The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri somewhere around the year 1308 and originally called The Comedy, is widely considered one of the preeminent works of Italian literature. It is an epic poem that consists of three books: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, which chronicle (narrate) the adventures of Dante the Pilgrim (a fictitious character personified by Dante himself) in his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Although frightening on a literal level, on a more significant level it represents allegorically a deeper subject: the trials of the human soul to achieve morality and find unity with God. As we travel with Dante the Pilgrim on his journey to leave behind his sin and achieve peace with God, we can see that even from the very beginning of Inferno these themes of man’s return to God, the perfection of God’s justice, and the higher importance of Grace over Reason are made apparent and are the foundation stones upon which Dante chooses to build the rest of his Divine Comedy.
In Canto I, Dante the Poet immediately makes clear the allegorical nature of his poem by beginning with the following passage: (Musa 3)
“Midway along the journey of our life,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),
A bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.
But if I would show the good that came of it
I must talk about things other than the good.”
The first theme that becomes apparent from the above passage is the theme of man’s return to God. By writing “our” journey of life, Dante thrusts himself into a role of a character known as an Everyman – a common early Christian metaphor that is intended for each individual reader to put him or herself in the place of the character and actually experience all that the character experiences. In doing so Dante shows us that this story of his journey through hell is not just about him – he is linking his own personal experience to the lives of all of humanity. Now suddenly this story is not just about Dante. It is about all of us and our experience through this mortal life and the mistakes we make as we strive to return to God. According to Christian theology, we all live at some point of our lives in sin, lost in what this “dark wood” of error, and Dante shows the terrifying hopelessness of sin by describing this “wood” as a “wood of wilderness, savage, and stubborn… a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.” The reason Dante arrived in this dark wood is because as he states, he “had wandered off from the straight path,” which represents the virtuous life that leads to God. His wandering off the path was such a gradual change that he states that he does not know how he ended up there, only that he was “sleepy,” signifying his lack of clear though and understanding. However, Dante’s journey eventually...