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.
This World vs. the Afterlife ThemeTracker
This World vs. the Afterlife Quotes in Inferno
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.
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.