The relationship between Dante and Virgil is a complicated one. Dante clearly admires Virgil and his work, but there are also moments when he seems to be frustrated with the older poet.
On the whole, Dante seems to view Virgil as a mentor figure. He looks up to Virgil as someone who is wiser and more experienced than himself. This is seen most clearly in Inferno, when Dante turns to Virgil for guidance as he travels through Hell.
However, there are also times when Dante critiques Virgil’s work. For example, in Purgatorio, he suggests that Virgil’s poetry doesn’t adequately capture the beauty of Paradise.
Overall, the relationship between Dante and Virgil is a complex and multi-layered one. It is clear that Dante both admires and respects Virgil, but he is also not afraid to offer his own critiques of the older poet’s work.
In the poem, The Divine Comedy, Dante and his Mentor, Virgil, is the story of a middle-aged man’s journey through the many circles of Hell where he meets several individuals including past popes, renowned thinkers, and previous acquaintances getting their just deserts for their misdeeds.
Throughout the story, Dante is guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Some readers might question the relationship between these two men. Did Dante view Virgil as a father figure? A close friend? A guide who was simply fulfilling his duty?
It is difficult to judge the true nature of their relationship based on Inferno alone. However, we can get a better understanding of how Dante felt about Virgil by looking at other works by the author. In Convivio, Dante talks about how much he admires Virgil and his work.
He goes so far as to say that he would gladly trade places with him, being placed among the pagans in Hell if only he could have written The Aeneid: “If I could have done so, I would not have hesitated to change places with him, and to suffer the punishment of those in Hell who did not know the true God, if only I could have been the author of such a work” (Convivio 4.14.9).
This passage shows that Dante held Virgil in high regard, both as a poet and as a person. He saw him as someone to be admired and respected, not just as a guide who was helping him through Hell. This is further illustrated in Inferno when Dante speaks to Beatrice about how much he misses Virgil now that he is gone: “How great a pity that I ever lost / Sight of you! How much it grieves me still! / How I repent that ever I consented / To go down with Virgil into Hell!” (Inferno 33.127-130).
Dante clearly cared for Virgil and was upset when he had to leave him behind. He saw him as more than just a guide; Virgil was someone who Dante looked up to and respected. While we cannot know for sure what the true nature of their relationship was, it is clear that Dante felt very strongly about Virgil.
It is commonplace in literature for the main character to go through an adventure, be it spiritual, physical, or emotional. And usually, after surmounting considerable challenges and hurdles, this person emerges changed at his core. Most critics when discussing Dante’s Inferno focus on how the protagonist’s views regarding sinners and Hell itself changes throughout the poem. However, a more intriguing metamorphosis can be found in Dante’s opinion of Virgil—his guide through most of Purgatory and all of Hell.
In particular, the development of their relationship throughout Inferno reflects Dante’s own personal growth, as well as the way in which he learns to see Virgil not just as a guide, but as a friend.
Initially, Dante is very much in awe of Virgil and holds him in high esteem, referring to him as “the master of those who know” and praising his wisdom. Consequently, Dante is quite deferential towards Virgil, obediently following him without question and constantly deferring to his judgement.
For example, when they first enter Hell, Dante is so overwhelmed by the sights and smells that he faints, and it is only Virgil’s authoritative words that snap him out of it. Furthermore, Dante is eager to please Virgil and frequently asks for his approval, often referring to him as “my lord”.
However, as Dante progresses through the different levels of Hell and witnesses the various torments that the sinners endure, he gradually becomes more hardened and less compassionate. His encounters with the damned also make him more sceptical and questioning, no longer blindly accepting everything that Virgil says.
For instance, when they meet Francesca da Rimini in Circle Two, Dante is deeply moved by her story and weeps uncontrollably, whereas Virgil remains unmoved. When Dante questions Virgil about this, Virgil simply replies that he has seen so much suffering that it no longer affects him. This response shocks Dante, who had previously seen Virgil as a wise and compassionate man.
As Dante continues his journey, he begins to see Virgil not just as a guide, but as a friend. He is no longer afraid to question Virgil or express his own opinions, and the two of them often have long conversations about various topics. Additionally, Dante starts to feel more empathy for Virgil and even tries to comfort him when Virgil is grieving over the souls of his fellow countrymen in Circle Seven.
The relationship between Dante and Virgil is therefore significant in that it mirrors Dante’s own development from a naïve and sheltered individual into a more world-weary and cynical person. Furthermore, it highlights the ways in which Dante learns to see Virgil not just as a mentor, but as a friend.
Virgil serves as a wise old man who is assigned the responsibility of leading Dante through the dangers of his trip through Hell because he is well-known and appreciates Virgil’s work, making him a trustworthy guide. While Dante begins his journey with complete trust in and dependency on Virgil, his gradual acts of disobedience to Virgil’s rules have a greater impact than the one preceding it, leveling out their relationship from that of an elder and a subordinate to that of two mutually independent individuals.
Dante’s first act of defiance is his failure to follow Virgil’s instruction to stay put. Instead, Dante walks ahead and looks back at Virgil, an action that gets him lost in the dark wood. This leads to Dante’s second act of defiance where he questions Virgil’s wisdom and criticizes his plan to go through Hell.
Dante says, “You led me astray / From the true path… And how you dared to come / Into this savage place without a guide? / You did not think of that before you came?” (Inferno 3.16-21) Here, Dante openly challenges Virgil’s decision-making and blames him for getting them both lost. Dante’s directness is a result of his panic and frustration from being trapped in the dark wood, which makes him feel more comfortable lashing out at Virgil than admitting his own fear.
Virgil scolds Dante for his lack of faith and tells him that he will not help Dante any further if he does not trust him. This leads to Dante’s third act of defiance where he tries to go back the way they came. However, he quickly realizes that there is no turning back and reluctantly agrees to follow Virgil. From then on, Dante remains quiet and obedient until they reach the Gates of Hell.