In Dante’s Inferno, Hell is associated with the darkness that Dante experiences throughout the novel. Darkness is a persuasive symbol, contrasting the light that Dante comes across as well. I will be focusing on the Dark Wood, cantos one and two, and circle 8, with Malebolge. The first thing that Dante notices when he finally exits hell is the sight of the stars in the sky, which he could not see underground, symbolizing that he has returned from the dark world of sin. But beyond its associations with evil, darkness can also represent a kind of uncertainty, since one cannot see clearly in the dark. Thus, when the poem opens in a dark forest, this does not necessarily mean that Dante is in a place of sin (though it may also carry this association), but especially means that Dante is in an uncertain, unknown place. He is in a state of mental confusion matched by his inability to see clearly in the forest. He tries to climb the mountain in the beginning of the poem because he sees the light of the sun shining over it, promising some kind of knowledge or clarity. However, as Virgil informs him, he must come to the light through a more difficult path, one full of darkness.
When Dante says he has lost the "straight way" (Dante’s Inferno, canto 1, lines 2-3) he again leaves much to our imagination, with the result that we can perhaps relate to the protagonist by imagining many possible meanings for this deviation from the “straight way,” also the right way. In medieval thought, abandonment of the "straight way" often indicates alienation from God. However, Dante certainly views such veering as a grand metaphor for the moral and societal problems of his world in addition to any spiritual or psychological issues the phrase may suggest. Dante's notion of the "straight way" appears in all three realms of the afterlife as well as in the world of the living.
The uncertain symbolism of the three beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf contributes to the shadowy atmosphere of the opening scene. The three beasts are allegories of three different sins, the leopard represents lust, the lion pride, and the wolf represents avarice. The leopard represents lust. The few descriptions the reader is given of the leopard suggest it can lure people with its seductive mystery. Its spots seem to ornament this beguiling and beautiful creature. Even its pelt is alluringly ''gaudy.'' The lion symbolizes pride. Dante exaggerates the lion so that it is ''great'' and its head is ''enormous.'' The lion seems to arrogantly lift its head, as if daring others to challenge its authority. The she-wolf stands for avarice or extreme greed. Her wasting away seems to display her desire. She is empty and has wanted for so long that now she is desperate for anything. No matter what she gains or takes, she will always crave more.
Dante begins to realize he is in unknown territory he says,
How I entered there I cannot truly say,
I had become so sleepy at the moment
when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth;
where I first felt my heart plunged deep in fear… (Dante’s Inferno, Canto 1, lines 10-15).
This illustrates that Dante is unaware of his surroundings and is frazzled by where he has found himself. He does realize that he has steered away from the truth and is terrified by this. Dante’s gaze wanders up the hill and he finds the summit all beautifully lit up like Christmas lights by the sun, a real contrast to the dark wood he’s stuck in. Predictably, his heart lifts at this sight. For Dante, Man must always be aware intellectually of his own need to perform the righteous act. Therefore, Sin is a perversion of the intellect. Thus, when Dante finds himself in a "dark wood," he is speaking allegorically for any man who is not constantly conscious of the "right path." If every waking moment is not consciously devoted to morality, Man can find himself in a dark wood. Being in the dark doesn’t refer to violence or criminal intentions, it alludes to being in a place in the middle. Throughout the poem, the classical poet Virgil stands for human reason and human virtue, two admirable characteristics in themselves, but alone they are not enough to gain salvation. Through his poetry, his high ethics and morals, and the mere fact that he, in his Aeneid, had already made a journey through Hell in the person of Aeneas, Virgil is the perfect guide for Dante.
Being “in the dark” is just another term for being unaware and uninformed of oneself and the surroundings. The three beasts have been so variously identified and understood as representing so many qualities, it is sufficient, as noted in the introduction, to assume that they are three obstacles to Dante's returning to the "straight path." Dante uses numerous similes, comparisons usually with "as" and "so" to help illustrate what he claims to have seen by describing something similar that is more likely to be familiar to us. The first simile states,
Just as a swimmer, still with panting breath,
now safe upon the shore, out of the deep,
might turn for one last look at the dangerous waters,
so I, although my mind was turned to flee,
turned round to gaze once more upon the pass
That never let a living soul escape” (Dante’s Inferno, canto 1, lines 22-27).
Here Dante compares his narrow escape from danger to the experience of a man who, after arriving safely on shore, looks back at the sea that almost claimed his life. Dante was unsure that he would survive, just like the man who survived from the frightening waters. Both of them dodged a bullet in a way, but how is that a way to live?
In the eighth circle of hell, Malebolge is the kingdom of darkness, and for Dante it is not easy to enter this circle, the poet is terrified by the legions of demons that appear in front of him and try to block the entrance. Malebolge means evil ditches, and this Circle is dedicated to the sins of fraud, and each ditch is for a specific kind of fraud. From this point on are punished the sins committed with malizia, which means with an intention to harm people with violence or deception. The devils in this area are very ferocious and frightening.
Dante first thinks the giants are towers, because his sight is impaired by the darkness. Thus, when the poem opens in a dark forest, this does not necessarily mean that Dante is in a place of sin (though it may also carry this association), but especially means that Dante is in an uncertain, unknown place. The words "chasm" or "ravine" seem to carry the connotation of depth and ruggedness that Dante would wish, but "moat" would probably be equally acceptable, as Dante implies in an early stanza. The word "well" might be replaced with "crater" or "abyss" in matters of clarity. The prefix of "Male" means variously "sickness" or "evil." Dante says,
This was the surface image they presented;
And as bridges from a castle’s portal stretch
From moat to moat to reach the farthest bank,
So, from the great cliff’s base, just spokes of rock,
Crossing from bank to bank, intersecting ditches
Until the pit’s hub cuts them off from meeting (Dante’s Inferno, canto 18, lines 13-18)
Malebolge is a terrible place, in the true meaning of the word. Dante has devoted thirteen cantos to this one circle of Hell. These are the heart of the Inferno and they contain some of the most dramatic scenes, both in content and in poetic richness. Although Dante isn’t in the dark as he was in the Dark Woods, he is still uncertain of what he is facing once he entered Malebolge. This cantos is physically bad and dark, unlike the Dark Woods, which is metaphorically and spiritually an eye opener for Dante.
darkness represents Satan and the depths of Inferno where all sinners go. The story begins when Dante awakes to find himself in the Dark Woods confronted by the three beasts of incontinence (the She-wolf), violence (the lion), and fraud (the leopard). Virgil, the representative of human reason, helps him escape the Woods by guiding him through hell and showing him the symbolic retribution that each sinner must face for their crime. Dante sees the three sins the three beasts represented as the three main divisions of Hell. Dante the poet starts off by using darkness as an allegory to being “in the dark,” in a spiritual type of way. He is lost by many means and Virgil is there to guide him. Much later in the book, Dante comes across genuine evil, the most monstrous of all the places he has seen; Malebolge. The interbreeding of two very different, yet similar comparisons help shape Dante intellectually, spiritually and metaphorically.