Inferno

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Light and Dark Symbol Analysis

Light and Dark Symbol Icon
Another pervasive symbol throughout The Inferno is the binary of light and dark. Hell is, of course, associated with darkness. Dante often remarks on the darkness of hell and how some areas of hell are completely devoid of light. God and heaven, on the other hand, are associated with light. (There is some light in hell, but it is generally not the result of God's brightness, but rather of burning fires that cause pain and suffering.) The first thing that Dante notices when he finally exits hell is the sight of the stars in the sky, which he could not see underground, symbolizing that he has returned from the dark world of sin. But beyond its associations with evil, darkness can also represent a kind of uncertainty, since one cannot see clearly in the dark. In the eighth circle of hell, for example, Dante first thinks the giants are towers, because his sight is impaired by the darkness. Thus, when the poem opens in a dark forest, this does not necessarily mean that Dante is in a place of sin (though it may also carry this association), but especially means that Dante is in an uncertain, unknown place. He is in a state of mental confusion matched by his inability to see clearly in the forest. He tries to climb the mountain in the beginning of the poem because he sees the light of the sun shining over it, promising some kind of knowledge or clarity. However, as Virgil informs him, he must come to the light through a more difficult path, one full of darkness.

Light and Dark Quotes in Inferno

The Inferno quotes below all refer to the symbol of Light and Dark. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Inferno published in 1950.
Canto 1 Quotes

Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Journey, Light and Dark
Page Number: 1.1-3
Explanation and Analysis:

These are the opening lines of the Inferno. They describe how the speaker, Dante, is personally and spiritually lost—and in need of aid to right himself again.

This beginning is a classic example of a story “in medias res,” or that which commences mid-action without any preface. Instead of outlining the scene or his personal history, Dante places his reader immediately in the moment. Indeed, the phrasing highlights suddenness with the opening word “Midway” and the opening image “I woke”—both of which point to a rapid shift. Thus the text stumbles into its own first events without any orientation—much as the speaker Dante has lost “the right road” and has no clear route forward. The Inferno places reader and speaker in analogous situations of being lost.

It is worth digging into the specific way in which the speaker Dante has become lost. He casts it, first, as a crisis that has hit at a specific moment—“midway” in his life, which implies that his experience in the Inferno will seek to address this personal plight. The image of the “dark wood” takes the idea of being internally lost and makes it an external experience, while the “right road” can indicate both a geographical disorientation and also an ethical or spiritual uncertainty. Thus the opening lines of the Inferno establish a key theme in this work: an external geography and journey will be used as an allegory for an internal one. As Dante travels through the different circles of hell, he will address these corresponding moral and personal uncertainties.

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Canto 16 Quotes

So may thy soul these many years abide
Housed in thy body, and the after-light
Of fame shine long behind thee.

Related Characters: Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, and Jacopo Rusticucci (speaker), Dante
Related Symbols: Light and Dark
Page Number: 16.64-66
Explanation and Analysis:

Dante speaks to three Florentine noblemen, who give him advice on how to act when he returns to earth. They encourage him, particularly, to seek fame so that he will be more immortal than a common man.

The exchange reveals the fraught relationship that Dante as both poet and speaker has to the idea of fame. If one were to take Jacopo’s comments at face value, one might believe that “the after-light of fame” is an essential end for Dante to pursue. That is to say, that while he should try to “abide” in the world for an extended period of time, more important is seeking a fortune and renown that persist “long behind” him. Similar recommendations have been offered by other characters, and they repeatedly request that Dante aid their fame in shining beyond the confines of Hell.

Yet one must also note that these recommendations come from Florentines who have been condemned to Hell. Though Dante may treat them with interest and respect, the fact that they have sinned should cause their advice to be received skeptically. Too much pride and ruthless seeking of fame is, indeed, staunchly opposed to the universal love and humility so repeatedly lauded by this poem. Thus while Dante’s characters often place value on immortality through fame—and the Divine Comedy itself could be seen as the fulfillment of that project—the work also implies that egoistically searching for immortality will be self-defeating in the end.

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Light and Dark Symbol Timeline in Inferno

The timeline below shows where the symbol Light and Dark appears in Inferno. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Canto 1
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
Individual Fame Theme Icon
This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Icon
Midway through the course of his life, Dante wakes up in a dark forest, having lost his way from the right road. He does not know how he... (full context)
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
Dante sees a mountain with the sun shining above it. The sight comforts him, and he attempts to climb the mountain. But... (full context)
Canto 2
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
Paganism vs. Christianity Theme Icon
Individual Fame Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
It is now evening, as Dante begins his journey. As narrator, Dante invokes the muses and the personification of... (full context)
Language Theme Icon
...to heart, and his spirits are raised like a drooping flower that suddenly blossoms in light. Dante says that he is now eager and resolved to begin his journey. He starts... (full context)
Canto 7
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
Dante and Virgil walk along a dark, bubbling body of water and the marsh which forms at the end of the river... (full context)
Canto 8
Paganism vs. Christianity Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Dante sees two lights at the top of the tower and sees a beacon far off flicker as if... (full context)
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
...that they are approaching the city of Dis, and Dante sees a city with buildings glowing red. Virgil explains that they glow from the endless fires that burn in the lower... (full context)
Canto 9
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
...he did once before, when he was sent to fetch a soul from the deepest, darkest circle of hell. Virgil reassures Dante that he knows the way. (full context)
Paganism vs. Christianity Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
...he is saying, as he is distracted by the tops of the towers of Dis, glowing with flames. There, he sees three female figures appear: the Furies. They are covered in... (full context)
Canto 10
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Icon
...things—the future and past, but not the present. He can sometimes see glimmers of God's light from afar but when it comes near in some form, he cannot see it clearly.... (full context)
Individual Fame Theme Icon
...Virgil tells him that he will understand everything when he is basking in the glorious light of heaven. They take a path toward the center of Dis, from where Dante smells... (full context)
Canto 13
Paganism vs. Christianity Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Virgil and Dante come upon a dark forest filled with old, gnarled trees and devoid of any greenery. Here are the harpies,... (full context)
Canto 15
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
Individual Fame Theme Icon
Dante explains to Brunetto how he found himself in the dark wood and is now being guided by Virgil through hell. Brunetto encourages him to keep... (full context)
Canto 24
Language Theme Icon
...they cross the bridge, Dante hears unintelligible voices from below but cannot see into the dark where they are coming from. He asks Virgil if they can go down after crossing... (full context)
Canto 26
This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Icon
...Virgil take the dangerous climb up some rocks and Dante can see the eighth trench lit up by many small, twinkling fires. Dante compares the small, moving fires to fireflies and... (full context)
Canto 29
This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Icon
...along until they can see the next trench—except that, as Dante remarks, there is no light for it to be seen by. Dante has to cover his ears because the shrieks... (full context)
Canto 31
This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Icon
...seriously upset with him, Dante follows him forward. Dante can hardly see anything in the darkness, but hears a loud horn that makes thunder seem quiet by comparison. Dante thinks that... (full context)
Canto 34
Paganism vs. Christianity Theme Icon
This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Icon
...island where Mt. Purgatory is located. Dante can look up and once again see the bright stars in the sky, which he hasn't seen since entering hell. (full context)