Dante’s “Inferno:” Nightmare Fuel | Simone Southers

Fantasizing about reading classic literature was (and still is) one of my favorite pastimes. So, when I got the opportunity to read works like Homer’s Illiad and Dante Alighieri’s Inferno with Professor Merkel, you could say that the dark academia wannabe in me was excited. Reading works like these were required for a class called “The Devil, the Hero, and God” which looked at literature that had these interactions. Inferno shows the more obvious interaction out of all the literature I read for the class. 

Whenever I would hear about Inferno while growing up, I always thought of it as an unattainable story that was only meant for really smart people. But somehow, someway, I was able to get my hands on it. I was finally one of the cool, intellectual kids. Much like Dante’s guide Virgil, Dr. Merkel guided my classmates and me through Inferno alongside Dante. Analyzing specific Cantos, like the infamous Canto V, and collectively cringing at the punishments the souls faced was a common occurrence in the classroom.

Essentially, while in exile from his home country, Dante wrote the first installment of his three-part adventure, titling it Inferno. Any person from Gen Z (and possibly millennials) who were, or still are, interested in fandoms will recognize the fanfiction self-insert aesthetic of his story. However, Inferno is allegorical and has more prestige than your typical Harry Styles or Draco Malfoy fanfics. 

It starts with him getting lost in the woods, losing his path, and ending up being chased by a vicious beast. He is saved by Virgil, one of his idols, and proceeds to fanboy in front of him. However, Virgil was tasked by angels in Heaven to help Dante find his path again. Now with a dead man as his guide, Dante travels through the depths of Hell and observes the many sins and punishments that dwell within it. The lower he got, the worse the sin and the punishments were. He learns about each punishment through interacting with the other souls at whichever level he is in. He eventually reaches the last level of Hell, housing Lucifer and the worst sinners of all time, and leaves such a horrifying place.

Surprisingly, the plot of Inferno is relatively simple. In short, our protagonist lost his way on the path, but he found it again. It also follows the problem structure formulated by a scholar named Gottschall. He states that in order to have a story, you need a character (Dante), a predicament (lost his path), and some attempt at extrication (him finding the path again). For the most part, figuring all this out was almost Hell itself, thanks Dante!

Gottschall also proposes that you don’t have a story if it doesn’t follow one or more of the “master themes,” as he coins it. One of the themes that he mentions is “death and mortality” which I believe fits Dante’s story. To look at this theme more in-depth, I would like to propose a theory: I believe that Dante uses Inferno as a “scare tactic” to motivate the reader/audience to remain faithful to the Christian faith. 

Aside from Limbo, each level of Hell has its own brutal and/or disgusting punishments for those who have sinned, with each level increasingly getting worse. This attention to detail can cause discomfort within the reader after reading about the first few punishments. As the story progresses, and as the punishments get more grotesque, the feeling of discomfort swells and disgust accompanies it. This plants a seed to being scared of the afterlife and what it all entails if the reader were to stray from their destined path. Not only does Dante tell us about these punishments, but he also shows us. He seems to have mastered this in the 28th Canto, where he primarily focuses on the first-person view. For reference, we’ll also take a look at the 12th Canto where it primirially focuses on third parties setting the scene and explaining the punishment.


Now, I don’t know if Dante was on some psychedelics during his exile or what– but he has quite the imagination for conjuring up a book that is filled with punishments that are so grotesque and terrifying. Some of them include: being a tree that feels pain when your leaves are eaten by harpies and spill blood when your branches break off, having feces continuously rained on you, being stuck upside down in ice as your feet are on fire, and having your head chewed on by Lucifer, amongst other punishments. Wild stuff.

Most of the sins are retold in a similar way to about the same extent, regardless of what the punishment is. You get a general gist of what the punishment is through Dante’s narration or through another character and observe how some of the souls interact with Dante. An example of this is from the twelfth Canto where those who are violent against their neighbors boil in a river of blood. 

