Dante’s Inferno is set both in medieval Italy and in an imaginary, intricate version of Hell designed to warn against sin and encourage readers to have faith in God. Broadly, Dante’s Inferno occurs in a medieval world; while Dante spends almost all his time in Hell, the characters he meets there are either from late antiquity, such as Virgil, or from medieval Italy, such as Pope Boniface VIII. Once the story gets underway, only the first two cantos, or chapters, of Dante’s Inferno take place outside of Hell; these cantos occur in a nameless, dreamlike wood which symbolizes Dante’s spiritual aimlessness.
After Dante leaves the dark woods, the remainder of the story is set in Hell: a pit of concentric circles, each smaller than the last, where the sinners are punished for particular sins. Yet Hell is more than a pit; it is a whole world, with four rivers (Styx, Phlegethon, Acheron, and Cocytus), a large city with iron walls, and crumbling towers that divide one circle of Hell from the next. There is both wind and rain in Hell, though never sunlight.
Dante’s design of Hell is thematically important, communicating both Dante’s warning against sin and his hope in Heaven. Because each circle of Hell punishes a different sin, and the sins grow worse as Dante descends deeper into the pit, the arrangement of Hell indicates which sins are most severe. Uncontrolled passion, for instance, appears at the top of Hell, and malicious actions appear further down, which signals that deliberate violence is clearly the more serious offense. Hell’s physical landscape draws on classical versions of Hell: the four rivers are all found in Greek and Roman versions of Hell, and by including them, Dante draws on the threatening images of Hell likely familiar to his readers, to stress the horror and danger of sin.
Moreover, the iron city, tall towers, and sunless plains of Hell conjure an atmosphere of terror that helps Dante communicate his theological points: to a medieval Christian like Dante, being in Hell means being separated from God and experiencing divine justice, and the despair of that situation is partially conveyed through the forbidding landscape. Yet Dante also designs Hell as architecturally crumbling. Virgil tells Dante that this collapse happened around the time that Jesus Christ died and rose again. The ruin of Hell thus points to the ultimate victory which Dante believes that God will have over Hell; Dante intends to give readers hope in the power and goodness of divine mercy.