The Inferno is the first part of Dante Alighieri's poem, the Divine Comedy, which chronicles Dante's journey to God, and is made up of the Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise). The poems are quite short: it would take about as long to read the whole Inferno as it would to read the detailed canto summaries and analyses, although they might be helpful for understanding Dante's difficult language. In the Inferno, Dante starts on ground level and works his way downward; he goes all the way through the earth and Hell and ends up at the base of the mountain of Purgatory on the other side. On the top of Purgatory there is the terrestial paradise (the garden of Eden), and after that he works his way through the celestial spheres. The plot of the Divine Comedy is thus very simple: it is the narrative of Dante's journey towards redemption. The Inferno is generally thought to be the best and most interesting part, which may be a result of its inverse structure: the moral plot is less visible because Dante descends into Hell. God is almost totally absent, and Dante, not excessively constrained by piety, feels free to make Hell colorful and lively, which is not necessarily the case in the Paradiso.
The Inferno begins when Dante, in the middle of his life, is lost in a metaphorical dark wood that is, sin. He sees a sunlit hill but it unable to climb it because three wild beasts frighten him back (these symbolize different sins). Fortunately he then meets the spirit of the Roman epic poet Virgil, who says that he has been sent by Beatrice to lead him to salvation. (Beatrice was the spirit of a woman Dante loved very much, who had died years before.) However, Virgil says, they must go through Hell to get there. Dante is a little frightened, but is encouraged by the thought that Beatrice is looking over him.
First Dante and Virgil go through the space outside Hell in the underworld, where the neutral spirits, who were neither good nor bad, are left to bewail their fate neither Heaven nor Hell will accept them. Then they come to the Acheron, an infernal river, where the boatman Charon ferries the damned souls into Hell. An earthquake leaves Dante unconscious, and when he wakes up they are in the first circle of Hell, Limbo.
In Limbo there are the virtuous non-Christians: ancient Greek and Roman heroes, philosophers, and so forth. There are also some worthy Arabs, and the virtuous Jews of the Old Testament were there until Christ took them to Heaven. Dante is pleased to find himself accepted as an equal by the great classical poets. The spirits in Limbo are not tormented: they live in green meadows with a gentle sadness. Virgil was one of them.
They passed to the second circle, where the demon Minos judged the sinners and assigned them their place in Hell. In the second circle the lustful were punished by having their spirits blown about by an unceasing wind. Dante spoke with the spirit of Francesca da' Rimini, who had fallen unhappily in love with her husband's younger brother. He felt so sorry for her that he fainted from grief.
When Dante awoke they were in the third circle, where the gluttons were punished. After Virgil pacified the doglike demon Cerberus, they saw where the gluttons lay in the mud, tormented by a heavy, cold rain. One of them, Ciacco, predicted the political future of Florence for Dante.
In the fourth circle they had to pass the demon Plutus, who praised Satan. There the avaricious and the prodigal rolled weights around in opposite directions, berating each other for their sins. They came to the Styx, where the wrathful and the sullen were tormented. The wrathful fought in the muddy water and the sullen sank beneath it and lamented in gurgling voices. The boatman Phleygas resentfully ferried them across, passing the wrathful shade of Filippo Argenti, who tried to attack Dante.
They then came to the walls of the city of Dis, but the fallen angels inside barred their way. Fortunately a messenger from heaven came to their aid and opened the gates, then left.
The sixth circle held heretics, who were imprisoned in red-hot sepulchers. Dante spoke with Farinata, a great-hearted Epicurean who predicted Dante's exile from Florence. He also met Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, the father of his friend Guido. They passed the tomb of a heretical pope.
They came to a stinking valley. Taking a moment to get used to the stench, Virgil explained to Dante the structure of Hell. It was cone shaped and was made up of increasingly tight circles. In Dis they would see the punishments of the violent, the fraudulent, and traitors. These were more serious sins than those of the earlier circles, which resulted from human weakness and overindulgence.
In the first ring of the seventh circle they passed the Minotaur and met a group of centaurs, who shot the sinners who tried to escape with their arrows. The first ring was made up of the violent against others: tyrants and murderers. These were tormented in a river of boiling blood: the Phlegethon.
