The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between 1308-1320 AD. As one of the most influential books ever composed, this religious allegory about the importance of salvation marks the start of Italian literature.
The story begins at Easter in the year 1300. There are three parts (cantiche) – aligning with the Trinity’s Father Son, and Holy Ghost. They are entitled Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso). Each section has 33 Songs (cantos), except for the first part which has 34. These add up to a total of 100 Songs to represent Dante’s “perfect” number 10 (10 x 10 = 100).
Written in the first person, Dante imagines his soul’s spiritual quest as it ventures from darkness into light.
“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost . . .”
The narrator wakes up one day to find himself in the dark forest of sin. The spirit of Virgil appears and promises to lead him on the path of salvation through Hell, Purgatory, and into Heaven. Virgil eventually hands him over to Beatrice (the ideal woman).
Dante’s world is full of monsters and demons. Each soul is punished according to its former deeds, which range from small self-indulgent transgressions such as a lack of willpower. to violent and malicious crimes. Hell is portrayed as an underground funnel made up of circles. At the bottom sits Satan who perpetually gnaws on history’s three worst traitors: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. The punishments inflicted on the travelers are vivid and relentless – the stuff of eternal nightmares. Yet those sinners who have confessed to their crimes before death are eventually permitted to leave Hell and head through Purgatory in search of Heaven.
Purgatory is a mountain made up of 7 rings, with the Garden of Eden at the top. Once cleansed of their sins, the wandering souls rise up toward Heaven where God appears as a vision of light.
Dante’s morality poem is a tale of justice and retribution. The wrong-doers are punished for their past crimes with the worst torments imaginable. They have to suffer alone and abandoned, devoid of help or hope.
So why is this classic called The Divine Comedy when it is a full-blown scary vision of Hell? Because Dante’s epic has a happy ending and therefore is not considered a tragedy in the standard literary tradition.