Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon awakens in an Italian hospital, disoriented and with no recollection of the past thirty-six hours, including the origin of the macabre object hidden in his belongings. With a relentless female assassin trailing them through Florence, he and his resourceful doctor, Sienna Brooks, are forced to flee. Embarking on a harrowing journey, they must unravel a series of codes, which are the work of a brilliant scientist whose obsession with the end of the world is matched only by his passion for one of the most influential masterpieces ever written, Dante Alighieri's The Inferno.
Dan Brown has raised the bar yet again, combining classical Italian art, history, and literature with cutting-edge science in this sumptuously entertaining thriller.
About the Author
Date of Birth:June 22, 1964
Place of Birth:Exeter, New Hampshire
Education:Phillips Exeter Academy 1982; B.A., Amherst College, 1986; University of Seville, Spain
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Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Inferno, the thrilling new novel by Dan Brown, internationally bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, and The Lost Symbol.
WARNING—THIS GUIDE CONTAINS SPOILERS
1. WARNING: THESE QUESTIONS CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR THE NOVEL
What features does Inferno share with Dan Brown’s other Robert Langdon novels: The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, and The Lost Symbol? In what ways is it different from those earlier works?
2. Why has Brown used these lines from Dante as an epigraph to Inferno: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis”? How does that statement illuminate the novel? What is the particular danger of maintaining moral neutrality in Inferno?
3. What accounts for the frenetic narrative pace of the novel? How does Dan Brown use chapter endings to create suspense? What other devices create a narrative tension that pulls the reader along?
4. What are some of the most surprising twists and turns in Inferno?
5. What role does the setting play in Inferno? In what ways are Florence, Venice, and Istanbul integral to the plot of the novel?
6. The brilliant biochemist Bertrand Zobrist asserts some unsettling ideas. He argues that the Black Plague, which killed one-third of Europe’s population, was one of the best things that ever happened to humanity and ushered in the Renaissance. He also believes that the human race won’t survive unless we have another mass extinction event, similar in scale to the Black Plague. In his confrontation with Dr. Sinskey, he rails, “We are on the brink of the end of humanity, and our world leaders are sitting in boardrooms commissioning studies on solar power, recycling, and hybrid automobiles.... Ozone depletion, lack of water, and pollution are not the disease—they are the symptoms. The disease is overpopulation” [p. 139]. Is Zobrist right about these issues? Is his solution the lesser of two evils or is it too morally repugnant even to consider?
7. How does Langdon use his knowledge of literature, art, and symbology to decipher the clues that lead him to the location of Zobrist’s virus? In what ways is Dante’s great poem, The Inferno, central to the novel?
8. The Consortium, which allows Bertrand Zobrist to do his work on the virus undetected, has a philosophy of "Provide the service. Ask no questions. Pass no judgment" [p. 75]. Is that a dangerous philosophy, and if so, why? Why does the Provost, by the end of the novel, realize that "For the first time in his life, ignorance no longer felt like the moral high ground"? [p. 444]. How disconcerting is it to learn that the Consortium really does exist, though under a different name, with offices in seven countries?
9. Sienna Brooks is perhaps the most complex character in the novel. What kind of woman is she? How has her past influenced who she has become? How does she change over the course of the novel? Why does she feel that she has finally found a purpose at the end of the book?
10. In what ways do issues of trust and betrayal play out in Inferno?
11. Sienna explains one of the fundamental tenets of Transhumanism: "We as humans have a moral obligation to participate in our evolutionary process . . . to use our technology to advance the species, to create better humans-healthier, stronger, with higher-functioning brains. Everything will soon be possible" [p. 453]. Do an internet search on "Transhumanism" and discuss/debate the motivations and philosophical assumptions of the movement. What does Dan Brown's use of a real-life contemporary movement like Transhumanism add to Inferno? Does Transhumanism offer valid solutions to some of the essential problems that confront the human species?
12. In an emotional speech to Dr. Sinskey, Sienna says, "Bertrand died all alone because people like yourself refused to open your minds enough even to admit that our catastrophic circumstances might actually require an uncomfortable solution. All Bertrand ever did was speak the truth . . . and for that, he was ostracized" [p. 449]. Does Bertrand go from villain to hero by the end of the book? Do the ends (saving the human species) justify the means (releasing a virus that will dramatically limit population growth) in this case?
13. Why doesn't Robert Langdon give up on Sienna, even after he realizes what her motives are?
14. At the end of the novel, Dr. Sinskey invites Sienna to accompany her to a conference where they will address world leaders about the virus Bertrand Zobrist has released and discuss the issue of population control. Is there a significance to having two women, rather than two men, assume this role?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Dan Brown
The Barnes & Noble Review: You've said you first read the Inferno in high school. When did you first realize that Dante's work would be the basis for a novel?
