He viciously starts pulling on a soul’s hair, demanding that it tell him its story, but it is too ashamed and refuses to speak. A nearby soul reveals to Dante that his victim is called Bocca, and Bocca bitterly responds by naming and shaming his neighbours in the ice. Dante is struck by the sight of a soul gnawing at the head of another soul, the two of them encased together in the frozen lake.
The biter explains that he was Count Ugolino, who betrayed Pisa to seize power there, and he is gnawing at Archbishop Ruggieri, who betrayed Ugolino in turn. Ugolino gives a heart-rending account of how Ruggieri had him and his four children locked into a tower until they starved to death, the innocent children perishing one by one, and then the grieving Ugolino, blinded from hunger, was reduced to eating their bodies until he, too, died. Dante moves on into the zone of Ptolomea, for traitors to guests. Here the souls are all facing upwards, and their tears have formed blinding clumps of ice on their faces. One of the souls begs Dante to free the ice from his eyes, and Dante promises to help in exchange for his story. The soul reveals that the traitors in Ptolomea are dragged down to Hell at the instant of their crime, and for the rest of their earthly life their souls are replaced by a devil. Disgusted by this traitor, Dante moves on, guiltlessly betraying his promise.
Virgil and Dante come to the Judecca, for the traitors to their rightful lords; the souls here are trapped so deep in the ice that they are fully encased and indistinguishable. In the centre is Satan, gigantic and horrible, with six bat-like wings and three faces weeping tears of foamy blood. In each of his three mouths is one of the ultimate sinners: Judas Iscariot, and Cassius and Brutus, the murderers of Julius Caesar. Dante holds onto Virgil, and Virgil climbs onto Satan himself and descends through the ice. At the midpoint of the earth, they pass into the southern hemisphere and begin to climb upwards rather than down. Dante is disorientated as they emerge into a cavern with Satan’s feet suspended in the air. Virgil explains that they have passed through the bottom of Hell, and the two of them begin their ascent to the surface.