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The poet Dante, for all intents and purposes, is the God of The Inferno. He is the author, creator, and judge of all the sinners he has placed in his hell. Readers understand that the hell that pilgrim Dante is travelling through is the product of poet Dante’s thoughts and beliefs. The quintessential example of this phenomena is the presence of contrapasso in all of the circles, which indicate a very stern, fair justice that is harsh and unforgiving in who it chooses to punish. It may be said that Poet Dante’s character, if he were a character in The Inferno, would be the embodiment of divine justice- exhibiting a kind of cold perfection whose attitude mimics that of the angel in Canto IX. It becomes interesting, then, to examine the kind of effect that Poet Dante’s beliefs about humans has on his pilgrim counterpart. One way to think about this is through Pilgrim Dante’s struggle with the motion of pity, which is a focal point for much of his journey through hell. It soon becomes evident that Poet Dante uses Virgil as a way to guide him not only through hell, but morally as well, which leads him to the belief that the justice of heaven should be respected at all costs.
Pilgrim Dante is depicted in the beginning of The Inferno as a weak, lost, and confused individual who is in the middle of some sort of a transition period, as indicated in the first Canto: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost” (I.1-2). Dante is being depicted as a lost and shapeless individual who has no purpose or guiding muse for his life. He becomes intimidated and chased by beasts, which are allegories for different sins, revealing how malleable and susceptible to sin he is. These observations about his susceptibility and fragility indicate the presence of allegories about the portrait of the human condition, as created by Poet Dante. The first Canto of the poem is one of the few places where Poet Dante makes his beliefs very evident and even clear. Though he chooses to mask them using the allegory of a man going through a midlife crisis and being lost in some woods, interpretation of the text allows readers to understand his bigger conclusions about the fragility of humans. Many examples of this frailty and susceptibility which Dante exhibits in the first Canto stem on his relationship with the emotion of pity. Pity is an emotion Dante consistently struggles with throughout the duration of The Inferno. It seems to begin in the third circle after listening to the stories of Francesca and Paolo: Dante states that “…my pity / Overwhelmed me and I felt myself go slack: / Swooning as in death, I fell like a dying body” (V.125-27). He feels so much pity for the sinners who committed lust that he literally faints. But what is it about their story that overwhelmed him? Francesca states that as she and Paolo were reading a story about Lancelot, the two were overcome by lust. Considering some other causes of sin in The Inferno, this is a fairly minor event. Merely reading a book was enough to cause Francesca and Paolo to commit a sin and now spend their eternities in the third circle. This is another more subtle allegory in which Dante yet again hints at the susceptibility of humans to commit sins, which is part of his portrait of the human condition. This makes pilgrim Dante’s reaction even more surprising: he faints out of pity.
Though Dante does display pity, towards the end of the poem he begins to move away from this mindset and to absorb an attitude that aligns more closely with the beliefs of Virgil. Take, for instance, the 8th Canto. Dante’s actions please Virgil and the two share a moment of physical affection. His affection is derived from Dante’s indignation towards a shade, Filippo Argenti, who Dante feels is very deserving of his position in Hell. Virgil outwardly expresses his pride in in Dante’s decision to do this: “And then my guide / Embraced my neck and kissed me on the face / And said, “Indignant soul blessed indeed / Is she who bore you. Arrogant in his vice / Was that one when he lived. No goodness whatever / Adorning his memory, his shade is furious” (VIII.40-45). The physical embrace that Dante experiences is evidence of bonding between the two of them, and it is also significant that this is the first moment we see of it. The way that Virgil describes Filippo reveals that he thinks that his sin of arrogance is worthy of punishment in hell. Dante’s behavior legitimizes that, which is why Virgil is proud of him. Virgil is promoting the idea of divine justice, and he is serving to foster and undulate that attitude unto the very malleable Dante.
Poet Dante’s depiction of hell makes evident his belief in the supremacy of divine justice. One of the best places to analyze this is in Canto XI, when Dante and Virgil set aside a moment from their journey to get used to the horrendous smell of hell while talking about its structure. Virgil explains that that “…since fraud is found / In humankind as its peculiar vice, / It angers God more: so the fraudulent / Are lower, and suffer more unhappiness” (XI.24-27). This reiterates the previously mentioned idea that the more a sin offends God, the further it is away from Heaven. Though this is stated by Virgil, it is really Poet Dante who is speaking and indicating to readers his beliefs about the significance of the structure of hell. The complete supremacy God has over hell is apparent not only because of its structure, but also during an interesting moment in Canto IX when the angel, who is the only figure directly from Heaven seen in The Inferno, comes down to open the gate for Dante and Virgil. His attitude and manner are very brusque and impersonal, signifying disdain for the sinners around him and echoing the same mindset that similar beings in Heaven, including God, are likely to share.
Pilgrim Dante is depicted by Poet Dante as a weak individual who, like others, is very susceptible to sin and can empathize with those who have committed it. This leads him into a very unbalanced state: he is constantly in a struggle with the emotion of pity. His basic instincts lead him to express sympathy and pity sinners, which is a part of Dante’s portrait of the human condition. Virgil, however, believes in the supremacy of the divine justice, which doesn’t support sinners being pitied for their sins because their punishments are deserved. Virgil utilizes his status as a guide to reward Dante for showing scorn and no pity for sinners. This is how Virgil and Dante’s relationship ultimately evolves: Virgil serves to forge Pilgrim Dante into Poet Dante, who is not only a better man, but a better writer. The significance of this is that it provides a new lens in which to read The Inferno: perhaps Dante is not making claims about the portrait of the human condition so much as he is simply experimenting with a way to express his personal transition into a different, improved man.
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