Virgil is direct but curt in his detailing of the scenery around them (Canto 12) and the crimes they have committed. Although this was helpful to set the scene, it leaves little room for the imagination to wander, therefore missing the opportunity to form an emotional attachment. Even with a different narrator, a Centaur mind you, the impact of restating the punishment seems to fall flat. In theory, this would be a terrifying punishment, but it lacks the room to let us soak in and observe the imagery of this level of punishment.


Dante’s choice of making an entire tale in the first person was to have us hold the “mask” of Dante, vicariously living through his experiences in a hellish environment. But he is also “retelling” the journey he had gone through, adding an extra, but confusing, layer of closeness to the audience. At some points, it’s hard to tell the difference between Dante as a narrator and him as a character. In Canto XXVIII, there is a notable shift in tone starting from the very first line of the stanza.


Who, even with untrammeled words and many 

attempts at telling, ever could recount 

in full the blood and wounds I now saw? 

Each tongue that tried would certainly fall short 

because the shallowness of both our speech 

and intellect cannot contain so much…


Dante being at a loss for words is a new sight. Yet eerie. Possibly with a shaky hand, he continues to recount his tale.


…No barrel, even though it’s lost a hoop 

or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I 

saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart: 

his bowels hung between his legs, one saw 

 his vitals and miserable sack 

that makes of what we swallow excrement…


Saying that this is a sight for sore eyes would be an immense understatement. It is a sight that would make me want to rip out my eyes. But sadly, it doesn’t end there…


…While I was all intent on watching him, 

he looked at me, and with his hands he spread 

his chest and said: ‘See how I split myself! 

See how maimed Mohammed is! 

And he who walks and weeps before me is Ali, 

whose face is opened wide from chin to forelock… 

Behind us here, a devil decks us out 

so cruelly, re-placing every one 

of this throng underneath the sword edge when 

we’ve made our way around the road of pain, 

because our wounds have closed again before 

we have returned to meet his blade once more…’


Take a second to let this experience soak in. Imagine yourself in Dante’s place, since he’s already placed us there. Imagine the disfigured souls, the repetitive swipe of the demon’s sword, the sound that the clean slice makes.

Nightmare fuel. Pure nightmare fuel. A highly regarded religious figure just flashed his organs at us! By doing so, Dante plants the seed of disgust and horror within us. Describing the punishment in such detail gets our imaginations going, and has us groaning at the thought of it. Having the poem be in the first person helps immerse us into Dante the Pilgrim’s experience. Dante also being aware that he is retelling the story also helps with the immersion aspect. What makes this so different from the stanzas from Canto XII? 

Canto XII is telling us what the punishment is through a distanced perspective, while Canto XXVIII is showing us what the punishment is through firsthand experience. The 12th Canto lacks the closeness needed to fully cause discomfort within us as readers. The scenic aspect of Canto XXVIII has us as active participants, rather than passively observing. The detailed description of the dismembered souls in this level of Hell allows us to imagine, also in detail, how absolutely grotesque and terrifying it was for Dante to have such an encounter.


As we can see, Dante’s way of traumatizing us works to some degree. Perhaps driving instructors could be put on the same level as Dante. Anyone and everyone that has a driver’s license needed to attend some sort of driving school. Within it, you would learn what to do, and not do, behind the wheel. But, there is one class that I remember more vividly than the other four-hour classes I needed to take. On this day, we were first told about what could happen if we were in an accident, and what to do if we got into one. I didn’t pay much attention to this, opting to doodle in a notebook as the instructor continued to speak. Eventually, she put on two or three long-duration videos consisting of graphic images of car crashes and accidents. Clearly, traumatizing older teens is legal in Ohio. 

After watching the videos, and some years later, it’s safe to say that I haven’t gotten into any accidents since acquiring my driver’s license. So perhaps the traumatizing through showing versus telling worked.

One key thing to draw from both Dante and my driving instructor is that life is precious. As cheesy as it may sound, it’s important that we see the value in our lives, whether it’s through faith or by our own sheer willpower. It’s very easy to take aspects of life or our entire lives for granted. So, for the life of us, let’s avoid getting into car accidents, and avoid losing our way in a really dark, and scary forest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *