Dante and universal, though the reader does

Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first part of his epic poem Divine Comedy, tells the story of the protagonist Dante’s journey through Hell with the Roman poet Virgil as his guide. Dante has lost his way both literally (i.e., he is lost in the forest) and metaphorically (i.e., he has strayed from his proper path in life). By letting sin enter his life, he has thus become alienated from God. The Divine Comedy provides an allegorical representation of Dante’s endeavor to transcend his sins and reconnect with God’s love.
In Inferno specifically, Dante traverses Hell in an attempt to uncover the nature of sin. As the Divine Comedy functions as an allegory, his story represents more than just the personal quest: it represents the universal search to connect with God within Christianity. This allegorical function proves to be defining for the nature of the protagonist in Inferno. Though the Divine Comedy is an epic, the character of Dante as protagonist is meant to be representative and relatable for the entirety of the human race. This form of allegorical protagonist that symbolizes humanity in general is in keeping with the ‘Everyman’ tradition from the medieval morality plays which center on man and his characteristic human traits (“Everyman”; Van Gorp 287-288).
Any difficulties in defining the character of Dante in his capacity as protagonist stem from this allegorical nature: his defining traits are intentionally left vague and universal, though the reader does know for certain that he committed a non-specified sin at some point in his life, and that he takes part in the local political scene in Florence. In terms of the formal features of the protagonist as set out in the theoretical part of this discussion, this is another move further away from the original notion of the tragic hero. This protagonist is no longer a model symbolization of what man should strive to be. He is meant to serve as a mirror for mankind, rather than as a template.
He is also intended to embody the intrinsically human traits that every human being shares: he sympathizes with other people while still remaining capable of anger; he feels a strong sense of injustice and the sight of people suffering makes him weep, while still sensing a strong feeling of satisfaction at the public destruction of his political enemies. He is proud, but at the same time he is deeply unsatisfied as he feels conflicting desires on his journey through Hell. His instincts tell him he belongs among the great poets in Limbo, but he also strongly wishes to find his love Beatrice, and to live within God’s love. Unlike Beowulf, who relishes danger, Dante shows great courage in spite of his fears, and he is not afraid to be highly emotional either (as demonstrated by how frequently he faints when faced with overwhelming danger or when profoundly moved). All of these character traits contribute to a protagonist that is more relatable to the general public.
As Dante’s journey through Hell continues, he becomes increasingly desensitized to the harsh punishments doled out by God; the deeper he descends into Hell, the less sympathy he shows for the suffering of the damned. Encouraged by Virgil to detest sin and to steel himself so as not to take pity on Hell’s sinners (because they are merely getting what they deserve), Dante is required to adopt very strict moral standards before he can be allowed to start his journey through Purgatory and into Heaven (as depicted in the second and third parts of the Divine Comedy, Purgatorio and Paradiso). Though this might seem to be in direct conflict with the increased relatability of the protagonist in this text, it actually serves to highlight the centrality of humanity in the work. Dante has a strong personality and has a sense of control over the world around him. Additionally, his journey is also a journey of personal spiritual growth. This is a new motif in our discussion of the male protagonist. While Beowulf clearly matures after his initial fights with Grendel and Grendel’s mother, the emphasis of Beowulf is not on its protagonist’s personal growth but rather on his heroic accomplishments. In Inferno (and by extension in the entire Divine Comedy), that emphasis has shifted.
As the protagonist and the author share a name, there is an interesting duality between the two of them. Though the character of Dante might well be a fictional representation of the author, it is far too reductive to interpret them as being one and the same. There are, for instance, several occasions on which the character of Dante is profoundly moved by the fate of one of Hell’s residents, while Dante the author is the direct cause of that same person’s plight. One example here is the treatment of Brunetto Latini. In Canto 15, Dante encounters Latini among the Sodomites and is deeply shaken by this encounter. In reality, however, the author Dante is the one who places Latini there in the first place, and his placement of Latini among the Sodomites is actually a vicious attack on his character. Many other examples of this dichotomy between the protagonist’s sympathy and the true feelings of the author are present, for example when the protagonist encounters a number of influential Florentines in Canto 16. Their presence in the third ring of Hell alone is enough to imply that the author’s feelings towards them may very well have been less than sympathetic. This line of thought is supported by the many gruesome torments the author devises for his characters’ punishments, and by the fact that many of the people the character Dante encounters are actually people with whom the author Dante was familiar in real life.
The characteristics of the protagonist in Inferno constitute a clear shift away from the classical tragic hero. Where the epic hero could still be seen as a positive counterpart to the tragic hero, this type of ‘Everyman’-protagonist moves the notion away from a ‘noble, renowned hero with outstanding morality’ towards a type of protagonist that readers from all walks of life can relate to. It is no coincidence that this increased centrality of humanity in literature coincides with the emergence of the Renaissance and its growing focus on the agency of individuals.


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