Analysis of Major Characters
Thirty-five years old at the beginning of the story, Dante—the character as opposed to the poet—has lost his way on the “true path” of life; in other words, sin has obstructed his path to God. The Divine Comedy is the allegorical record of Dante’s quest to overcome sin and find God’s love; in Inferno, Dante explores the nature of sin by traveling through Hell, where evil receives punishment according to God’s justice. Allegorically, Dante’s story represents not only his own life but also what Dante the poet perceived to be the universal Christian quest for God. As a result, Dante the character is rooted in the Everyman allegorical tradition: Dante’s situation is meant to represent that of the whole human race.
For this reason, Dante the character does not emerge as a particularly well-defined individual; although we know that he has committed a never-specified sin and that he participates in Florentine politics, we learn little about his life on Earth. His traits are very broad and universal: often sympathetic toward others, he nonetheless remains capable of anger; he weeps at the sight of the suffering souls but reacts with pleasure when one of his political enemies is torn to pieces. He demonstrates excessive pride but remains unsatisfied in many respects: he feels that he ranks among the great poets that he meets in Limbo but deeply desires to find Beatrice, the woman he loves, and the love of God. Dante fears danger but shows much courage: horrified by Hell, he nevertheless follows his guide, Virgil, through its gates. He also proves extremely emotional, as shown by his frequent fainting when he becomes overly frightened or moved. As the story progresses, Dante must learn to reconcile his sympathy for suffering with the harsh violence of God’s justice; the deeper he proceeds into Hell, the less the agonies of the damned affect him. Virgil encourages him to abhor sin and not pity the justice meted out to sinners; Dante must achieve this level of stringent moral standards before he may begin his journey to Heaven, played out in Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Because Dante the character is a fictional creation of Dante the poet, the reader should remember that the character’s feelings do not always correspond to those of the poet. For instance, when Dante sees Brunetto Latini among the Sodomites in Canto XV, Dante the character feels deeply moved and treats his patron kindly and with compassion. But outside the poem, Dante the poet has chosen to condemn his former patron to damnation; by placing him among the Sodomites, he implies that Latini was homosexual, a vicious slur in fourteenth-century Italy. Indeed, on a general level, the kindness and compassion of Dante the character often contrasts with the feelings of Dante the poet, who, after all, has devised excruciating torments with which to punish his characters, many of whom are historical individuals with whom Dante was acquainted in life.
The only character besides Dante to appear all the way through Inferno, Virgil’s ghost is generally taken by critics to represent human reason, which guides and protects the individual (represented by Dante/Everyman) through the world of sin. As befits a character who symbolizes reason, Virgil proves sober, measured, resolute, and wise. He repeatedly protects Dante from hostile demons and monsters, from Charon to the Centaurs; when he appears powerless outside the gates of the city of Dis in Canto VIII, his helplessness appears very ominous, signifying that Lower Hell offers far darker dangers than Upper Hell. Virgil’s reliance on the angelic messenger in this scene also symbolizes the fact that reason is powerless without faith—an important tenet of Dante’s moral philosophy and one that marks Inferno as a Christian poem, distinct from the classical epics that preceded it. In the fullest sense of the word, Virgil acts as Dante’s guide, showing him not only the physical route through Hell but also reinforcing its moral lessons. When Dante appears slow to learn these lessons—such as when he sympathizes with sinners or attempts to remain too long in one region of Hell—Virgil often grows impatient with him, a trait that humanizes this otherwise impersonal shade.
Dante the character and Dante the poet seem to regard Virgil differently. Dante the character regards Virgil as his master, constantly swearing his admiration for, and trust in, him. Dante the poet, however, often makes use of Inferno to prove his own poetic greatness in comparison to the classical bards who preceded him—including Virgil, who lived more than a thousand years before Dante. In Dante’s time, Virgil, the author of the Aeneid, was considered the greatest of the Roman poets. As with many of his other classical and mythological appropriations, Dante’s inclusion of Virgil in his poem denotes both an acknowledgment and appreciation of classical tradition and, to some degree, a form of bragging on Dante’s part: for while he respects Virgil enough to include him in his work, he also suggests that his poem subsumes Virgil entirely.