Dante’s Inferno: A Divine Comedy follows a narrative journey as Dante goes on an imaginary quest through Hell with guidance of a Roman poet known as Virgil. Though it’s referred to as a “divine comedy”, the story assumes characteristics of several different genres with a stylistic breadth diverse enough to argue its literary classification. In doing so, Dante utilizes every possible style to depict a vivid interpretation of Hell. By incorporating a broad range of rhetorical devices and employing elements of a huge array of genres such as epic, vision, narrative, and even autobiographical components, Dante portrays Hell as a complex hierarchy that is reached through strict beliefs on what constitutes good versus evil.
To begin analyzing Dante’s Inferno, it’s important to note the speech from which it derives. The poem is often characterized by it formal, rigid diction. It’s written in long, drawn out sentences filled with prepositional phrases. The speech is elevated and lofty with accordance to a strict literary form. Despite the typical Latin literature of the era, Dante wrote it in his spoken Tuscan dialect. Typically literature resorted to Latin to comply with the Catholic Church. As Dante struggled with the social climate of the divided Church, he uses low style vernacular and strict rules to shed light on his disagreements and interpretations of good versus evil. Due to the “lowly” vernacular, the quest is characterized as a divine comedy in reference to the language, caricature usage and spiritual theme. In a scholarly article written by David Lummus of Stanford University, Lummus explains that, “the poem is a comedy because the ‘subject matter, at the beginning is horrible and foul, as being Hell’” He reasons that the low-style language is successful because it is both “unstudied and lowly” (Lummus 63). To contradict Church orthodoxy, Dante successfully wrote the poem in an expressive, non-Latin manner that had not been done before. Some of his achievements in the dialect were groundbreaking. For instance, in the English translation readers lose the triple rhyme scheme Dante created to make each line read as though it were progressing forward just as the narrative does while journeying in life and through the severity of sins while in Hell.
Throughout the poem, Dante also draws on several rhetorical tools characteristic of different genres that illuminate the grand depiction of Hell. In particular, his use of allegorical elements reiterates Hell’s severity. For instance, when Dante is trekking through the woods, it parallels his feelings of being lost at the midpoint of his life. Dante’s allegorical (and perhaps even autobiographical elements) are expressed by the epic poem’s opening “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost” to depict the image of fallen sinners along with his own search for what’s right (Inf. I, 1). The beasts serve allegorical purposes such as the lion and leopard that represent the vice that keep people from reaching heaven. In doing so, he redirects the reader’s attention toward the despair and difficulties of being welcomed into heaven along with the obstacles that might lure people into Hell. This is expressed when Virgil says, “Of every malice that earns hate in Heaven, injustice is the end” (Inf XI, 22-27). The usage of divine creatures, a massive character list, and invocations toward muses give the reader reason to parallel Dante’s depiction of Hell to have striking similarities to Greek and Roman mythological undertones he alludes to despite Christian intentions. For example, Cantos XVII transforms mythological creatures from their traditional form to portray a Hell where expected consequences may not exist due to the gravity and complexity of sin. The chronological sequence might be suggestive of several additional genres. Due to the progressive nature, Dante’s Inferno could be classified as a narrative. In its narrative form it illuminates a classical epic with a tragic quest to express the dreadful fate of fallen sinners.
Upon reading the poem, Dante’s Inferno can also be regarded as visionary. Considering that vision literature typically looks into life after death, the poem appropriately meets the foundation standards. Likewise, Dante is a male and is guided by Virgil (both characteristics of the genre.) The guide in this case is the poet Virgil who interprets the scenes Dante explores and leads him through each layer of Hell. Upon entering Hell’s gates, Dante reads a sign that says, “Through me you enter into the city of woes/Through me you into eternal pain, through me you enter the population of loss” (Inf. III, 1-7). The above quote depicts the “population of loss” as Hell where sinners are punished in an inescapable confined space. The apostrophes incorporated throughout redirects the reader to consider it’s visionary literary elements. Finally, Dante obtains a notable religious and spiritual experience as typical of the genre.
All this being considered the poem embodies different styles and rhetorical devices to paint a picture of Hell. By using tools characteristic of genres like epic, vision, narrative, and autobiographical traits, Dante envisions Hell as a complex hierarchy of sinner levels determined by the rigid laws regarding good versus evil. As manifested by vernacular choice and varied literary characteristics, Dante creates a vision of Hell suggesting justice and agonizing condemnation of eternal damnation seen through an unforgiving and critical lens.
- Alighieri, Dante. Dante’s Inferno. N.p.: n.p., n.d.
- Lummus, David. Introduction. Dantes Inferno. Engerda: Arun, 2000. 1.