The journey of Dante through Hell, in both its structure and content, symbolizes the nature of sin and punishment. The structure of the book takes the reader step by step through greater and greater sins.
The content of the book shows the different punishments for sins which are symbolic of the sins themselves; it also, through its language, shows how Hell compares to life. This book was written for Christians and deals heavily with religion, but can be interpreted and learned from in an existential manner In the Inferno, Hell is divided into nine circles. Dante progresses through each of these circles in order. Each circle represents a greater sin and, therefore, a greater punishment.
This is symbolic of life. When you commit a sin or wrong action, you are then led to a greater evil. The sins you commit grow and build; you get away with an inch and then end up taking a mile. Each canto in the book represents sinners that have gone farther and farther into their sins.
As Dante progresses through Hell, he realizes the extent of wrong that a person can ultimately commit. This shows that we must recognize our sins and wrong doings before we end up in Hell, or, existentially speaking, lost in pure, dark evil. It is almost like a small lie that can grow and grow to ultimately consume your life. In its content, the Inferno also shows the reader what a sin is really like by creating a symbolic punishment which mirrors the actual sin.
Hell is a place “where penalties are paid by those who, sowing discord, earned Hell’s wages.” For example, in canto V lines 31-45, Dante writes, “[Referring to those who lusted] I came to a place where no light shown at all, bellowing like the sea racked by a tempest, when warring winds attack it from both sides. The infernal storm, eternal in its rage, sweeps down and drives the spirits with its blast: it whirls them, lashing them with punishment… those who make reason slave to appetite… now here, then there, and up and down, it drives them with never any hope to comfort them- hope not of rest but even of suffering less.” This is extremely symbolic of lust.
A lustful person is swept along in a “whirlwind” of feeling without thought or reason in mental “darkness.” Also lust is an “eternal” sin, it has been happening forever. This is why those who were lustful must endure “eternal” raging storms. Each of the sins and punishments are presented in such a way to prove why it is wrong to commit them.
Even the pagans, who really did nothing wrong except live in a time when God was unknown, must face a punishment fitting of their sin. They must live in limbo between heaven and Hell; never entering heaven, but not condemned to suffer the tortures of Hell. Their punishment is a lack of choice, just as their lives there was a lack of choosing God. These punishments do not just explain the “Hell” you will suffer when you die, but the Hell that your life actually is.
Religiously or Existentially, your life is Hell when you live your entire life in darkness without the light of reason, truth, and good. The content also symbolizes life in its language. In the beginning, Dante states, “Midway along the journey of life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path… How I entered there I can not say, I had become so sleepy at the moment when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.” Every person, at some time, must glimpse what lies ahead for them and reflect on the choices they have made.
If not, they will be “lost in the dark woods.” Dante speaks of darkness and lack of clarity during his journey through hell. Dante’s journey into Hell was a foreshadowing of what his future would be like if he did not change his lifestyle. He also speaks of being “sleepy” when he stayed of the path of goodness.
This implies laziness and lack of control. He no longer consciously strove for righteousness and morality. He is lost in his dark slumber. After his journey, he comes out of hell and is able to see his life for what it is; once again he is able to see with clarity.
He writes, “We climbed, he first and I behind, until, through a small round opening above us I saw the lovely things the heavens hold, and we came to once again see the stars. (Canto XXXIV 136-139)” It teaches us that we must be honest with ourselves and see our life for what it is before we can see things around us with clarity. It also shows that for the most part, redemption is up to us. The Inferno, in both its structure and content, helps us to better understand the nature of sin and punishment.
It teaches us that we must lead a good life, not just for God, but for ourselves. This book is an deals with the nature of sin and punishment in our life, our struggle to be ultimately good, and the necessity of analyzing the nature of ourselves. Hell is present in both life and death, the soul is equally tortured in both. Hell is also avoidable.
Every person in Hell had a choice to make, and they chose Hell. Once in Hell, there is no redemption as stated in the quote, “I am the way to eternal grief, I am the way to a forsaken race… Before me nothing but eternal things were made, and I shall last eternally. Abandon every hope, all you who enter.”