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The Inferno: In a Hopeless State 

By Joseph Gascoigne

"'Abandon all hope, ye who enter.'"[1]

This ominous quotation is perhaps the best known line from Dante's Divine Comedy, and possibly the most familiar passage of all mediaeval literature. The command is engraved above the Gate of Hell, through which the Comedy's narrator must pass to begin his descent into Hell and his journey, ultimately, to Heaven.[2] This engraving is the first part of Hell that Dante encounters as a physical space - Hell as a tangible, observable, and undeniable entity. The demand to abandon hope is also Dante's first interaction with the force of Divine Justice, the overriding concept that shapes and guides the rest of his pilgrimage. From the very beginning, Dante thus forefronts hope - or the lack thereof - as central to his conceptualisation of Hell, as much a part of its nature as the more conventional infernal tropes of justice and punishment. As parts two and three in this three-article series will show, hope is a fundamental concept throughout Dante's Divine Comedy, but it is in Inferno that the importance of hope is established.

But what does it mean to abandon hope? What did hope mean to Dante and what might its loss mean to the poet's readers, both past and present? Fortunately, Dante answers these questions in a discourse found within the Comedy itself. Unfortunately, this exchange does not come until the narrator reaches Heaven, so a discussion on Dante's theorising of hope will have to wait. However, part of Dante's genius is his ability to explain impossibly complicated concepts in simple terms, terms that make sense even seven hundred years later - and his approach to hope is no different. Put simply, Dante thought of hope in much the same way as many of us do today - the belief that human experience and existence were capable of improvement, and that things could and would 'get better'. For Dante, as Christian writing at the start of the fourteenth century, the ultimate goal of human existence was admittance to Heaven; the utmost terminus of improvement was eternal paradise itself. Ergo, for Dante, hope is faith in salvation, a belief that by living a virtuous life he can and will attain entrance to Heaven and reside forever in the presence of God. By defining Hell in terms of a lack of hope, Dante shows that those in Hell are permanently denied entry to Heaven and the presence of God. This banishment - and the hopeless state it generates - is the paramount punishment for sin. The diverse contrapasso tortures Dante later depicts serve primarily to remind sinners of the nature of their crimes and the reason behind the exclusion from Heaven.

The instruction to 'Abandon all hope' is a useful lens through which to examine the role of hope in Dante's theology and, therefore, to understand his depiction of Hell. In particular, there are three ways this quotation can be used to explore Dante's attitude to life, sin, and the afterlife and the immutable laws of Divine Justice that interweave all three.

Hopelessness as Hell's function 

The first reason the instruction to "Abandon all hope" is notable is that this passage can be regarded as Hell's only "speaking role" in the whole Comedy. During the course of Inferno, the narrator meets a sensationally diverse cast of characters including condemned souls, demons, angels, giants, and other mythical beasts. Yet none of these can be said to have the authority to speak for Hell. The demons Dante encounters have no prerogative or right to explain what Hell is or why it exists - they live only to implement and maintain some of the more horrific tortures. The most iconic instance of this may be the demons or Malebranche who use pikes and grappling hooks to force the souls of corrupt politicians beneath the surface of a boiling lake of pitch (Inferno, Canto XXI).

The same is true for other 'operatives' of Hell such as Charon the ferryman or Minos the judge of the damned. Indeed, both Charon and Minos are admonished by Dante's guide Virgil for attempting to impede a journey that has been willed by heaven (Inferno, Canto III; Canto V.). This reminds Charon and Minos - as well as the reader - that those in Hell have no willpower and no agency beyond what is designed and organised by Heaven. Indeed, in Inferno's climactic scene, even the 'Infernal King', Satan himself, has no will to speak (Inferno, Canto XXXIV).

Therefore, if Hell is regarded as a character in its own right, the instruction to abandon hope is their only proactive stance, statement, or action. Articulated in the first person, this inscription is Hell's mission statement, its manifesto of purpose and intent, as prescribed to it by God. Hell's entire identity is thus predicated on a state of hopelessness. 