In the second ring they found a black forest full of twisted trees. These were suicides: Dante spoke to one after seeing a broken twig bleed. The suicide was Pier della Vigna, who had committed suicide while wrongfully imprisoned by his patron. They were interrupted by two souls dashing through the forest, chased by black hounds. These were those who had been violent to their own possessions: those who had squandered their goods.
In the third ring there were the violent against God: blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers. These were punished by having to sit or walk around on flaming sand under a rain of fire. Dante spoke affectionately with one sodomite, Ser Brunetto, who had been something of a mentor for him when he was alive. Thre other Florentines, also people Dante respected, asked him news about the city, and he said that it was doing badly.
Virgil called up the monster Geryon, who symbolized fraud, from the eighth circle, while Dante spoke with some usurers. Geryon took Dante and Virgil down to the eigth circle on a terrifying ride. The eigth circle was Malebolge, and was formed of ten different enclosures in which different kinds of fraud were punished.
In the first, Dante saw naked sinners being whipped by demons. He recognized one of them as Venedico Caccianemico, who had sold his sister to a lustful Marquis. He also saw Jason. These were panders and seducers: people who used fraud in matters of love.
In the second, flatterers were mired in a stew of human excrement.
In the third, the simonists were punished by being stuck upside down in rock with their feet on fire. Notably, Dante spoke with Pope Nicholas III there, who predicted that the current pope would also be damned for that sin. Dante was very unsympathetic.
In the fourth enclosure, diviners, astrologers, and magicians were punished by having their heads on backwards. Dante was sad to see such a distortion of humanity, but Virgil hardened his heart.
In the fifth, barrators were flung into a lake of hot pitch, and were guarded by devils, the Malebranche. Dante was frightened to see a devil come with an official from Lucca and throw him in. Virgil convinced the Malebranche that they should be allowed to pass unharmed, and they were given an escort of demons. As they were passing along, one sinner did not dive into the pitch fast enough and was caught by a devil. Through trickery he managed to get away unharmed, however, and two devils fell into the pitch, while Dante and Virgil discreetly left.
Eventually pursued by irate devils, Dante and Virgil quickly went to safety in the sixth pouch of Malebolge, where hypocrites were made to wear heavy lead robes. They included two Jovial Friars, dishonest leaders of Florence.
They had a hard time reaching the seventh enclosure, where thieves were bitten by serpents, and then transformed into serpents themselves. Dante saw some famous thieves change shapes in this way. One of them predicted political misfortune for Dante.
In the eighth pouch, fraudulent counselors were aflame. Dante learned the story of Ulysses' death, and heard the bitter tale of Guido da Montefeltro, who had been tricked into advising the pope to massacre some people, thinking that his soul was protected by a papal absolution.
Dante was horrified by the gore in the ninth pouch, where sowers of scandal and schism were maimed by a devil with a sword. Among them he saw the founder of Islam and his nephew, and also the leader of a contemporary heretical order.
In the tenth pouch there were three groups of falsifiers. The falsifiers of metals (alchemists) were plagued by a disease like leprosy. Dante spoke with two of them, who energetically scratched their scabs off. The second group was made up of those who impersonated other people, like Gianni Schicci and Myrrha. These were insane. There were also counterfeiters and liars.
Moving on to the ninth circle, Dante was frightened by a loud bugle blast. What he thought was a city with towers turned out to be a number of giants, including Nimrod and those who had rebelled against the Olympians. A comparatively blameless giant helped Dante and Virgil into the pit of the ninth circle.
In the first ring of the ninth circle, Dante saw sinners frozen into ice (the circle was a frozen lake). These were traitors against their kin, including two brothers who had murdered each other. The second ring, where sinners were deeper in the ice, held those who betrayed their parties and their homelands. Dante tormented one of these, Bocca, to make him confess his name.
Two sinners were frozen close together, with one eating the other's head. Dante learned that the cannibal was Count Ugolino, who had been starved to death with his innocent children by the Archbishop Ruggieri.
Dante spoke with some other sinners in the third ring, who had assassinated their guests. He learnt to his surprise that it was possible for a soul to be in Hell when its body was still living.
In the fourth ring, traitors against their benefactors were totally covered in ice. Finally, at the bottom of Hell, Dante saw the gigantic figure of Lucifer, who ground up Judas, Brutus, and Cassius in his three mouths. Virgil and Dante climbed on Lucifer all the way through the center of the earth and to the other side, where they finally emerged in the southern hemisphere.