When I had journeyed half of our lifes way, I had found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the past that does not stray (Canto I, lines 1-3). These opening lines establish themes that are to come in this book. These are themes that actively engage the reader in this unforgettable journey through Hell that can easily be applied to their own lives. Dante includes the reader by using words like our life that draws the reader in by telling them that they are actually accompanying Dante on the adventure that is not only his but the readers too. These lines reveal the true subject of the story in which man, by actions of good and bad caliber through free will, justly deserves a reward or a punishment. It is the story of man's voyage to God that allows the reader to do a self evaluation and ultimately find the true path.
One of the major themes that emerged was the idea that if one has separated from God they are also separated from happiness. Much like St. Augustine, Dante believes that there is no such thing as happiness if God is not in your life because instead of one focusing on the divine love being showered upon them by God, they are focused on ego and nothing else. This self-centeredness is what ends up corrupting individuals and the eventually an entire society.
The structure of Hell encompasses this theme in many ways. Hell is seen as a gaping hole that goes from the surface of the earth to its center, and at each level the hole gets narrower and darker. Dante and Virgil go deeper into hell so there is the sense of claustrophobia from being imprisoned by foul smells, unbearable noise, and unspeakable torment, until the bottom of Hell where we find a total absence of life. Those who simply gave way to lust, gluttony, and anger are found in the highest levels. Then there are those who deliberately chose to commit violence against themselves and others in pursuit of their ends. Finally come those who deliberately misuse the human power to think, to speak, and to reveal one's truth to another human being. To be truly human is to be guided by the natural bond of love that brings all human beings together, and honors the special bonds of love created by kinship, or even the more sacred bonds entered into voluntarily by inviting someone as a guest or by swearing allegiance to someone. Those at the deepest levels seem to have fully hardened themselves, completely violating these bonds and are now barely human.
The way the souls interact with each other proves this theme to the reader. With the exception of Paolo and Francesca in the second circle, none of the souls show any concern for another. In fact they not only show hostility toward each other, they even try to make each others suffering worse. The ice that we see in the very bottom of hell where we encounter the image of Ugolino and Ruggieri gnawing at each other is an example of how all true feeling and life are paralyzed once you get into hell. The vivid images of the souls relationships with and against each other are a stark contrast to the relationship that we see between Dante and Virgil. Virgil is almost seen as an attentive father that is guiding Dante, his grateful and eager son.
When we meet Satan, the theme seems to be more obvious, especially when Dantes description of Satan is contrasted with our own interpretation of him. To some he is active, and is able to leave Hell to tempt Eve, and according to the bible he was one of the most powerful and beautiful angels before be was cast down. So there is this image in the heads of some that he this evil creature that is also quite beautiful. Satan is described as He wept out of his six eyes; and down three chins, tears gushed together with a bloody froth. Within each mouthhe used it like a grinderwith gnashing teeth he tore to bits a sinner (Canto XXXIV, lines 53-56) Dante's Satan is ugly and terrifying, completely trapped in the ice that he created with the flap of his wings that were fashioned like a bat and nothing about him could appeal to even the most rebellious adolescent. The theme, "This is not what you really want," could not be more powerfully expressed.
Another theme that was clearly expressed was the theme anyone can go to Hell and learn from the experience. Not necessarily by physically stepping foot into Hell, but by being in darkest, most lowest, most fearful place in their lives. Being in such a horrible place can allow a human being to learn and grow from the experience, simply by wanting to grow and by being willing to accept the help that is necessary to experience the devastating in order to take part and understand the good. The way he embodies this theme initially is by making himself the "hero" of his own poem and portraying Dante the pilgrim as a person who means well but finds himself off the righteous path and lost in the dark woods that he so desperately wants to escape. When he sees the sun on the mountain, he starts moving toward it right away. But when beasts come against him, instead of engaging in a battle with them as the hero of a classical epic might, he cowers and retreats back into the woods. It seems only Virgil can save him, and his chief merit is that he is able to appreciate Virgil and willing to follow him.
But even that merit is limited. The first canto ends with Dante willingly following Virgil; lead me to the place of which you spoke, that I may see the gateway of Saint Peter and those you describe as sorrowful. Then he set out, and I moved on behind him. (Canto I lines 133-136). However, the second canto begins with him doubting his decision; And just as he who unwills what he wills and shifts what he intends to seek new end so that hes drawn from what he had begun, so was I in the midst of that dark land, because with all my thinking, I annulled the task I had so quickly undertaken. (Canto II, lines 37-42) Virgil response your soul has been assailed by cowardice (Canto II, line 45) tells us this and makes the reader think he is no classical hero, like Aeneas from Virgil's Aeneid, who went to the Underworld and returned. Nobody in this time or who has read any kind of heros journey epic would ever dream that he was worthy to go on an adventure like this, and by the sounds of it neither would he. In the same way, all through the Inferno, again and again, Dante is terrified and even ready to go back, but Virgil's encouragement and help make it possible for him to "feel the fear and do it anyway." This wavering hero that Dante the author creates lets his readers form a bond with this unheroic hero, and encourages us all to see this journey as one that perhaps even we could take part in.
Another important theme of The Inferno is that, even though human wisdom through experience is essential to moving from misery to happiness, human wisdom is not nearly enough. One must ultimately rely on divine love and grace. This is seen when we find out in the second canto that Virgil, the symbol for the highest human wisdom, has only come to Dante's aid because he has been petitioned by Beatrice, who was for Dante a revelation of a powerfully divine. This takes us back to the opening lines of the poem. He uses the term true path which symbolizes the religious part of his journey. The image of Dante moving aimlessly through the dark savage forest, dense and difficult sets up a visible division between the darkness involved in a lack of faith in God and the light provided by Gods love. It is the knowledge that divine love and grace are at work that enables the fearful Dante to take heart and move on into Hell. The fact that he wants to find the right path shows us that he is confident in God. This shows us Dante knows that even in a sinful world it is possible for him to find God. Because there is no mention of where he came from or even where he was headed in the first place it allows this journey to be applied not only to Dante the pilgrim and maybe even Dante the poet, but to every human being in any time period that is fortunate enough to come across this reading. It is a journey that must be taken in order for one to understand their sins and find peace with God.