Here are some basic facts about Dante and the poem.
Setting and Date. The action of the poem begins on Good Friday in the year 1300. But of course, we know that Dante the poet (as distinct from Dante the pilgrim – who is the main character of the story) is writing the poem much later than this. This literary conceit allows Dante to write of characters in the action of the story as if it were the year 1300, but with knowledge of what will happen after that date. Having this authorial foreknowledge allows him to do a lot of interesting things with the characters and action in the story.
Hell. The setting of the first canticle of the poem, Inferno, is of course, hell – the entrance to which is a mysterious dark wood, and the bottom of which is a frozen lake. To get to purgatory – well, you’ll just have to read Canto XXXIV! The geography of hell is quite detailed, each level corresponding to a particular sin, and populated by those guilty of that sin. Each suffers a contrapasso, “punishment”, that is particular to that sin. Those there “have lost the good of the intellect”; through their choice-making, they have lost even the power of choosing, and are subject to an eternal compulsion of their own making. The irony is that they, contrary to reason, desire to go there.
Purgatory. The Doctrine of Purgatory is of early patristic origin, though not explicitly scriptural. Origin bases his reflection on purgatory on Matthew 5:26 (“…thou shalt by no means come out thence till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.”) He writes, “These souls receive in prison, not the retribution of their folly; but a benefaction in the purification from the evils contracted in that folly; a purification effected by the means of salutary troubles.” (Treatise on Prayer, xxix, 16) That describes well the “rules” of Purgatory: it is a place not of punishment (as is hell), but of purification through suffering. Unlike hell, those in Purgatory desire their contrapasso, since it creates growth, movement, and progress: Purgatory is in essence heaven, since all souls who are placed there eventually get to heaven.
Poetic Style. Dante is writing in the style of Terza Rima, that is, an interlocking rhyming scheme, thus: aba bcb cdc, etc. This is maintained throughout the poem, and has the effect of driving the narrative forward.
Dante – Character Background. We learn in the very first Canto that Dante gets “lost” in midlife. What could this mean in Dante (the poet’s ) “real” life? Most believe that this midlife crisis – for one who had attained a great deal of fame and renown in his own time – was precipitated by exile from his beloved Florence. Dante was a player there – and for various complicated reasons, got churned and burned by the politics of his time. In the constant battle between two political factions in Florence – the Ghibellines and the Guelphs (who will figure prominently in the poem), Dante got the losing end of the stick, and was kicked out of his beloved city, to take refuge with a wealthy patron, Cangrande della Scala (literally “big dog” – and some think that the reference in Canto 1 to the heroic greyhound in Canto 1 is nod to him) in Verona.
Exile. It’s worthwhile to bear Dante’s exile in mind. It was his life-determining catastrophe. He grew up in bustling, exciting Florence; he excelled there; he rose to prominence there; he identified with Florence and his life in Florence. When he was banished, he became essentially an itinerant scholar and poet. No matter how settled he was in later life, his work exhibits a sense of rootlessness, of being far from home. He writes in the Commedia that the exile “will leave the things you love most dearly . . . you will see how salty is the bread of others, how hard a road it is to climb up and down the stairways of others.” In this, he is very much like the John Milton who began Paradise Lost; the Quaker revolution, for which Milton worked and was an emissary, had fallen. Another great exile writer is Thucydides, who wrote his book on the Peloponnesian Wars after having been exiled from Athens. He writes his Commedia to explain the ways of God to us, but also to explain things to himself.
Beatrice. Dante’s poetic engine is fueled by a woman he met when she was just 9 years old: Beatrice Portinari. Dante’s romantic glimpse of her, at only a few times in his life, rocked his world. Beatrice is a feminine Christ figure in the poem.