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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
Table of Contents

FORM

The form of the Inferno derives from the fact that it is a
comedy and an epic and involves a quest.

1. THE COMEDY

From what you have read so far, you can see that the Inferno
is not all that funny and are probably wondering why it is part
of the Divine Comedy. We think of comedy in terms of TV
situation comedies where a problem situation is presented in
the first few minutes of the program and is resolved by the end
of the episode. Actually, comedy as a form has a successful
ending. The hero of a dramatic comedy wants something and
certain people and/or elements are stopping him from getting
it. The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye says that the
obstacles to a hero's goals make up the action of the comedy;
overcoming the obstacles is the comic resolution. The Divine
Comedy is about Dante's attempt to get to Heaven, to
Beatrice, and to God. Because he is successful at overcoming
the obstacles within himself and the obstacles along his way,
the poem is called the Comedy.



2. THE EPIC

Some of you have read epic poems; perhaps the Iliad, the
Odyssey, or Beowulf. From them you know the basic points
of definition. An epic is a long narrative poem of grand scale
involving superhuman heros upon whom the nation or even
the world depends. An epic usually is written in elevated or
very formal language, has an invocation of the Muses, and
begins in medias res, in the middle of the action. Is the Divine
Comedy an epic?

In the broader application of the term, it is. It does begin in
medias res, but is not always written in elevated language.
(See the preceding section on Dante's language and style.) The
scale of the poem is clearly epic, since it includes the entire
universe. The hero, though he does accomplish his
challenging task, cannot be superhuman and still convey
Dante's major theme that God and Heaven are accessible to all
of us. Whether the world depends on Dante or not becomes an
issue on this thematic level. On a literal level, Dante's success
or failure won't affect anyone. But on a metaphoric or
allegorical level, Dante's successful journey points the way to
Heaven for the rest of mankind. Whether we decide the Divine
Comedy is an epic or not, the poem does have epic
characteristics.

3. THE QUEST

The motif of a mythical hero's quest is familiar to many of
you. The hero becomes separated from the people and/or the
place of his birth, becomes aware of a need or a problem,
takes a dangerous journey to an unknown place to win either a
prize or knowledge to help him resolve the problem, and
returns to save the people. The Aeneid and the Odyssey are
based on a hero's quest.

Dante the character is a questing pilgrim, lost and eager to
find the way to salvation and to Heaven. He becomes
separated, lost in the Dark Wood, and journeys through the
entire universe. From what, you ask, does he save the world?
What huge contribution does he make? Again, on the literal
level, none. On other levels of meaning, however, he brings
back the understanding and the inspiration that make it
possible for him to be the author of the Divine Comedy and to
show people the way to heaven. How Dante does this is more
clearly explained above in the section on symbolism and
allegory.

Table of Contents


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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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