World Literature: Dante’s Inferno Essay

The three beasts which appear at the very beginning of the story are a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. These creatures are all presented as being dangerous, and preventing the narrator from proceeding on his way. The passage is told in a dream-like way, and so it is logical to seek deeper symbolic meanings for each of them. Mark Musa comments that “The early critics thought of the three beasts that block the Pilgrims’ path as symbolizing three specific sins: lust, pride, and avarice, but I prefer to see in them the three major divisions of Hell.” (Alighieri and Musa, 2003, p. 73) It is possible that both of these interpretations are intended because the structure of hell is built up according to human sins, and the book follows this pattern too. Other possibilities of meaning could be read into the fact that the wolf is specifically a she-wolf. This reminds the reader very strongly of Rome since the story of the city’s origins rests on Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf when they were abandoned by their parents. This could mean that the wolf symbolizes the corrupt politics of the Roman state, or even the Roman church, in the lifetime of Dante. The she-wolf, leopard and lion could then represent factions in contemporary society which harm the people at large.

The three Heavenly Ladies in Inferno II are Beatrice, Lucia, and Mary. Just as the three beasts represent sins of mankind, so these three ladies represent salvation from sin. (Musa, 2003, p. 85). Beatrice is an innocent and beautiful young woman who inspires the pilgrim to continue. She represents the power of love. Lucia represents virtue which is tested and holds true. Her name means “light” and she is a beacon in the darkness of hell, showing that there is an alternative dimension of heaven. Maria is the mother of God, and the role is to pray for mankind, helping people to be released from purgatory and helped into heaven. The three heavenly ladies are therefore symbols of virtue and salvation, which is exactly the opposite of all the sin and suffering that goes on in hell.

Dante describes hell as consisting of various circles, each of which contains a group of sins. The sins in Upper Hell are those in circles 2-5 and in each case the environment and the sufferings of the sinners are set up in a particular way to reflect the nature of the sins that were committed on earth. Circle 2 represents the sin of Lust, and the people there are endlessly blown back and forth by storm, and never allowed to rest, which represents their restlessness, and the extremes of destructive emotion. Circle 3 represents Gluttony, and these sinners languish in a horrible pile of stinking mud, with the three great mouthed dog Cerberus howling and tormenting them. They suffer bodily pain and discomfort after a lifetime of bodily excesses. In circle 4, Avarice and Prodigality are represented by two groups of people pushing against each other, showing how being too greedy for material things, and too wasteful with these things, form equal and opposite forces. Circle 5 represents Wrath and Sullenness, with those given over to great anger fighting each other in the River Styx, and those who are lazy and sullen just sinking in its dark waters. This shows active and passive aggression at work, with both types of sin resulting in a cold and swampy fate.


Alighieri, Dante, and Musa, Mark. The Divine Comedy Volume I: Inferno. New York: Penguin, 2003.