In Dante’s Inferno, Virgil, the Roman poet, guides Dante through Hell. Virgil first encounters Dante at the beginning of Inferno when Dante strays from the True Way, a term used by Beatrice to represent a righteous and religious life. Beatrice, Dante’s real-life love who resides in Heaven, becomes worried about Dante and urges Virgil to restore his morality and virtue. She tells Virgil, “my dearest friend […] has strayed / onto a friendless shore and stands beset / by such distresses that he turns afraid / from the True Way” (Dante 36). Virgil rescues Dante, and these two characters develop a unique relationship as they journey towards the center of the Earth. Virgil shows Dante the consequences of sin and instructs him to speak with many of the suffering sinners they encounter. A biased relationship develops between the two characters, where one individual becomes more dependent on the relationship than the other. Specifically, a father and son relationship forms between Virgil and Dante. This kind of connection between the two main characters allows Virgil to show Dante how to find the True Way and implies a universal relationship between God and humanity.
It is apparent early in Inferno that Dante needs someone to help him. Dante is trapped in the dark woods, which he describes as a “valley of evil” (28). He cannot find his way out without assistance. Beatrice chooses Virgil to help Dante since Virgil is respected and admired by Dante. Dante trusts Virgil and will listen to the advice he has to offer. However, it is surprising that Virgil would help Dante, considering he has no prior knowledge of this man. One may assume that Virgil decides to assist the fallen poet because Beatrice descends from Heaven to ask Virgil for this favor. She explains the situation, and Virgil answers her plea, saying, “so welcome is your command that to my sense, / were it already fulfilled, it would yet seem tardy, / I understand, and am all obedience” (37). Virgil’s reply is so immediate and eager that it seems suspicious. Helping Beatrice or Dante does not aid Virgil in any way considering he is destined to spend eternity in Limbo. Instead, Virgil only wants to help himself by obeying Beatrice and placing Dante back on the True Way. Virgil wants the freedom to temporarily leave Limbo and forget about his eternal sentence to remain in that depressing environment. As a result, he complies with Beatrice’s request to ascend to Earth and help Dante regain his morality.
Furthermore, it behooves Virgil to guide Dante since Virgil receives the opportunity to spend time with the living, allowing for his remembrance among the living and for him to receive news of the living world. Throughout Dante’s Inferno, it appears to be a common theme for characters to want to spend time with the living and, therefore, to be remembered by them. For instance, one of Dante’s fellow Florentines, a man named Ciacco, tells Dante, “when you move again among the living, / oh speak my name to the memory of men!” (68). Since all of the individuals suffering in Hell have no hope of escape, their only other desire is to be respected, or at least well known, in the living world. Thus, multiple sinners ask Dante to speak of them when he returns among the living. Virgil has similar desires. He naturally wants people to know about him and praise his work. Hence, when he meets Dante for the first time, Virgil takes advantage of the opportunity to introduce himself. He does not simply tell Dante about his name and heritage but also states, “I was a poet / and sang of old Anchises’ noble son / who came to Rome after the burning of Troy” (30). Virgil tells Dante about his accomplishments because he expects to be admired for his work, even accepting the praise instead of beginning the arduous journey to the city of Dis. In addition, the sinners often ask Dante for news from their communities and about their families because they yearn to know what is happening in the living world. This knowledge appears to bring them closer to the living, which is their only remaining source of satisfaction. Likewise, Virgil craves to be around the living in order to attain this satisfaction and a hiatus from his suffering in Limbo. While Limbo is not the most terrible place in Hell, Virgil describes it sorrowfully, remarking that “though spared the fire, / and suffering Hell in one affliction only: that without hope we live on in desire” (51). Virgil decides to help Dante because he wants to be able to once again walk with the living, be remembered in the living world, and momentarily escape his endless sorrow in Limbo.
Virgil is not actually dependent on Dante. Since his fate is fixed, he accompanies Dante to escape, for a little while, the dreariness of Limbo. On the other hand, Dante’s fate is completely contingent on Virgil’s guidance. For instance, when Dante and Virgil reach the fourth circle of hell, they encounter a dangerous demon named Plutus. The demon menaces the poets in his rage, but Virgil calms the monster when he yells, “Peace, you wolf of Hell. Choke back your bile / and let its venom blister your own throat” (72). In addition, Virgil proclaims that Dante’s passage through Hell has been willed by God, which forces Plutus to retreat and allows the poets to pass. This event is indicative of the many times Virgil helps Dante out of danger throughout the Inferno. Therefore, an essentially one-sided relationship develops between the two characters. Virgil continuously helps Dante but Dante cannot do much for Virgil besides simply allowing Virgil to enjoy the presence of a living soul.
