Review: Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 52


4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Dante’s Inferno is the first part of a three-part epic poem, followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. This first part is Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell, guided by the poet Virgil.  At the beginning of the story, a woman, Beatrice, calls for an angel to bring Virgil to guide and aid Dante in his journey, so that no harm will befall him.  Interestingly, the inspiration for the poem seems to be the real-life Beatrice, Dante’s love (in life) who died young.  She plays a minor role in Inferno but will likely be more prominent in the later books (since Dante would hardly place Beatrice in Hell).  The nine circles of Hell are (in order of entrance and of severity):  Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, Treachery.


3 – Characters well-developed.

As an epic poem, characterization is not likely to be a strong point.  I debated writing a general review rather than my typical, structured review for this reason.   Having been written in the early 14th Century, though, the characters do seem more rounded and developed than some of those in the earlier Greek and Roman plays (comedy or tragedy – and which is this, by the way?).  Dante’s character is a bit flat, but the way he interacts with the people he meets, and with his guide Virgil, is interesting to watch and is round (his character responds harshly to those he believes have sinned greater, and his character reacts warmly to those he might pity, such as his mentor).  I couldn’t help comparing this to the Robin Williams movie, What Dreams May Come which is an interesting spin on Dante’s story, but which does much more with characterization.  Had Dante perhaps spent a bit more time on the Beatrice sub-story, for instance (which, admittedly, will likely come later) or had the Dante character had to endure more personally, rather than just being inquisitive and asking “Oh, what famous people do we know in this circle, Virgilius?” all the time- it might have enhanced the story elements a bit. 


4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I read the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow edition of this book, which was the first American English translation.  I did this for two reasons:  first, to stay as true to the main story as possible, while reading it in English (Longfellow was in fact criticized by some for how literally he interpreted the Italian – which is what I wanted) and second, because I wanted to simultaneously read something by Longfellow (sure, it’s not his story – but it’s his translation and that is definitely something).  In any event, it turned out to be a great decision.  Longfellow kept the story in its original structure (9+1) and managed to make the language and delivery work.  He did seem to overuse certain words at times – it seems he would get a particular word in his head for a while, let it go, then find another word to reuse for a while.  Aside from that, though, and some minor “clunkiness” due to the literal translation, which at times made the story read like a book narrated by Yoda, it was generally beautiful.  I did not expect the pages to turn as they did, nor did I expect some of the more graphic imagery (one man eating another’s brain, for instance, or demons tearing limbs from torsos).  The prose is what kept the story advancing, when characterization just wasn’t doing it for me.  Striking.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Admittedly, quite a bit of this poem went over my head, as I am not all that familiar with ancient Christian history, ancient Italian political/social history, or even that much Greek and Roman mythology.  I have read Ovid, Plato, Sophocles, Euripides, and others, so I was certainly familiar with many of the main characters (the Greek gods and heroes), but not as familiar as I would like to be, seeing as this poem was so referential to those classics.  A deeper understanding of not just who they were, but of what they did and why Dante might see them in a certain light would have been helpful.  Still, that Dante re-writes these classic characters in a way (placing treasured and beloved gods and heroes, like Paris and Achilles, in Hell) that is so daring was truly interesting to read.  It certainly caused me to pause and reflect on the lessons Homer and the gang may have been trying to tell, versus those of Dante.  Also, the commingling of Christian themes and pantheistic themes was surprising, not just in its presence but in how well it was done and in how natural it seemed.  Medusa and Judas in the same story – why not?!  Dante’s Inferno is absolutely brilliant – in a truly brilliant way, not in a “that ice cream flavor is EPIC” kind of way.  It helps to have a strong background in the histories and mythologies, but the prose and story itself are enjoyable either way.  I look forward to finishing the next two books in The Divine Comedy. 

