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.
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