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Themes in Dante's Inferno

Themes Examples in Dante's Inferno:

Canto 1

🔒 2

"Gone from the path direct..."   (Canto 1)

This is Dante's way of indicating that he has strayed from the "path direct," or, in more conventional religious terms, the right way.  Straying from the right way may be emblematic of estrangement from God, which is why he finds himself in the selva oscura, the dark wood.

"A she-wolf Was at his heels, who in her leanness seem'd Full of all wants, and many a land hath made Disconsolate ere now..."   (Canto 1)

The three beasts in this passage (the she-wolf, the leopard, and the lion) are among the most discussed and analyzed of the entire work. Most often, the she-wolf is said to symbolize lust; the leopard, pride; the lion, greed.  But they have also been said to stand for incontinence, violence, and fraud (respectively). These are the three primary categories of sin identified by Virgil in Canto XI. The appearance of these three symbolic animals foreshadows the broader structure of the journey Dante will take through the layers of Inferno.

"Now much I dread lest he past help have stray'd..."   (Canto 2)

In a metaphorical sense, Beatrice is afraid Dante has lost his soul, has "stray'd." Dante's progress through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso represent an extended—often painful, often numinous—attempt to re-align himself with the proper path and to find his soul again.

"Orpheus I mark'd And Linus, Tully and moral Seneca..."   (Canto 4)

By placing the mythical figures Orpheus and Linus together with the historical figures Tully and Seneca, Dante seems to be suggesting that poetry and values, as well as fiction and fact, exist side-by-side. 

"And I was sixth amid so learn'd a band..."   (Canto 4)

In this scene Dante includes himself among the "band" of poets he considers the six greatest in history. While this inclusion may seem hubristic, Dante would have considered his talent a gift from God, not something he achieved on his own. In the poem, Dante is chastising those who have wasted God's gifts; he can at least claim that he is not doing so with his own. In Paradise Lost, Milton makes the same argument but even more forcefully. 

"Down to the second, which, a lesser space..."   (Canto 5)

Dante makes it clear that, as he descends into the lower levels of the underworld, spaces become increasingly small, a metaphor for one of the greatest punishments of all—the lack of freedom.  The more serious one's sins, the less freedom one has to escape punishment. Dante and Virgil have reached the second circle, the place of those guilty of lust.

"they wrongfully With blame requite her..."   (Canto 7)

That is, even those who are favored by Fortune, figured as a goddess, blame her for everything that goes wrong. In Dante's universe, such relinquishment of moral responsibility is a grave error.

"goes on the ancient prow, More deeply than with others it is wont..."   (Canto 8)

This is one of many instances throughout the Divine Comedy in which Dante's status as a living soul is apparent. Here, the boat seems to be weighted more heavily with Dante on board than it normally is with the dead souls.

"thy ethic page..."   (Canto 11)

Virgil is asking Dante to think about Aquinas's commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle's treatise stands among the most influential philosophical discussion of ethics in history and was widely studied by medieval writers and scholars. Ethics are of great concern to Dante, for they focus on how men lead moral lives or, in Dante's metaphor, walk the right path.

"See that of us thou speak among mankind..."   (Canto 16)

Speaking together, the men punished for sodomy express the perspective that, though they sinned, they led good lives otherwise. Therefore, they wish to be remembered for their goodness, not their sins.

"these are not towers, But giants.  In the pit they stand immers'd, Each from his navel downward, round the bank..."   (Canto 31)

At first Dante thinks that the giants, who tower over the rim of the central pit, are actually towers. The giants are here because they betrayed their rightful ruler by raging against the gods. They are once-powerful beings who are now powerless to help themselves because God is the ultimate wielder of power. Thus the giants reveal one of the central themes of Dante's Divine Comedy: the importance of attaining to God's will.

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