Major Themes: Dante in the Inferno

In this section we shall examine:

  • Dante’s presentation of himself as a sinner

  • Dante’s presentation of himself as a poet

  • Dante as ‘Everyman’

Dante-personaggio as sinner

The opening of the Inferno presents Dante-personaggio as being lost, in a dark wood, halfway through his life. We learn in Canto XXI that the action of the poem takes place at Eastertime ‘mille dugento con sessanta sei/anni’ (‘one thousand two hundred and sixty-six years’ (113–4)) after the Crucifixon of Christ, which took place in the year AD 34. It is therefore April 1300; Dante-personaggio is thirty-five years old, half of the ‘threescore years and ten’ which the Bible says is the human lifespan. Dante-personaggio is therefore still, at this moment in his life, a Florentine citizen; the moment of his exile in 1302 is yet to come.

He is also, we come to learn, lost in sin. When Virgil tells him that he must make his journey through Hell (Canto I, 114–17), Purgatory (I, 118–120) and Paradise (I, 121–123) in order to drive the three beasts away, a link is drawn between Dante-personaggio’s journey, and his awareness of, and elimination of, his own sin. The symbolic importance of the dark wood in which Dante finds himself in Canto I will be further confirmed as the picture of Dante-personaggio’s sinfulness emerges more fully throughout the Commedia. The only direct reference to Dante-personaggio’s sinfulness we have in Canto I is in fact rather vague: ‘Ond’io per lo tuo me’ penso e discerno/che tu mi segui’ (112–3) [‘Therefore, considering what’s best for you,/I judge that you should follow’]. Virgil is taking Dante-personaggio on the journey for his benefit – but it is not yet clear why Dante-personaggio should need this. Indeed, when Dante-personaggio begs Virgil to do what he has promised to do, he wishes it ‘acciò ch’io fugga questo male e peggio’ [‘so I may flee this ill’] (132): ambiguous words again, which may imply physical danger as much as moral inadequacy. If we are to read the dark wood as ‘representing’ sin, the clear evidence within the text of the Commedia for that is still to come.

It is in Canto II that we are given the first clear indication that Dante-personaggio is in a state of moral inadequacy. First of all, Virgil accuses him of ‘viltade’: cowardice (45). And then comes the account of how Beatrice came to tell him to rescue Dante.

From the very early stages of the Inferno, then, we are led to understand that Dante-personaggio is in some sort of error; the precise nature of this is not yet clear. There are two consequences. First, we should not necessarily take Dante-personaggio’s behaviour in the Inferno to be that of someone who has achieved moral perfection. Second, that when Dante-personaggio encounters souls in Hell, he may be encountering examples of sins of which Dante too might be guilty.

It is worth noting that in Purgatorio there will be two instances where Dante-personaggio indicates two possible vices: in Purgatorio XIII he says that he fears he will need to purge his pride on the first terrace of Purgatory (133–8); and in Purgatorio XXIII he hints that he had been promiscuous as a young man in Florence (115–7). In addition, there is a formal confession, made painfully to Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise (Purgatorio XXX–XXXI) of having strayed from her; this confession may relate to actual infidelity, but is likely to be a more general straying from ‘the true path’. It is revealing that there are no such admissions of sin on Dante-personaggio’s part in the Inferno. Perhaps this is because the Inferno is not a place in which confession takes place; the realm in which a productive reflection on one’s own failings can take place is Purgatory.

Dante’s self-presentation as poet

Dante-poeta, the authoritative voice of the figure who has completed the whole of the journey of the Commedia (and is therefore a continuation of Dante-personaggio), appears most forcefully in the moments when he addresses the reader. He speaks with considerable authority: after all, he has experienced the journey through the afterlife. But he is, nonetheless, still human, and – as we learn as early as Inferno I, 4–6 –occasionally subject to the same fear as Dante-personaggio.

There are eight addresses to the reader in the Inferno. They serve a range of purposes, which include: forcing the reader to engage with what Dante is describing; highlighting moments when writing or describing something seems particularly difficult; suggesting that a lesson is to be learned by the reader.

In fact it is noticeable how little Dante-poeta actually explains Dante-personaggio’s experiences in these addresses to the reader. Nor does he ever directly point out to the reader the distance between Dante-personaggio and Dante-poeta. This tells us quite a lot about what Dante expects of us as readers: we are to experience difficulty, confusion and emotion with Dante-personaggio; when Dante-poeta addresses us, it is to point out where our engagement should be strongest. The figure of the poet, then, in spite of having the considerable authority of having completed his journey, is not there to tell us directly what to make of most of the journey.

Dante as ‘Everyman’

The first lines of the Inferno offer us one way of understanding the figure of Dante in the poem. The phrase ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/mi ritrovai per una selva oscura’ (I, 1–2) mixes together a narrative about Dante himself, and a narrative about all of us – he finds himself in a dark wood midway down the path of our life.

This means that we can, in one way, identify ourselves with Dante. He could be any one of us. His experience is therefore one which is universal. He is, in one sense, ‘everyman’. He goes on a journey in which he sees the consequences of sin for all humanity; he wants us all to learn a lesson from what he sees.

But on the other hand, at no point in the poem can we forget that Dante is himself. His life history is referred to at a number of points; and many of the characters he meets know him. It is because of somebody that he knows (Beatrice) that he sets off on the journey; he is not picked at random from the mass of humanity.

The figure of Dante in the Inferno therefore represents a very interesting phenomenon. We are being asked to draw universal lessons, but from the case of a particular, specific person. This paradox is one of the most interesting aspects of the Commedia. Throughout, it aspires to speak of universals; but it does so through a particular moment in a particular person’s life.

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame