How is the narrator characterized in the first two cantos of Dante's Inferno?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (and the Divine Comedy as a whole) begins with characterization in the very first stanza.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

The first line tells the reader the narrator is somewhere in middle of his life, though not necessarily the precise middle. Dante began The Divine Comedy in 1308, when he was in his early forties, which in the twelfth century would have been past the expected midway point of an average life expectancy.

The following lines show that the narrator is lost. In the fourth stanza of the first canto, it is said that the narrator was asleep and suddenly awoke in this forest, so he is also likely to be incredibly confused. He has suddenly appeared in a dark wood, the formerly straight and easy path has somehow been lost, and he is terrified, as said in several other stanzas. So, in a few words, one could say the narrator, Dante himself, is in a sort of “midlife crisis.”

Dante begins to make his way through this terrifying forest and comes across a panther, a lion, and a she-wolf. In his attempt to avoid these creatures, he comes across a being he learns is the Roman poet Virgil. Dante’s response is “bashful,” and he compliments Virgil by saying,

Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.

Dante graces Virgil with praise for his writing and says that Virgil alone is whom Dante styles his writing after. Dante then calls him a “sage,” or wise man, and asks for protection from the creatures that stalk him.

Virgil warns Dante that these creatures will surely devour him and that here is no escape, so he offers to walk with Dante, acting as his guide. Now the forest itself represents sin as a whole, and the three creatures are thought to represent the individual sins of lust, pride, and greed. These are likely the sins Dante believed were being committed the most in the world he lived in. His avid attempts to escape these creatures can be seen as a sense of upstanding morality; he would do anything rather than fall prey to sin.

Virgil tells Dante he will be leading him into hell, where Dante will meet some of the people there and see their suffering as sinners. He further explains that if the narrator wishes to ascend to see heaven,

A soul shall be for that than I more worthy;
With her at my departure I will leave thee ...

This introduces a mysterious “her” into the story. This is someone Dante clearly values higher than Virgil, and it gives the narrator a curious little secret from the reader.

As Dante and Virgil begin their decent in canto 2, Dante questions Virgil as to why he is there, saying, “but I, why thither come, or who concedes it?” Virgil goes on to explain that he is currently residing in Purgatorio (purgatory) and while there was approached by “a fair, saintly Lady.” Over the course of several stanzas this lady explains that she has a friend who is “impeded” in his journey and has become lost and terrified. It is clear this woman is referring to Dante, and she begs Virgil to go and meet him and guide him back to the right path. Doing so would be such a virtuous act that the flames of hell would not be able to hurt them. The woman reveals herself to be Beatrice, which gives Dante all the strength he needs to take this journey on.

O she compassionate, who succoured me,
And courteous thou, who hast obeyed so soon
The words of truth which she addressed to thee!

Here, Dante praises Beatrice for her help and her compassion, and Virgil for obeying her wishes. He tells Virgil that Beatrice is right in saying that he is lost and in need of help, and in the following stanza Dante exclaims “thou has my heart” and it becomes clear who this mysterious “her” is. Beatrice is a woman whom Dante loves dearly, but who died nearly twenty years prior to his writing The Divine Comedy.

In the first two cantos, The Divine Comedy is introduced for exactly what it will be: Dante’s personal manifesto regarding sin and an attempt to see Beatrice once more—and have her love him in return. Dante lived in Italy, which (at the time of his writing) was in a tumultuous political state, and a number of the people he meets are those involved in the troubles of Italy. One learns of what Dante believes the worst sins to be, foreshadowed in his meeting of the panther, lion, and she-wolf in canto 1. The reader also learns whom Dante believes the worst sinners to be when he meets people along the way who are being punished in the Inferno and Purgatorio.

But he is motivated to carry on by the thought of getting to see Beatrice, whom he meets in Paradiso, or heaven. This shows the reader how highly he thinks of Beatrice, while the people he meets in the Inferno shows how little he thinks of the governing people of Italy. The addition that he is helped by Virgil is likely purely a personal detail of Dante getting to live out a dream of meeting his favorite author.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial