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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
Table of Contents

THEMES

Great undertakings fascinate us because they take courage:
attempts to climb Mount Everest, marathon races, expeditions
to the Arctic and the moon. Some poets attempt to capture the
essence of a single moment or feeling in a poem. Dante,
however, attempts nothing less than to present a vision of the
entire universe, throughout all time and space, and the perfect
pattern behind it. In this universe he places his
contemporaries, historical figures, and mythological beings,
defining them according to the choices they made on earth,
showing them individually in situations that suggest the
conditions of their souls. He also includes himself as an
ignorant pilgrim trying to find himself by groping his way
through and making sense of this monumental whole.



Those of us who have been told by writing teachers to "limit
the topic to something manageable" are probably wondering
why Dante didn't limit his topic. He does include a lot of
seemingly unrelated concepts, characters, and events. He does,
however, try to make clear why it is all there. One of Dante's
major themes is that:

1. The whole world, ultimately, has meaning, reason, and
order.

2. The source of the meaning, reason, and order is God's
Divine Plan.

3. The Divine Order is both knowable and achievable.

Thus, the way to Heaven is clearly marked, and each of us has
a chance to find it-if we want.

In order to show this, Dante wanted a poem that would be not
only a map of all human possibilities, but an explanation of
the eternal consequences of each choice a person could make.
He wanted to present the grandeur and dignity of God's
creation but also all the possible ways that man may reject it.
The Inferno is the map of the ways that God is rejected; we
shouldn't forget that it is counterbalanced in the whole poem
by the Paradiso, where God's ultimate glory really shines
forth.

Dante has a monumental task-to show that the will to find
God and the way to find God, are open to everyone. Some
critics try to explain how Dante does this by comparing his
poem to a Gothic cathedral: both have wide, sturdy bases, yet,
through careful structuring, they constantly show themselves
reaching for Heaven, toward God.

As we said earlier, Dante saw three parts of the universe (Hell,
Purgatory, and Heaven) arranged in concentric circles. Using
this structure,

1. Dante presents life on earth: lots of people and lots of
choices.

2. Instead of seeing these men in their historical context,
Dante puts them in order according to the eternal
consequences of the lives they chose to lead.

3. The order they're placed in, and the nature of their
situations within that order, give us an ethical map. (For
instance, in the Inferno, Dante walks from the least offensive
sin to the most offensive sin.)

4. From the ethical map, Dante shows us the general
principles on which he believed God's plan is based.

5. Once we see the general principles, we have a way of
knowing the eternal significance of any specific earthly
human act.

Thus, the way to Heaven is marked, step by step.

Table of Contents


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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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