Inferno

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This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
Paganism vs. Christianity Theme Icon
Individual Fame Theme Icon
This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Inferno, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Icon

Throughout the Inferno, there is a tension between the earthly world we inhabit while living and the next world we inhabit in the afterlife. Dante is remarkable to so many spirits of the underworld because he is able to transgress this boundary and journey through hell as a living, earthly soul. Dante is in the unique position of being able to go to hell and back, and can therefore communicate things about the underworld to an earthly audience. Dante constantly remarks how the things he sees in hell are more amazing, frightening, and horrid than anything one could ever possibly see on earth. Thus, he stresses the profound difference between hell and earth. And yet, in a sense, the entire point of Dante's poem is to show the close relationship between these two worlds: what one does on earth affects how one spends eternity in the next life. And this is not simply a matter of being good or bad, and then going to heaven or hell. The very particular way in which someone sins influences the very particular way someone is punished in a specific part of hell. Moreover, in Dante's geography, hell is deep underground, under the surface of earth. Hell and earth are therefore part of the same whole. Dante's repeated use of similes highlights this tension between similarity and difference between earth and hell. All of his similes comparing aspects of hell to earth rely on there being a likeness or similarity between parts of the two worlds. And yet, most of the similes operate in order to show how hell is unlike anything on earth, how things in hell are larger, more horrible, or more terrifying than their earthly counterparts.

The sinners that Dante encounters in hell are all there because, in essence, they cared more about this world than the next. They prioritized riches, power, and other earthly things above eternal salvation and did not weigh their sins against the consequences they would cause in the afterlife. Even in hell, many souls seem oddly preoccupied with earthly matters, talking with Dante about local Italian politics, asking about their hometowns, and prophesying the future of Florence. At times, Dante himself seems more interested in such local, earthly concerns than in learning about the afterlife. When he was writing The Divine Comedy, Dante had recently been exiled from Florence, and many episodes in the Inferno comment on the political strife of Dante's native city. He thus often uses his cosmic poem to make very specific points about his earthly life. Readers of Dante's Inferno must, like Dante's characters, balance a concern for both earthly and other-worldly issues in the poem.

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This World vs. the Afterlife Quotes in Inferno

Below you will find the important quotes in Inferno related to the theme of This World vs. the Afterlife.
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 15 Quotes

Keep handy my Thesaurus, where I yet
Live on; I ask no more.

Related Characters: Brunetto Latini (speaker), Dante
Page Number: 15.119-120
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Dante speaks to the shade of his teacher Brunetto Latini. As their conversation finishes, Latini asks Dante to recall and continue to use his book: the Thesaurus.

Latini repeats and develops the pattern of characters asking Dante to honor their memory outside of Hell. This repeated theme indicates that the characters in Hell maintain a vested interest in the Earth even after their demise—and that, more specifically, they want to protect their reputation and memory beyond their death.

That Latini wishes this to take place through his Thesaurus offers a slightly different spin on the theme. Whereas other characters have requested that Dante speak of them as people, Latini focuses on the written work he has produced. There he can “yet live on”: he will continue to exist through its pages—existing, in fact, beyond the confines of Hell. Dante establishes, then, the way that inscribed language grants a version of immortality to its writer. And, of course, this is precisely what the Divine Comedy is permitting Dante to do: crafting his own "thesaurus" of the divine spheres that will allow him to persist beyond death, and even beyond his own personhood.

Canto 26 Quotes

Florence, rejoice, because thy soaring fame
Beats its broad wings across both land and sea,
And all the deep of Hell rings with thy name!

Five of thy noble townsmen did I see
Among the thieves; which makes me blush anew,
And mighty little honour it does to thee.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Page Number: 26.1-6
Explanation and Analysis:

After meeting a number of shades that hail from Florence, Dante gives this ironic set of comments on his city. He simultaneously glorifies Florence and disparages it for producing these agents of sin.

Dante plays on a traditional way of exalting cities: by recounting their fame and how they have emissaries spread throughout the world. Thus he notes the “soaring fame” of the city whose metaphorical “wings,” or broad presence, are a fixture in “both land and sea.” Yet by adding the detail “all the deep of Hell rings with thy name,” Dante makes this praise ironic—turning their fame into infamy. For a presence in Hell would speak to a fame due to sinning. This condemnation becomes more explicit when he hones in on the specific characters—“five of thy noble townsmen”—he encountered. He says explicitly that they brought “mighty little honour” to their city. This passage differentiates, then, between different forms of fame that a city or a person may experience. Dante shows that one may indeed remain significant beyond one’s death, but that “little honour” is accrued if the reason for that fame is having sinned.