Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is a famous Italian medieval epic poem depicting the realms of the afterlife. Dante (who was born in 1265) wrote it somewhere between 1308 and his death in 1321, while he was in exile from his hometown of Florence, Italy, who had been enduring a civil war.
The Divine Comedy is divided into three separate volumes, each with 33 songs (or chapters). These volumes are El Infierno, El Purgatorio and El Paraíso.
Summary and synapse
In this three-part epic poem, Dante Alighieri takes his readers on a pilgrimage to Heaven through journeys first through Hell and Purgatory. It is a spiritual journey that exposes the evils of sin through the first person narration of the main character named Dante the Pilgrim.
The pilgrim’s journey through the kingdoms of the dead lasts from the eve of Good Friday until the Wednesday following Easter in the year 1300. The Roman poet Virgil is the pilgrim’s guide through hell and purgatory. Beatrice, who represents Dante’s ideal woman, leads the way through heaven.
Given its religious importance, it is not surprising that The Divine Comedy is structured as a trinity. The three sections mentioned in literary terms are known as canticles and total 14,233 lines. Each song is made up of thirty-three songs, once again giving meaning to the number “three”. The poem has an introduction, which is considered part of the first song, giving the work a total of one hundred songs.
The opening section of the poem, Hell, finds Dante lost in sin, symbolically represented as a dark forest. He is attacked by a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf and cannot find a way out of safety, or in the religious context of the poem, salvation. This situation is represented by a mountain that hides the sun. Ultimately, Virgil rescues him and guides them through the underworld.
Every sin in Hell has a punishment that symbolically, even ironically, levels justice. As an example, seers or sinful soothsayers are destined to walk with their heads tied back so they cannot do what they did in life: see what is to come.
The three animals that attack Dante symbolize the sins of being forgiving, violent and malicious. Hell is structured as nine circles in which sinners are classified. Those who suffer from incontinence or lack of moderation fall in circles from one to five.
Pride or violence form circles six and seven. Fraud and malice are the sins related to circles eight and nine. Each of the circles signifies an ever deeper evil that ends at the core of the earth, the kingdom of Satan. The punishments for the sins of each circle vary.
After surviving the journey through Hell, Virgil leads Dante to Purgatory, a mountain on the other side of the world that was formed from the creation of Hell.
The mountain has seven terraces representing the seven deadly sins. In the kingdom of Purgatory, sins are classified more based on motives than on one’s actions. Theologically, there is a Christian basis, although Dante is not exclusively based on the Bible.
Love is an important theme in The Divine Comedy. Love becomes sinful when driven by pride, envy, or anger. He is also sinful when he is lazy or weak, or too strong from lust, gluttony, or greed.
An additional region of Purgatory is the Ante-Purgatory home of those excommunicated from the church and those who died, who may have repented but had not received rites. Purgatory is an allegory of the Christian life. Angels escort souls there in the hope that they may attain divine grace. The structure of Purgatory from a scientific perspective shows a medieval knowledge of Earth as a sphere.
In the final stage of her pilgrimage, Beatrice escorts Dante through Paradise, that is, Heaven. She guides you through the nine heavenly spheres of heaven. Whereas Hell and Purgatory were based on classifications of sin, Heaven is structured around the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues.
The seven initial spheres of Heaven are related to the cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, justice and temperance, and it is where those who embody these virtues are found.
The eighth sphere contains those who attained faith, hope, and love, who consider themselves the theological virtues and represent the achievement of human perfection. The ninth circle of heaven is the place of angels, beings never touched by sin. A final level, which in a sense brings the total to ten, is the Empyrean in which the essence of God is found.
Paradise is of a more spiritual nature than the other two regions of The Divine Comedy. Dante interacts with various saints there, including Thomas Aquinas and Saints Peter and John. At the end of the text, Dante has an epiphany that, although he cannot fully explain, reveals the mystery of Christ and feels as one with God.
An epic is generally a very long song (poem in verse) that tells an epic story. The Divine Comedy contains one hundred songs written in terza rhyme, a form of Italian verse invented by Dante. It consists of three-line stanzas in which line 2 of a stanza rhymes with lines 1 and 3 of the following stanza.
The title, The Divine Comedy (La divina comedia), does not imply that the poem is humorous in nature. Rather, the poem is a “comedy” in the sense that it is of the classical style that existed in association with the tragedy. Traditional tragedies had plots that started with an optimistic or positive event, but ended in sadness, death, or an oppressed existence. Comedy, considered a staple genre, flowed in the opposite direction with tragedy, or at least unhappiness, reaching a happy or optimistic culmination.
- Dante: The main character, or protagonist, of the poem is the author himself. No other epic poet before him, including Homer and Virgil, had become the main characters in his poems.
- Virgil: The late Roman poet Publius Virgil Maro escorts Dante through Hell and Purgatory. Symbolizes human reason. Virgil (70-19 BC), a poet that Dante admired, wrote the great Latin epic La Eneida.
- Beatrice Portinari: (1265-1290) guides Dante to the heavenly kingdom. Beatrice, who represents faith and grace, was Dante’s first love.
- Saint Bernard: A French Cistercian monk and abbot, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), guides and instructs Dante when the poet reaches the highest region of heaven.
Dante’s work, while largely in accordance with 14th century Catholic teachings, reveals the vision of an individual. For example, Dante’s tripartite division of the afterlife in Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven follows standard dogma, but his description of Purgatory as a mountain in the southern hemisphere was his own invention.
Dante is never anti-religious, although he is sometimes anti-allergenic. Sometimes he criticized religious leaders because he had a clear personal concept of the spiritual role of the church and the worldly role of the empire, each of which he viewed as divinely ordained in his specific role.
Dante also had a clear concept of Christian ethics. In his work, he shows the tradition of courtly love transcended by divine love. It also portrays love as the root cause of all human vices and virtues.
Dante uses the idea of counter-pass (retribution) to provide justification for dealing with good and bad actions during life and finding the right place for everyone in the afterlife. Each human act receives a punishment or reward that is not only proportional but also symbolically in kind.
For example, repentant sinners in Purgatory walk through fire to burn the earthly fire of lust. Dante uses the image of fire sparingly to keep it symbolically appropriate and to avoid glamorous sin; he prefers to show the chilling coldness of evil.