What is the relationship between Dante the Author and Dante the Pilgrim from Dante's Inferno?
The major difference between the poet Dante and the character or pilgrim Dante is that the author is less sympathetic to the sinners in the circles of Hell than is the character. The poet Dante obviously wrote the Inferno; he created the circles of Hell, determining which sins were the "worst" and which symbolic punishments would be paired with each sin. Dante chooses to punish the traitors in the ninth circle, the worst of the worst being eaten for eternity in the three mouths of Satan. His personal biases are on display, as well. For example, in the Vestibule of Hell, Dante harshly punishes the "opportunists," who did not choose a side in political conflicts or the corps of angels that did not choose a side between God and Satan when the latter rebelled. This comes from Dante's distaste for political bandwagonners; Dante himself was exiled for his loyalty to a group that was no longer in power. These sinners in the Vestibule are not even deemed worthy of a place in Hell, but nor can they hope of the redemption that Purgatory can bring. Those in Hell feel superior to the opportunists because they, at least, sinned deliberately and accept their symbolic punishment accordingly.
The pilgrim Dante is a weaker and more sensitive character than the poet who created the Inferno. Dante is seen fainting at the end of some of the cantos and describes his fear and anxiety throughout the poem. Also, Dante's character is more sympathetic to the sinners in Hell, whereas the poet Dante is the one who put them in Hell to begin with. A good example of this occurs in Canto V when Dante speaks to the doomed lover Francesca. She was damned to Circle Two of Hell, where those who committed sins of the flesh are punished by being whipped around in an eternal whirlwind. Dante hears her account of how she and her lover were drawn together and how her husband walked in on them and killed them both before they ever had a chance to confess their sin. Dante feels pity for Francesca, but it seems Dante the poet does not, as he has chosen to punish her here in Circle Two.
The distinction between Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim character is related to Dante's overall purpose in the Inferno. If he wants to appeal to the reader and have them reconsider their lifestyles and get back on the path to salvation, he has to make his character relatable. If Dante the poet were simply to preach at his reader, it would be difficult to win the reader over. On the other hand, depicting the character version of himself as a weak sinner who needs and wants to get back on the path to heaven allows Dante to capture the reader's trust and attention.
Dante the author and Dante the pilgrim are initially two quite different characters. Dante the pilgrim is more recognizably human for one thing. He displays normal human traits such as fear and compassion. Indeed, it is the latter quality that distinguishes him most significantly from Dante Alighieri the author. For instance, in canto 5, we see that Dante the pilgrim is clearly sympathetic to the plight of Francesca da Rimini. When she is finished telling her story, he faints. However, instructively, this all takes place in Hell, which is where Dante the author has placed Francesca for her adultery.
In canto 32, Dante encounters the shade of Count Ugolino in the second ring of the lowest circle of Hell, one reserved for betrayers. Ugolino is condemned for all eternity to gnaw away at the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri, the man who betrayed him by walling him and his children up inside a tower and letting them starve to death.
Yet, Dante the author makes it clear that Ugolino has also betrayed his children by eating them to avoid starvation, even though they begged him to.
At each stage of the Inferno we are made aware that the pilgrim is being gently pushed by the author along a spiritual path, one that will allow him to grow in wisdom and help him achieve sanctifying grace. Dante the author provides us with an omniscient perspective on things, one that transcends the necessarily more limited standpoint of Dante, the pilgrim. However, as the pilgrim finally ascends to the Empyrean realm and beholds the awesome spectacle of the blessed arranged in a snow white rose, he becomes one with Dante the author.
Though it is obviously a work of fiction, Dante's Divine Comedy contains many autobiographic elements. In particular, Dante the pilgrim has many similarities with Dante Alighieri, the real author.
At the beginning of Inferno, the reader finds Dante the pilgrim lost in a dark wood, unsure of where to go. It becomes clear quite quickly that Dante has lost his way, has derailed his life and is unsure of where to go. As such, he needs Beatrice and Virgil to lead him on a spiritual journey through the underworld, Purgatory, and Heaven, all in the name of helping him achieve atonement and an authentic personal spirituality.
Likewise, Dante the actual author was in the midst of a personal crisis during the period in which he drafted his poem. He had been exiled from his home in Florence, and he himself felt as though he were wandering in a dark wood of confusion and uncertainty. Thus, by writing his epic poem, he too was launching himself on a spiritual quest to come to grips with himself and find some semblance of peace. As such, Dante's real-life journey parallels the the journey of his poetic journey, and in recognizing this similarity we uncover the significant biographical elements of the poem as a whole.