Both Dante’s Inferno and Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved present images of Hell. In the former, Hell is represented as an actual place unto itself; where a soul goes after its time on Earth has expired, to suffer Divine retribution for its sins. This is fitting, as Dante is trying to express his vision of what he believes awaits sinners in the next world. To do so, he constructed a reality of elements of our world to which we can more easily relate; hence his use of ditches, cliffs and lakes to express various forms of torment. He also chose to represent types of suffering using worldly images; as such, Demons wield swords to cut off limbs, and use their teeth and claws to tear muscle from the extremities of shades.
Levi on the other hand did not set out to write a book portraying Hell, and yet at the same time hell is precisely what he wanted to write about. In The Drowned and the Saved Levi very clearly divides up his feelings on different aspects of the Holocaust. His goal is to record, in no uncertain terms, various topics of discussion pertaining to the Holocaust, along with his theories and dissections of them. Having survived Auschwitz, Levi is in the position to provide an extremely brilliant insight into the causes of suffering in Concentration Camps, as well as afterward. He wrote this book not simply to tell his opinion, but to protect the world memory of the Holocaust from fading, at least as much as possible. In several instances he makes references to Dante and Inferno. However Dantesque his experience in the camps may have been, overall there are several major differences.
To start, Dante was sent on a tour of Hell, through Divine Will. Why? So that he could be saved. Dante was not sent to Hell to suffer. Rather, Virgil was provided to him as a guide and protector, to take him down and through the deepest depths of torment and suffering. Dante was not meant to suffer so much as he was meant to learn. God has reasons for every decision he makes, including as to the suffering of sinners. God is just however, and each soul’s punishment is precisely suited to its transgression. This is what Dante was supposed to gather on his journey. Take, for example, the second pouch of Malebolge. In it, Dante sees shades doomed to be covered in human excrement for all time. This is the pocket of flatterers, those who spoke well of even the foulest of people. This is a physical representation of the crime these souls are guilty of. In life they spoke false praise, shit, so to speak. It is fitting that their punishment is to forever wear their words on the outside. In Dante’s Hell Divine physical form is used to represent, as well as punish, the sins, whether cerebral or corporal, of life.
In The Drowned and the Saved Levi does go through a metaphorical hell, and he depicts it as such. However, this hell is not divine in nature, nor does Levi’s passage through it appear to serve any divine purpose. Recall that Levi does not go through hell in its entirety, as Dante did. Dante, during his excursion to Hell, descended through each circle in succession, and saw every part of hell. He passed through the very bottom, lowest place of Hell, to emerge back in the world. Levi, on the other hand, did not do such a thing. First of all, Levi was a prisoner of Hell, not a tourist in it. Also, his guilt was that of having Jewish blood; Levi considered himself agnostic. His guilt was that of perception. Those in power perceived Jews to be inferior, and as such, their very existence was tainted. Although Dante’s God does not allow non-Christians into Paradise, neither are they doomed to eternal suffering. This is important because it shows that the suffering Levi and others like him endured was not the will of God.
Rather, Levi’s hell was the construct of a power that fancied itself to be a god, but in reality was not. In Dante’s Hell shades cannot move about. Their sins have been judged, and the proper punishment assigned. They are to forever remain where they have been placed. There is no opportunity for one to move about the hierarchy, which is something that existed in the Lagers. Prisoners were assigned special positions, such as being a Kapo or a cook or a Sunderkommando or any one of numerous other jobs. These jobs granted the person assigned to them special privileges. More often than not, special jobs meant more food, and, quite often, less-restricted movement about the camp. Not everyone was able to get a special job, but the possibility existed. I say not everyone was able, stressing the able portion. The crimes of the prisoners were almost all the same, and as such, it was the preference and choice of the Nazis as to who could move up, and did not so much depend on their punishment. This is another point where the Lagers diverge from Dante’s representation of Hell.
Both Dante and Levi were saved from the suffering from hell, but in radically different senses. Dante’s salvation was one in which he was shown God’s wielding of wrath, which is one tempered and focused by keen judgment. Dante did not need to suffer the pains of Hell to be saved, but rather needed to be shown Hell in its entire unholy splendor, aiding him in repenting for his sins. This journey allowed Dante to realize God’s omniscience and omnipotence make Him a fair and just deity, wielding surgical precision as far as punishing precisely only the sins of an individual.
Levi’s lot, on the other hand, was very much different. Levi entered hell not to pass through it as a tourist, gleaning knowledge and learning from what he saw. Rather, Levi was wholly immersed in a hell not of God’s creation, one created by men to subjugate and exterminate those they felt were inferior and guilty. Because of this, Levi’s salvation, his being saved from hell, occurred when he was rescued from the prison by Russian soldiers. Dante’s salvation was obtained by his having seen hell and repenting for his misdeeds, thus avoiding Hell altogether. Levi, on the other hand, was not saved from going to hell, but rather was saved from remaining in hell longer than he already had.