Literature has many essential elements like theme, plot, structure, and character development. But in The Inferno by Dante there is said to be little to no character development. So the question must be asked: is character development actually necessary for the development of a storyline in major literary works? Or is the lack of character development just a result of the episodic structure throughout Dante’s epic Renaissance poem? The entire composition focuses on Dante’s exploration of the afterlife; the departed are condemned to retain all of the features that they possessed on Earth, and many of these features remain remarkably static.
The Inferno centers on two main characters, Dante himself, and Virgil, his guide through the underworld. The narration of the book follows Dante and Virgil’s physical journey in life and through the underworld rather than their psychological dynamics from the journey. By having the main focus on their journey throughout the underworld puts more emphasize on the end of their voyage rather than their development throughout the journey, therefore minimizing the effect that character development would have on the audience.
Another aspect in the novel that is responsible for the lack of character development is the fact that many of the supporting and temporary characters that are introduced are quickly exited and never brought back again. Characters such as Attila, Alexander the Great, and Arachne appear in specific cantos depending on their sins and circle, tell their story to Dante, and then disappear for the rest of the poem. For example, Alexander the Great is quickly introduced and then not talked of again, “Here’s Alexander, and he who held Sicily under for many a sad year, fierce Dionysius” (XII. 100-101). The episodic structure and abruptness of character’s function make character development difficult and even impossible for the poem’s many layers.
It is not only the supporting characters who lack character development; indeed, Virgil and Dante seemed to barely experience development as well. Virgil rarely showed new behaviors throughout the novel, such as when he reprimands Dante for continually delaying their journey through the underworld; “My master: ‘Stare a little longer,’ he said, ‘And I will quarrel with you!’ When I heard him speaking to me in anger as he had” (XXX.133-135). Virgil’s lack of change through the novel may be a result of his past experiences or the new situations he is involved in with Dante.
Dante, the protagonist, is the only character in the poem that seems to experience character development in the slightest. His development seems to follow a cycle: he goes from pitying the sinners to judging and feeling above them. Throughout the novel Dante would say things like “Up above Malebolge’s last cloister now where we could see its lay-brothers under us, their strange laments beset me, each an arrow whose shaft was barbed with pity—and at this, I lifted up my hands and blocked my ears” (XXIX.43-57). At this point Dante could not deal with the sinners and watching them that he is forced to cover his ears and look away. This sense of character development is perhaps just Dante’s moral and psychological recognition that sin should be despised and God’s ultimate powers should be worshiped. There is still question if this is character development or not. Dante seems to lose his compassion at various times but also shows hatred and fear when meeting the sinners in the final cantos describing it as “If I had harsh and grating rhymes, to befit that melancholy hole which is the place all the other rocks converge and thrust their weight, then I could more completely press the juice from my conception. But since I lack such lines, I feel afraid as I come to speak of this:” (XXXII.1-6). Dante’s disgust could’ve been cause by the increasing vileness of their sins and punishments rather than to his moral development from the beginning of his journey.
Based on these specific examples throughout the novel it is difficult to decide if there is a strong presence of character development or not. The Inferno lacks character development but makes up for it in imagery and theme. Yet on the basis of Dante’s work, character development does not seem to be a literary essential in early modern literature and certainly not in this specific narrative. Although it lacks intricate psychological development in most characters, it is still a powerful novel that addresses potent moral and existential themes during Dante and Virgil’s journey through the underworld.