Dan Brown: I've known for at least a decade that I would one day write a novel incorporating the world of Dante Alighieri. While researching Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, I was immersed in church history and philosophy. One of the byproducts of that research was my coming to understand that Dante's popularized vision of the afterlife deeply influenced our modern Christian perceptions of hell. The notion of hell certainly existed long before Dante, and yet only in vague terms. The Bible described hell as an underworld of unquenchable fire. Classical mythology was a bit more specific, describing various realms and monsters, but it wasn't until Dante published The Divine Comedy that humankind was given a vivid, codified vision of the underworld. Dante described a multi-layered pit of misery where sinners endured specific punishments for specific sins, and this horrifying concept helped solidify hell as the deterrent to sin.
BNR: You researched Dante and the mysteries surrounding his life and work in Florence. What was your most surprising discovery?
DB: For me, one of the most surprising themes of Dante's Inferno is the portrayal of pride as the most serious of the seven deadly sins a transgression punished in the deepest ring of hell. The notion of pride as the ultimate sin dovetails perfectly with Greek mythology, in which hubris is responsible for the downfall of the archetypal hero. In mythology, no man is more prideful than he who considers himself above the problems of the world-for example, the person who ignores injustice because it does not affect him directly. This notion is reflected in a famous paraphrasing of Dante's text: The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. This is a recurring theme of the novel.
BNR: Dante's Divine Comedy is composed in an intricately braided poetic style as it tells the story of a poet's passage through hell, purgatory and paradise. What aspects of his style most influenced you in the writing of Inferno? Did you rely on a particular translation or translations?
DB: The rhythm of Dante's poetry and his use of anaphora (repetition of phrases) does indeed find its way into the novel's "shade? sections and influences the way my villain speaks and writes. Additionally, Dante's use of physical motion to keep his action moving is something I've always tried to do in my novels, and I certainly continued that in Inferno. Regarding translations of Dante's original Italian, one of the great luxuries of writing this book in the digital age was that I was able very quickly and easily to compare multiple translations. At times, I was stunned by how greatly those translations differed. In the end, I found myself relying primarily on two the translations by [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow and [Allen] Mandelbaum.
BNR: The images of punishment throughout the Inferno are based on medieval conceptions of sin and its onsequences. Do you find them still relevant to themes of good and evil in today's world?
DB: Dante's vision of justice relies on the concept of contrapasso (literally, suffering the opposite) in a sense, the punishment precisely fits the crime. For example: a fortune teller who sins by seeing the future is punished by having his head placed on backwards so he can only see in reverse; a ruthless man who left another to starve to death is doomed to have his own bloody skull gnawed upon by the man he let starve; an adulterous couple who succumbed to lust is punished by being fused together sexually for all eternity without ever being satisfied. Today, in most cultures, the notions of contrapasso and "an eye for an eye? have disappeared, which may be one of the reasons that modern readers find Dante's brutal punishments so fascinating.
BNR: Although Dante wrote his epic hundreds of years before Leonardo da Vinci, the two men are connected by their shared Florentine heritage. Do you see any similarities between the two?
DB: Beyond being fellow Florentines, Dante and Leonardo share an elite spot in the pantheon of artistic giants. Both The Divine Comedy and Mona Lisa are examples of those rare human achievements that transcend their moments in history and become enduring cultural touchstones. Both masterpieces continue to speak to us centuries after their creation and are considered examples of the finest works ever produced in their respective fields. Like Leonardo, Dante had a staggering influence on culture, religion, history, and the arts. In addition to codifying the early Christian vision of Hell, Dante inspired some of history's greatest luminaries Longfellow, Chaucer, Borges, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Monteverdi, Michelangelo, Blake, Dalí and even a few modern video game designers.
BNR: Dante placed himself at the center of his poetic epic but he also called upon a figure from the classical world, the poet Virgil, as a trustworthy guide on his journey into darkness. Have you provided Robert Langdon with a Virgil?
DB: Over the course of Langdon's adventure, he encounters numerous characters that have counterparts in Dante's Inferno. Some of these characters are overt. Others are more obscure. I'm hoping that some of the fun will be debating the parallels between Virgil's descent and Langdon's.
BNR: The opening of Inferno leaves us with tantalizing references to places and ideas that one hopes will be illuminated as the novel unfolds. Do you begin writing with the notion of implanting mysteries for your readers, or does that come later, as the story develops?
DB: Before I begin writing any novel, I complete an extensive outline (the outline for The Da Vinci Code was over one hundred pages). Once I have a clear sense of the arc of the novel, I begin each chapter by deciding not what I'll offer the reader, but rather what I'll withhold. A reader's desire to guess what I've hidden is always more exciting than anything I can show.
BNR: When we first encounter Robert Langdon in Inferno, he's in a place his work has made very familiar to him, but he's been plunged into truly unknown waters. When first you planned your new book, did you know you'd be making life this difficult for your hero?
DB: Absolutely. Only by placing Langdon in a difficult position does he have a chance to be a hero.
May 14, 2013