Dante and Virgil arrive at the gate of hell. Above the gate, there is an inscription on the lintel. The inscription says that this is the way to the city of desolation and eternal sorrow. It says that God, moved by justice, made the gate and tells all those who pass through it to abandon all hope. Virgil comforts the scared Dante and tells him not to fear.
The inscription's warning defines hell as a place of hopeless suffering and punishment, but nonetheless created out of divine justice. Dante, though, does have hope and is miraculously able to go through hell while still a living, earthly soul.
As they enter hell, Dante hears shrieks, shouts, screams, and lamentations filling the air. He asks Virgil who these suffering people are, and Virgil replies that they are people who were neither good nor evil in life. Together with the angels who sided with neither God nor Satan in their war, they dwell here at the edge of hell, rejected by both heaven and hell.
Being pious is more than a matter of simply not sinning. As these non-committal souls show, one must actively practice virtue and side oneself with God.
Dante sees these neutral souls, who committed neither to evil nor to good, chasing after a blank banner. They are naked and continually stung by wasps and hornets until they bleed. Worms consume the blood and tears they shed. Dante and Virgil then come to a river, with a crowd of people waiting at the riverbank. Virgil identifies the river as Acheron and as they approach, an old man named Charon comes near with a boat, to ferry souls across the river into hell.
The neutral souls receive a fitting punishment in hell: since they backed no clear side, they follow a banner that is blank, supporting no clear leader, and run back and forth with no direction. The idea of a fitting punishment is a crucial component of Dante's sense of divine justice, whereby punishment completes and perfects sin. Charon is a character from pagan mythology whom Dante incorporates into his Christian hell.
Charon tells the souls waiting by the river to despair and not hope for heaven. When he sees Dante, he tells him to leave, refusing to ferry across a living man. He tells Dante that this is not his path. But Virgil tells Charon that it is God's will for Dante to pass through hell while living. Charon relents, and begins rounding up the souls due for hell, whom Dante observes chattering with fear and cursing their fortune.
Charon is confused by Dante's transgressing the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead. Virgil convinces him to ferry Dante across the river, though, using only the power of his words, thereby relating the facts of God's will just as Dante is relating the details of hell.
Virgil tells Dante that these souls are all the people who have died under God's wrath, and that it is thus good that Charon told Dante this is not his path, as good souls do not come this way. Suddenly, there is a great earthquake, and Dante is so terrified that he faints.
Virgil hints that Dante is a good soul, but still has a long way to go (literally and figuratively) in becoming a truly virtuous, pious person. At this early stage in his journey, Dante is still easily susceptible to fear at the instruments of God's justice.