Identifying Themes, Motifs, and Symbols in Inferno

This Storyboard That activity is part of the lesson plans for Dante's Inferno

Dante's Inferno - Symbols and Themes


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the poem, and support their choices with details from the text. Dante’s Inferno is an especially rich text to examine because of its meticulously constructed allegory and its (frequently graphic) visual writing.

Themes and Imagery to Look For and Discuss

How a Spiritual Journey Reflects Personal Turmoil

Dante’s own world has been turned upside down with his exile from Florence. He would write letters to the papacy and other political leaders in Florence, trying to regain a political foothold and make his way back to the city. During this time, he harbored a lot of ill-will towards his political foes, and wrote many into the tortuous scenes in Inferno.

As he found his efforts rebuffed, he began to doubt how this all fit in with a grander plan set forth before him by God. In questioning his faith, he found himself in a spiritual turmoil that also reflected his personal turmoil. This led him to try to make sense of everything through a spiritual journey, where he hopes to come to a better understanding of his situation by the end of it. This is also reflected in his frustration with Farinata, who refuses to tell him where some of their mutual acquaintances are, and Virgil advises Dante that Beatrice (Divine Love) will answer all of his questions soon enough.

Reason vs. Faith

As Dante comes to this crossroads in his life, he realizes that faith alone isn’t enough anymore. He calls on Virgil, who represents Human Reason, to help guide him through the turmoil he’s facing so that he can come to a better place where Divine Love, or Faith, can take over and guide him once again. Virgil provides the element of Reason for Dante so that he can make sense of why things have happened, and where people’s sins will take them. Once he’s reached the level of Earthly Paradise, Divine Love, in the form of Beatrice, will lead Dante into Heaven. At this point, Virgil must disappear, because Human Reason cannot either understand or coexist with heavenly, spiritual faith.

The Nature of Sin and Punishment

Dante organizes the levels of Hell in order of what he believes are the least evil to the worst evil sins. In accordance with each sin, the souls are subjected to different levels of punishment. All are in despair and wailing for relief, but he reserves the more painful punishments (like fire) for the worst offenders.

In Dante’s mind, the worst offenders of all are those who were treacherous to their masters, like Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius. This is also the level where the reader will find Lucifer, or Satan, who betrayed God by mounting a rebellion against Him. Dante feels that justice is served when it is doled out in accordance with the severity of the sin, and when it reflects the nature of the sin in some way. This contrapasso, or poetic justice, is a central theme of Dante’s allegorical Hell.

Motifs and Symbols

The Three Beasts

The Three Beasts represent the Worldliness that Dante tries to escape from. His spiritual path of righteousness is blocked by these hideous beings, and he needs Human Reason (Virgil) to save him and help him turn this path of turmoil into spiritual reconcile with God. Dante’s exile are his darkest days, and he is having difficulty finding the meaning of his exile to God’s greater plan.

The Gates of Hell

The Gates of Hell are inscribed with the words:

I am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way to a forsaken people,
I am the way into eternal sorrow,

Sacred justice moved my architect,
I was raised here by divine omnipotence,
primordial love, and ultimate intellect.

Only those elements time cannot wear were made before me,
and beyond time I stand.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Replacing the “I” in the first stanza with the word “sin” highlights a deeper meaning. Sin leads to woe, to being forsaken, to eternal sorrow. Hell has existed before man, and will exist forever because the punishment of sin can never end. Therefore, all souls who enter (except for those on a heavenly errand, like Dante) should abandon any hope of return; Hell is eternal. Their chance to be “good” people ended with their deaths.


Virgil was revered by the people of Dante’s time, but, as was often the case with classical poets and writers, the people of the Middle Ages had to reconcile Virgil’s great work with his lack of Christian faith. One way to get around that was to look for hidden meanings in their writings.

For instance, Virgil once wrote of a savior who would come to save the Roman people. Many in Dante’s time took this to mean that Virgil was prophesying the coming of Christ, so they viewed him as a godly man who just missed the true understanding that came with Christianity, rather than an evil, godless, pagan.

As a fellow poet, Dante personally admired Virgil’s work, and saw him as a voice of reason in a godless world that had not yet seen the blessing of Christianity. Therefore, he calls upon Virgil to be his guide through the many sights he will see and experience. Virgil’s explanations will reflect Human Reason, and will escort Dante until Divine Love can take over. Dante is saying that Human Reason can only get a person so far on their spiritual journey, and Faith will have to take the person the rest of the way.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Inferno. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The Inferno you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for the example(s) that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

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