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: Adult (High School +)

Interest: Mythology, Ancient Literature, Italian Literature, Christianity, Heaven/Hell    

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16 Comments on “Review: Inferno by Dante Alighieri

  1. Marking Dante is cheeky. Well I’ll ignore that. I am glad you enjoyed the book. I read a different translation. I agree with you that perhaps character is likely not to be covered in detail in an epic poem. It is good to reflect on the limitations in our reviewing structures. This was a very nice review in that it made me think fondly back to a reading experience and it also illuminated certain points which had resonance for me. You have cheered up my Monday!
    Many thanks,


    • Not sure I understand the cheeky comment. I review everything I read in generally the same way (to protect my sanity), but I admit in the review that I almost tossed it in this case. It certinaly shouldn’t be misconstrued as cheek or presumption… I’m not handing out grades to pupils, here. 🙂 Glad I could bring you back, though. This was my first experience with Dante – I’ve had the book for years but, as with Moby Dick and War and Peace, I let myself feel intimidated and scared, so got to it only after years of waiting. Also, like Moby Dick and War and Peace, I ended up really enjoying it! I should learn my lesson eventually…


  2. Have you read Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come? The film was based on the 1978 book. If you haven’t read it, it’s worth it. I read it about 14 years ago shortly after I finished Dante’s Inferno. It’s a short read. Finished it in one evening. And it’s the only book that’s ever made we weep while reading it. It’s very different from the film. Hollywood totally screwed with the characterization and plot of Matheson’s novel.


    • I have not – I didn’t even know the movie was based off of anything other than Dante’s Inferno (and that was an assumption). I absolutely love that movie, though, so if the book is better – I definitely need to get myself a copy STAT.


  3. I read the Dorothy L Sayers translation last fall. Absolutely loved it, although like you I felt like there was a great deal that was over my head. I did find her meticulous notes to be a great help. Coming up soon (after I read four books–I think) I’ll be doing a Book Tour review of _To Join the Lost_ by Seth Steinzor–a modern version of Dante’s vision. As his site says, “Who would have thought that Dante would return to hell, this time in the company of a middle-aged Jewish lawyer from Vermont?” I’ll be interested to see the modern twist.


    • Lol – That sounds hilarious. Matthew Pearl wrote the forward to my edition, and I have a few of his books, including The Dante Club, so I will probably read that soon – after finishing the rest of The Divine Comedy (so probably sometime in January – maybe I’ll put in on my 2012 TBR Pile Challenge list!).


      • The Dante Club is awesome! I so wish I had read the real deal before reading that one…but I was familiar enough with the general story that I wasn’t lost. I have to say that after The Dante Club I lost interest in Pearl’s books. Made it through The Poe Shadow (but not happily) and could not finish The Last Dickens.


      • Oh, boy – that’s not great to hear. I own all three of them. Lol


  4. The first time I read this was in a freshman english/humanities honors course in college. I’m sure the poem would have mostly gone over my head if not for that class. We spent three weeks discussing themes and motifs and history and all sorts of stuff. It ended up being one of my favorite reads of the course, which is saying something since I’m NOT a fan of poetry or epics.

    I reread this back in March this year. I chose the Robert Pinsky annotated translation, which turned out to be a fantastic decision. I have no idea what translation I read in college, but the Pinsky translation was clear and exact, and wherever there was a translation doubt, it was noted in the annotations. The annotations talked in detail about the various political, historical, and religious bits as well. While I know a lot about Catholic history, the political stuff is not my forte, and the annotations really helped me to see this in a very different light this time around. I went slowly, three cantos (plus notes) per day, and loved the book just as much the second time around!

    I’ve yet to read the other two books, and I really with Robert Pinsky had translated them as well. I’m not sure if that’s in progress or if he just did the first book, but I have a feeling that without a college class behind me and without those good notes, the other two books just won’t impact me as much as Inferno did.


    • I would definitely like to go with an annotated version next time (or for the next two books in the series) as opposed to an edition with notes. The notes were great, but I got tired (as always) of flipping back and forth, trying to find the corresponding notes section to where I was in the story… bleh.


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  6. When I read this about a year and a half ago, I read the Mandelbaum translation, which I liked. It had the Italian facing, so (since I can read a very little Italian) I could compare the original and see how poetic the original really is. I decided at the time that I really need to improve my Italian so I can read it in Italian sometime! There’s just no good way to match the original rhyme scheme in English.

    That aside, I spent much of the time reading thinking “I’ve got to read the Aeneid,” as the notes indicated that Dante’s source for pretty much all the mythology was Virgil. I would also highly recommend annotations or notes for the next two books, as the allusions become less familiar to the 21st century reader. (Paradiso in particular kept referring to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theological.)


    • Great recommendation – I am definitely not familiar with any of Aquinas’ works, although I have a book of something by him on my shelf somewhere.


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  8. I think Oscar Wilde would be a great choice for the Read-a-Thon. I hope he was witty enough to wake you back up 🙂


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