As the Inferno progresses, the relationship between Dante and Virgil becomes more personal and involves more emotion. Instead of helping Dante, Virgil begins protecting and defending him. He takes an interest in Dante and begins to truly care for him instead of simply helping him because of his promise to Beatrice. In addition, Virgil lets Dante know how he feels about Dante’s actions, whether he approves or disapproves. For instance, Virgil reprimands Dante when he listens to a quarrel between two Falsifiers. Virgil says, “Now keep on looking / a little longer and I quarrel with you. […] The wish to hear such baseness is degrading” (254-255). In this way, Virgil takes a much more active role in leading Dante away from a life of sin. This type of behavior can be seen repeatedly throughout their journey. In another instance, in the eighth circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil come upon demons whose job it is to keep the grafters submerged in boiling pitch. While Dante and Virgil speak to the demons, one of the grafters escapes from their torture. The demons are embarrassed by their mistake. They become angry and decide to make the poets pay for this humiliation. Luckily, the demons cannot leave their designated pouch in the eighth circle. Therefore, Virgil and Dante escape their pursuers when Virgil grabs Dante and jumps into the next pouch. Dante describes Virgil’s selfless act in comparison to what a mother would do for a child: “like a mother wakened by a midnight noise / to find a wall of flame at her bedside / (who takes her child and runs, and more concerned / for him than for herself, does not pause even / to throw a wrap about her)” (199). Dante actually speaks of Virgil as a parental figure. Although he is simply making a comparison between two situations, Dante’s comments show what he thinks about Virgil and their relationship. He feels that Virgil cares for him so much that he would sacrifice himself for Dante’s safety, if he were not already dead, of course. In this episode, Dante virtually freezes when he sees the demons chasing after him, but Virgil is quick to act and saves both of them from torture, showing his protective and parenting nature towards Dante.
In addition to shielding Dante from the dangers of Hell, Virgil gives Dante the ability to return to the True Way. Whenever Dante pities the dead souls, Virgil shows his disapproval. However, when Dante acknowledges that the sinners deserve their punishments, Virgil seems to gain a sense of pride from Dante’s actions and encourages him to go further. This is comparable to a proud father who has taught his son an essential skill or lesson. An example of this behavior can be seen as Virgil and Dante cross the river Styx. One of the wrathful souls from the water speaks to Dante. Dante reacts powerfully and curses the deceased individual. Virgil responds to Dante’s actions by saying, “Indignant spirit, I kiss you as you frown. / Blessed be she who bore you” (81). Virgil is ecstatic about Dante’s intense and angry reply to the sinner, because Virgil is attempting to teach Dante that sin is unacceptable; the sinners deserve all the punishment they receive. Up to this point in the novel, Dante has been either passive or sympathetic about the suffering of the sinners in Hell. However, from this point on, he takes on a stern attitude and begins to mock or curse the souls. Only by touring Hell can Dante see that sinners deserve their torture and that sin is intolerable; only with Virgil, the guide and parental figure that Dante trusts, respects, and cares deeply for, can Dante accomplish this journey.
In Dante’s Inferno, Dante develops a unique bond with Virgil, his guide. Virgil protects and defends Dante while showing him that sins are intolerable actions. The two poets develop an uneven relationship in which Dante is completely dependent on Virgil’s guidance while Virgil helps Dante in order to be around a living soul and to leave Limbo. As the characters become emotionally closer, they acquire a greater sense of mutual caring, resulting in a father-son relationship. Virgil can be seen as Dante’s wise mentor and protector while Dante is the lost child yearning for guidance. In creating this type of relationship, the author may have wanted to demonstrate the relationship that he felt people should have with God. All people are sinful and lose the True Way at some point in their lives. However, Dante implies that if they rely on the guidance of God, he will lead them back to the True Way, as Virgil led Dante. This dual meaning of the text corresponds to Dante’s allegorical style of writing.