The Inferno Plot Summary
Dante spends a horrific night, the eve of Good Friday 1300, in a forest. The date is significant because the chronology of Dante’s journey through Hell mirrors Christ’s decent into Hell after his crucifixion. In the morning, he tries to scale a mountain but is impeded by a lion, a wolf, and a leopard. The spirit of the poet Virgil appears and offers to take him by another path to the top of the mountain. The way leads first through Hell but ends in Paradise. Dante accepts this journey to enlightenment in spite of self-doubt and fear.
As they approach the entrance to Hell, Virgil and Dante see a crowd of people hurrying along the banks of the river Asheron. Wasps torment them continually. Virgil tells Dante these are the souls who neither sinned nor worshipped God, and so are rejected by both Heaven and Hell. They are ferried across the river by Charon and meet the noble heathen in a castle on the first ring of the inverted subterranean cone, which is Hell. These souls are not punished except by exclusion from Paradise. This is Virgil’s eternal home. The second ring is guarded by Minos and is the first ring of four in which souls are punished for indulgence of natural desires. In the second ring, the souls of the lustful are blown about by ceaseless winds, as in life they were buffeted unreasoningly by passion. In the third circle, the poets find the gluttons soaked by heavy rain and clawed by the three-head dog Cerberus. They encounter a soul from Dante’s city, Florence, who predicts that one of the two warring factions in that city will conquer the other. Continuing downwards, the poets meet Pluto, the Greek god of wealth, at the entrance to the fourth ring, which holds both the squanders of wealth and the greedy. These souls are condemned to roll heavy weights back and forth for eternity. The fourth ring is the prison of the wrathful, those who indulged their anger, and the sullen, those who indulged their ill humor. The wrathful fight in the mud of the marsh called the Styx and the sullen gurgle completely covered in the mud. Dante and Virgil are ferried across the fifth circle to the entrance of the walled City of Dis, but a group of fallen angels deny them entry. A messenger from heaven arrives and opens the door for them, but not before the Furies threaten to turn Dante into stone with the head of Medusa. Within the city walls is a plain filled with flaming open tombs. The souls of heretics, Christians who denied certain doctrines of the Church, are stacked within these tombs. Dante converses with the soul of a political rival of his family, and is disturbed by his prediction that Dante will be exiled from his city, but Virgil reassures him that he shall hear the whole of his future when he reached Paradise.
The pilgrims pause at the cliff that divides the sixth circle from those below, and Virgil gives an overview of the classes of sinners held in the three final rings below. The first circle is reserved for the violent and divided into three rounds: violence toward God, towards one’s self, and towards one’s neighbor. The second circle nests hypocrisy, flattery, sorcerers, cheating, theft, simony, and pandering. The third and last circle of the City of Dis holds traitors. After this introduction, they proceed down into the seventh circle. Passing the Minotaur, they view a river of blood in which men, who committed acts of violence towards their fellowmen, are sunk at varying depths according to their guilt. Centaurs armed with arrows guard them, one of which guides the poets to a ford in the river. They cross and find themselves in a mystical wood. Here men who committed suicide are transformed into trees and tormented by Harpies who tear their leaves. At the edge of the wood lies a great plain of fiery sand. Blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers are punished here by the blistering heat. The poets meet a reptilian monster with a human face, called Geryon, guarding the usurers and have to ride upon its back down a watery vortex in order to reach the eighth circle that holds the fraudulent.
The eighth circle, Malebolge (evil pouches), is divided into ten rounds, which are like ten fortified trenches of a fortress. The poets pass through the circle along footpaths that bridge the chasms. In the first chasm, former seducers are lashed while marching. In the second, flatterers covered in excrement and enveloped in vile vapors gasp and beat themselves. The third round holds those who sold spiritual things. Here Dante meets a former Pope, imprisoned upside-down in a stone cylinder with flames licking the soles of his feet. The fourth round holds magicians who attempted to see the future. They weep and march backwards because their heads have been twisted around backwards. The fifth chasm holds those who used their public office or authority to make money. They boil in pitch and are attached by hook wielding demons when they rise above the surface. One of the demons informs Virgil that the next bridge is in ruins and outfits the pilgrims with an escort of unruly demons to take them to the next bridge further along the chasm wall. Along the way the demons are distracted by a wily soul and end up fighting among themselves while the poets continue. Easily angered the demons pursue the pair who deem it wise to plunge into the sixth chasm rather than await their escort. There they get an up-close view of the hypocrites trudging along in leaden cloaks gilded on the outside. Climbing out of the chasm they reach the seventh chasm, which holds thieves. The thieves are enveloped in serpents and some morph in between human and reptilian form. The eighth chasm holds evil counselors, including Ulysses, who are individually enveloped in flames. The ninth chasm holds those who willingly created division among other people. They are mutilated in various ways symbolic of their particular sins. The tenth and final chasm of the eighth circle holds the falsifiers, who are afflicted by various diseases.
The ninth circle of Hell is a well surrounded by giants embedded to the waist in its wall. Nimrod who led the building of the tower of Babylon is the first they encounter. The mythological giant, Antæus, lifts the two poets and sets them down in the frozen marsh at the center of the well. The circle of the traitors is divided into three rounds: betrayal of one’s family, betrayal of one’s country, betrayal of hospitality, and betrayal of lords or benefactors. All are frozen into the marsh. They meet various infamous Italians who Dante treats mercilessly, and finally they arrive face to face with Satan, who is a massive three-faced, winged monster frozen breast deep in the center of Hell. In each of his three hideous mouths he chews an archetypal betrayer of Church or the Empire. Judas, Brutus, and Cassius hold these places of honor in Hell. After a brief but memorable pause, Virgil takes Dante in his arms and climbs down Satan’s back emerging on the other side of the center of the earth, which marks their exit from Hell. It is now the dawn of Holy Saturday. To reach the surface of the earth the two poets follow the path of the river Lethe, which at the end offers a view of the beauties of Heaven.