Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689
Dante: The writer, narrator, main character, and traveler in The Inferno
Leopard: The first character (Self-indulgence) whom Dante meets
Lion: The second character (Violence) whom Dante meets
She-Wolf: The third character (Malice) whom Dante meets
Virgil: Ancient Roman poet who appears to Dante and becomes his guide
Midway on his journey through life, Dante falls asleep and loses his way. He wakes during the night of Maundy Thursday to find himself in a dark wood; he does not know how he got there. Dante loses the right way; the narrow road he had wanted to travel has disappeared. Dante feels hope when he sees the morning rays of sun over the mountain, even though he is still alone in the valley.
As he scales the mountain, Dante encounters a leopard; the leopard impedes his progress but it is not very frightening. The second animal that Dante meets is a fierce, hungry lion, which comes toward him swiftly and savagely. The third—and worst—animal that Dante encounters is a vicious she-wolf; she terrifies Dante so much that he is unable to continue his travels.
The shade of the poet Virgil appears to Dante. Until the greyhound comes to secure the wolf in Hell, Virgil explains, the only way past the wolf is by another path. Virgil offers to show Dante the path to an eternal place where he can see long-parted souls; at that point, Virgil says, another guide will come and take Dante to a city which Virgil cannot enter. Dante accepts Virgil’s offer and follows the poet.
Discussion and Analysis
Dante has lost the narrow way to God; he finds himself in a dark forest in the valley of sin and separation from God. Dante is not sure how he lost the bright, right, narrow way; the darkness of sin and night (Maundy Thursday before the Passover) frightens him. When Good Friday (the morning of Jesus’s crucifixion) arrives, Dante feels hope as he sees the rays of light (goodness) shine over the mountain—a symbol of the ascent from evil that one must make to reach God.
The three animals—leopard, lion, and wolf—are images of sin. The first animal (the leopard) depicts the sins of self-indulgence or incontinence, which are often the sins of youth. The lion represents the sins of bestial violence which are often the sins of adulthood; the wolf symbolizes the malicious sins, the sins of age. The greyhound is a symbol of the political or religious leader who will come to help rid the world of greed; it could also symbolize Dante’s friend Can Grande (Italian for “great dog”) della Scala, the Ghibelline leader.
Virgil represents human reason, which can help—to a point—in bringing Dante out of the wood. Virgil was the inspiration for Dante; Virgil’s Aeneid was the pattern for The Inferno. It is natural that Virgil should guide Dante when Dante was lost in life just as Virgil guided Dante as Dante wrote. Virgil’s hoarseness could refer to his not having spoken since he began his journey into Hell or it could refer to the fact that he had not spoken to the world for some time since he was not a popular writer at the time. It is significant that Virgil cannot speak until Dante speaks to him.
From the beginning of Canto I, three main themes are evident. The first and most important of Dante’s main themes is the picaresque (or journey) theme; Dante’s journey to the nether regions is vital to The Inferno. With pilgrimages being common in the 1200s and 1300s and with the influence of Virgil’s writings on Dante, it is not surprising that Dante uses the picaresque theme. A second theme in The Inferno is the survival of the unfittest; a weak, lost Dante encounters three wild animals and even manages a trip to the depths of Hell and back. A third main theme is the reversal of fortune; Dante is lost at the beginning of Canto I, but by the end of The Inferno, he has found his way.
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