Angelique Fletcher is a writer at BHSEC, Cleveland-West. She serves as editor-in-chief of BardVERSE.
It is common practice in today’s world to seek guidance in a time of need. It was also, as portrayed in literature such as Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, a practice of people over seven hundred years ago. In Alighieri’s comedy, Dante has been deemed a coward and is sentenced to traverse the layers of hell. Much to his relief, the heavenly spirits send Dante’s one true idol, Virgil, to lead Dante past hell and to the light beyond. Dante chooses to trust Virgil completely, and thus Virgil becomes more than just a physical guide. While Dante’s Inferno portrays Virgil as a corporeal guide, Virgil also influences Dante’s views and beliefs about justice.
When Dante first enters hell, he is overwhelmed by the travesties that lay before him and would be lost without Virgil as a guide. Dante’s shock is encapsulated when he cries, “Master” why do these people “seem so shattered by their agonies?” (11). Dante’s cry of horror seems to question why the people before him have to suffer, and whether or not they deserved their fate. At this point, Dante proves that he is unsure whether the souls he encounters have been served proper justice. He does not yet have a solidified sense of justice, so he directs his question to Virgil, his guide, as the term master implies, and someone who has experienced hell firsthand. Dante hopes that Virgil will quell his worries that what he sees is unjust. Virgil delivers, telling Dante that the souls before him had led “a life so blind and low” (11). With his worry subdued, Dante will trust that Virgil’s opinions about what is proper justice are right, and will then apply Virgil’s answer to any doubts he may have later.
After following Virgil physical outline through hell, and drawing reference from Virgil’s outspoken beliefs, Dante begins to form his own conclusions about what is just and right. In canto eighteen, Dante and Virgil are walking along a bridge and looking at the tortured below. One voice rises up and questions Dante, asking why Dante’s focus has been on him. Dante replies, “Because if I remember it… that’s why you caught my eye” (68). Dante’s tone is blunt and almost cruel. He answers the question and doesn’t say any more. Dante doesn’t indicate in any way that he feels remorse for the soul below. It is an almost sarcastic remark and suggests that Dante agrees that the man’s punishment it just. By now he has been traveling with Virgil through eighteen cantos and listening to verses such as “drop your eyes till they can clearly see… shitty nails” (68). Virgil seems pleased with what the woman has to suffer through- as if he feels her punishment is rightly deserved. Opinions such as these are sure to influence Dante’s beliefs about justice because as an idol, there is no way Dante will believe Virgil could be wrong.
Before entering the last and final canto of hell, Virgil must guide Dante through a section of hell that houses giants. When Dante looks upon them he is appalled and disgusted. He argues that “Nature, when she decided to desist from making them, and took such instruments away from Mars, was acting for the best” (118). By this stage Dante himself is condoning and condemning those whom he deems sinners, proving that he is okay with their punishments. After following Virgil’s guidance all the way through hell, Dante now has his own, solid sense of what is right. Virgil always directed and encouraged Dante to speak with tormented souls, and now Dante does it on his own. However, while Dante makes his own decisions about whether a punishment is just, he still hears and is perhaps guided by Virgil’s opinions and beliefs, such as when Virgil states “That self-accuser there is Nimrod. Through his evil thought alone there is not one common language everywhere” (118). Virgil supports Dante’s beliefs by saying things like this. Virgil agreeing with Dante, as an idol, will serve to convince Dante that his decision to believe the giants deserve their punishment is correct. Thus Virgil continues to guide Dante’s decisions about what is right.
Dante enters hell with a fractured and unsure sense of justice and what the damned deserve. His idol Virgil helps to lead both Dante’s physical body and moral beliefs through the sinister abode. Virgil, however, is not a placid leader. Dante believes Virgil because he trusts him wholeheartedly, but Virgil’s remarks to Dante’s questions and concerns tend to be snide and hateful. Perhaps Dante picks up on this, and that is why he behaves in such an ill-mannered way as on page 123. Dante’s journey through hell changes him, but it may not be for the best. Dante’s actions raise an important question that can apply to today’s world as well: Can blindly trusting someone be a cause of violence? It has been mentioned that fully submitting to someone we admire and trust can set us free and make us stronger. But perhaps we as humans need to take back some of our independence so we can make wise decisions about whom we let change us; because we might not know our idols as well as we think we do.