Hopelessness as sinner's nature

The second reason the instruction to abandon hope is significant is because it is the first and only thing condemned souls are told to do. From then on, those sentenced to Hell are stripped of all volition, intent, and decision-making opportunities. Once beyond the Gate, the sinner's will is superseded by that of Divine Justice - they have no choice but to be inextricably incorporated into the immutable and inevitable system of Dante's afterlife. No longer endowed with God's gift of free will, condemned souls become passive agents in the afterlife - they are ferried by Charon, directed by Minos, terrorised by demons, and tormented by their own crimes.

While it is true that some characters appear to display independent volition - such as those that lash out at their fellow sinners or assault their own bodies - Dante makes it clear that they do so only in reflection of their sin, as part of their divinely ordained punishment (Inferno, Canto XXV). To be violent, either to themselves or to others, has become part of the sinners' fundamental nature - their sins have, in a sense, chemically altered their biological make-up. Once dead, those consigned to Hell have no more choice over their violent proclivities than they had over their heartbeat in life.

To abandon hope is thus the last act that sinners do as free and active human beings, representing the very deepest excess of human depravity and the fullest absence of divine love. Just as the salutatory statement to abandon hope defines the rest of Hell, the final act of abandoning hope reflects the lives of the condemned souls to whom that instruction is given. In life, sinners used their free will in a way that distanced themselves from God until, at the point of death, their final act of will was to abandon all hope and forgo all expectation of salvation. If Hell is viewed as a political state, then hopelessness is what defines the common citizenship of those consigned to live there.  

United in hopelessness

The third and final reason the infernal commandment is significant is that the abandonment of hope is the one characteristic that unites all of Hell's denizens. Rather than the bleak abyss imagined by the Classical World or the chaotic circus of terror pictured by his contemporaries, Dante's Hell is a fantastically organised and regimented polity, with the physical landscape designed to reflect Dante's intricate, all-encompassing, and absolute world view. Dante shows Hell to be a pit of concentric tiers, each home to those guilty of a particular sin and exhibiting a form of punishment reflective of that crime - a form of punishment called contrapasso. For example, in the eighth circle astrologers and fortune tellers have their heads twisted 180 degrees, in a gruesome and literal analogy of their attempts to see ahead of themselves and into the future (Inferno, Canto XX).

There are multiple layers to Dante's subdivision of Hell which becomes more intricate as the narrator descends to the lowest depths and meets those guilty of the worst crimes. Including the so-called Vestibule of Hell, there are 24 tiers to Dante's Hell, each with a unique design, corresponding torment, and population. Even within this hierarchy of crime, no sinner's experience of the afterlife is the same. Within the same circle, sinners undergo variations on a common theme, each tailored to their unique personal crime.

Dante thus sees Hell as a realm that is - because of human behaviour - as stratified, complicated, and differentiated as human society itself. However, the one thing that unites all condemned souls, no matter where they reside in Hell, is their lack of hope. This is the one constant characteristic shared by everyone from the uncommitted souls in the Vestibule of Hell all the way to those trapped with Satan in the pit of traitors. The absence of hope is the guiding principle that constitutes the foundation of Hell, from its Gate to the frozen lake of Cocytus at its very core. As stated earlier and as implied by the Gate's motto, it is the abandonment or the deprivation of Hope that constitutes the nature and the rationale of Hell.


The absence of hope is thus central to Dante's definition of Hell: it is the one thing Hell as an entity actively does or says; it is the last and only thing sinners are commanded to do once they reach the afterlife, and it is the one constant that unites all those condemned to Hell. Dante thought of hope as the belief in an earned salvation - the justified expectation that his soul would one day be admitted to Heaven. The complete absence of hope, therefore, meant the permanent eradication of this possibility - the soul's eternal exile from God's presence because of sin. This is the ultimate doom of the afterlife, far worse in Dante's eyes than the many grotesque tortures depicted in the rest of his Inferno

The next article in this three-part series will address Purgatorio. Here Dante again places hope at the centre of his poetry and his theology. Just as Hell is defined by the lack of hope, Purgatory is defined by the presence of hope - the belief that Heaven is still attainable, even for those whose virtue was marred.


[1] Inferno, Canto III, 9. Translations from the Italian are my own, unless otherwise stated. An online version of the Comedy is available at:

[2] To avoid any confusion, I shall use the anglicised terms 'Hell', 'Purgatory', and 'Heaven' to refer to the three distinct places or locations featured in the Comedy, whilst reserving the names Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso to refer to the three sections - or cantiche - of Dante's poem.