Dante’s Inferno is one of the sickest poems ever–read canto ninteen, lines twenty-two through thirty, wherein the simonists are buried upside down and their feet set afire, if you need convincing–but it derives much of its power from our desire to see justice meted out. (Is it any wonder why authors like John Grisham and James Patterson are so popular?)
And this, among other things, is ultimately what the Inferno is about: justice. Dante’s hell is harrowing, ironic, and–it’s true–funny, but it’s ordered according to intricate, cosmic laws. Evangelical preachers may want us to believe that hell is a frightening, chaotic place, filled with fire and pain, but this image is pretty silly. (Whenever I think of hell, I always remember how it was parodied in an episode of The Simpsons, where Bart dies and meets Satan.) Dante’s hell, while full of pain and suffering, is internal, with physical punishment serving to reflect the sinners’ inner torment; they’re pitiful and not at all deserving of sympathy (indeed, on several occasions, Dante taunts the sinners), and their lamentations are often meaningless and selfish–they’re often sorry because of their torment, not because they feel any remorse for the sin itself.
But if Dante is all of us–the very first line of the Inferno reads, "Midway through the journey of our life" (italics mine)–then we can all sympathize with his condition. He’s acutely aware of his imperfections, and he knows how far he has to go to make himself worthy of heaven. The second part of the Comedy, Purgatorio, addresses this: the Inferno is about recognizing sin, while the Purgatorio is about renouncing sin and making amends. And the Purgatorio is a brutal work, psychologically; the Inferno, with its vivid imagery, is about the exterior, while the Purgatorio, which is more abstract than its predecessor, finds Dante turning inward. In the Inferno, Dante knows he’s unworthy, but in the Purgatorio, he actually has to do something about that.
There are distinctly Catholic overtones to Dante’s theology (compare him with John Milton, a Protestant), but the Inferno is universal–that is, it can be interpreted in a number of ways, based the reader’s beliefs and frame of mind. (Indeed, I’d once read that someone–I don’t recall who–interpreted Dante’s nine circles of hell as being symbolic of nine months of pregnancy. This strikes me as odd, since, after crossing Phlegethon, hell gets more elaborate, with each circle having other, more specific circles. The theory gets more amusing and disturbing when you consider the thirty-fourth canto, where we find a three-mouthed Satan chomping on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius: "With his six eyes [Satan] wept, and down three chins / dribbled his tears and slaver slick with blood.") But the poem is very personal for Dante; he casts himself in all three books, but he also acts as Everyman, making the work personal for the reader. We can recognize our own sins in the Inferno. Its power comes not from the horrors the poet describes, but in the poem’s immediacy and how it speaks to us–we all deserve a place in hell, but we’re always given the chance to redeem ourselves.
And true justice isn’t merely about punishment–it’s also about redemption.