1. Is the Inferno “character-driven?”
I do not believe that Virgil and Dante are the forces that propel the storyline of Dante’s Inferno. Rather, I feel that the Pilgrim and Virgil are Dante’s (the author) puppets in the epic, and Dante is the puppeteer. I also would argue that Dante expertly manifests the storyline as it appears of the Inferno, yet the REAL story and meaning of his Inferno is not that of his own. Dante constructed this elaborate, perfectly intermingled storyline of the Pilgrim & Virgil’s journey through Hell – but it is all one big metaphor for the “journey/cycle/circle of life,” which Dante did not originate.
Reading the canti of the Inferno, I have increasingly felt as though I am being “pulled” through the story and different circles of Hell naturally; it seems as though this path I/Virgil/Dante/humanity are traveling only provides one fate, and since in Canto 23 I am exiting the 5th ditch, my next move will undoubtedly land me in the 6th ditch. Dante the author uses his mastery of language to enhance the reader’s experience, and drag us sensually in this metaphoric journey through Hell; Dante accomplishes this mainly through foreshadowing, dark humor, allusions & imagery, and language manipulation.
Some examples of Dante’s expert language-manipulation are in canti 20-23. Dante foreshadows the military-action and busy nature of the Malebranche when he opens Canto 21 with a description of the Venetian shipyards in winter. This description of “boiling pitch used to caulk ships in winter” then melts into the present scene; Dante sees boiling pits of tar where sinners are submerged, cautiously avoiding the hungry hooks of the Malebranche who wait for them to emerge. This military theme carries readers through Canto 22, where Dante opens by mocking Malacoda’s “farting salutation” to his squad & compares it to the likes of trumpets, bells and drums. Dante’s dark humor and sarcasm is clear here, and continues with his allusion to Aesop’s fables: stories of cat & mouse, frogs at the pond, falcon darting at prey, otters being thrown, etc. At this point, (& with all the game references) Dante’s language has begun to speed up & become more playful – it is as though the Pilgrim & Virgil are delighted at the games the shades and black angels are playing, and the lightheartedness only turns to fear once the Pilgrim thinks about how angry the Malebranche probably is after the fiasco in Canto 22 with Navaresse. The language speed reaches its peak in Canto 23, as the Pilgrim first jovially recounts Aesop’s fables which remind him of the incident with Navaresse and the Malebranche, then with the lines; “As from one thought another often rises, so this thought gave quick birth to still another, and then the fear I first had felt was doubled,”(lines 10-12, Canto 23). “Doubled” is a key word, for myself as a reader, it was as though the author stepped on the accelerator and the wild goose chase of Malebranche behind Dante and Virgil began. The language is fast paced, and the reader hurries along Dante’s short, choppy descriptions as Virgil races around Hell with Dante on his back.
Dante the author dictates how the reader receives the plot, but the plot itself is propelled BOTH naturally, and through Dante’s manipulation of language. The majority of readers comprehend immediately that Dante’s Inferno is not a literal account of his journey through Hell with Virgil the dead poet; most of these readers will also realize through all the Biblical allusions and parallels, that the Inferno is encapsulating everyone’s journey through life, the true nature of all the sins we commit, and the natural life cycle, especially as it pertains to Christianity and the quest to paradise. With this realization also comes the readers’ previous knowledge of the journey to divinity and where the Pilgrim (or myself/the reader/Dante/Virgil etc) begins his journey and where he is going to end up if he follows the “path to righteousness.”
2) Quote(s) Analysis:
“Come on, shake off the covers of this sloth,’ the master said, ‘ for sitting softly cushioned, or tucked in bed, is no way to win fame; and without it man must waste his life away, leaving such traces of what he was on earth as smoke in wind and foam upon the water. Stand up! Dominate this weariness of yours with the strength of the soul that wins in every battle if it does not sink beneath the body’s weight. Much steeper stairs than those we’ll have to climb; we have not seen enough sinners yet! If you understand me, act, learn from my words,” (lines 46-57, Canto 24).
The context of this quote is that Dante the Pilgrim is exhausted and sits down after climbing up the steep embankment to the 6th ditch. Dante describes his tiredness and breathlessness as something incredible, that of which he has never felt before.
At this time, Dante the Pilgrim gives in to his pain, something that prevents the temperance of his soul and perseverance of his courage. This is proof that Dante the Pilgrim is not yet at the end of his journey, and he has not finished learning. This conclusion of the Pilgrim’s intemperate soul and lack of courage seemed obvious to me because of my recent exposure to Plato’s Ideal Republic, in which the true nature of virtue and wisdom are explained. Virgil is sometimes referred to as “Reason,” or as “acting with reason,” which is clear many times during the journey through Hell; Virgil neglects to acknowledge his pain and breathlessness at the top of the slope, mostly does not express fear towards creatures in Hell, (because he possesses courage, which includes the ability to distinguish between what warrants fear as a reaction, and what does not), and finally he does not indulge in pleasure or curiosity to distract him on his journey with Dante the Pilgrim.
After Virgil’s short lecture, Dante the Pilgrim instantly snaps to attention and pretends that he is barely winded from the climb, this clarifies the role of Dante and Virgil as student and teacher, respectively. Also, when Dante spoke with Benetto Latino, he thanked him for teaching him how to be immortal through his written word. Thus, when Virgil says that the way Dante is giving into pain and resting will not win him fame, he strikes a serious cord with his student.
The last line of this quote is quite interesting because of its duality: “if you understand me, act, learn from my words,” (line 57, Canto 24). Not only is this message being sent from Virgil to Dante as a call to action and divinity, but it is also a message from Dante (the author) to readers of the Inferno. Dante references the story of King Arthur, which had (allegedly) caused Francesca to commit lust and end up in Hell, which Dante includes as an example of how NOT to use literature. This also reappears with the issue of fraud and literature – since fictional literature is a truth told through a lie (fictitious story). In this way, Dante the author wants readers to find the truth in the fictional Inferno, and act and learn from his words, not misinterpret them at face value and sin.
This lesson and quotation is placed at an interesting point in the epic; because in Canto 23, which immediately precedes this quotation, Virgil is illustrated as acting on impulse and without reason:
“My guide instinctively caught hold of me, like a mother waking to some warning sound, who sees the rising flames are getting close and grabs her son and runs - does not wait the short time it would take to put on something; she cares not for herself, only for him,” (lines 37-42, Canto 23).
Here Virgil is described as a female figure, as a mother. This is important and strengthens the notion that he is acting without reason because women were not perceived (and still are not) as creatures that act on logic, but emotion. This is evident today as women hold less executive positions or positions where an emotional bias would gravely impact her ability to perform effectively. Virgil impulsively reacts to fear and the threat of the Malebranche, but rightfully so, carrying Dante the Pilgrim and himself out of harms way and into the 6th ditch. This scene may put Virgil in a negative light for acting on impulse, but his natural instinct and fears were legitimate. In the same respect, although mothers may be at the mercy of emotion, many times a mother’s instinct is invaluable, and still cherished in society today.
I thought these two quotes created an interesting paradox of Virgil’s virtuous and “reason-oriented” nature to the natural instincts of mother and child.