“The Man Who Couldn’t” by Tiffany Shelton

Posted: July 3, 2015 in Vol. 7: Spring Essays 2015

danteWhat is an allegory without its characters? Not many allegories are without their prominent characters. Even the most famous allegories, such as Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave, have characters. Characters help the allegory become more understandable to a reader. Dante Alighieri wrote a spiritual and political allegory full of allegorical characters in The Divine Comedy, through three main sections: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. In Inferno and Purgatorio, the main character, Dante, is guided by ancient Roman poet Virgil. Virgil is present throughout the hero’s journey through Hell and Purgatory, up until Beatrice meets Dante physically to take him into Heaven. For almost two-thirds of the allegory, Virgil plays an essential role in the transformation of Dante’s spirit as he gets ready to enter Heaven. Throughout the story, Virgil is a walking personification of human reason. Virgil’s being a pagan, however, becomes problematic for the reader as he is unable to enter Heaven with Dante, despite guiding Dante along the righteous path. The entire allegory focuses on the path to get to Heaven, and the two characters represent the faithful and the unfaithful on the journey. Ironically, the pagan Virgil is still necessary for the overall success of the allegory because he leads Dante onto a path of Catholic faith with his human rationality.

Dante’s poet Virgil is based on the actual poet, Virgil (70-19 BC), who wrote the Aeneid. The poem is primarily pagan, where Roman gods are present throughout the Aeneid’s journey. Virgil is also pagan, and a citizen of Rome before the life of Jesus, and so Rome was not yet a Catholic civilization. Dante had many reasons for choosing Virgil as Dante the character’s guide. Virgil’s Aeneid glorifies Rome even before the institution of the Catholic Church, showing that Rome is the perfect place for the Pope to organize the Church. Aeneid is also a character that goes into the underworld, so Dante could have picked Virgil because Virgil understood it. Even A.K. Clark states that Virgil is “almost among the sacred writers” in The Scope of Virgil’s Influence, showing that Virgil is a man known and adored by many, so Dante would surely want to include him within his own “sacred” text (Clark 12). Dante uses Virgil in his piece to personify human reason. Allegorically, Virgil is a manifestation of the concept of a lack of understanding in God. Throughout The Divine Comedy, Virgil is very wise, but he never comprehends anything spiritual. He is necessary for the entire allegory because they both represent different types of souls that are able to receive salvation. The whole allegory tells who may enter Heaven: those who have faith and can use their reasoning to comprehend divine love.

Virgil in The Divine Comedy is literally important in that Dante needs a guide. Dante the character cannot travel through Hell alone because he would not know where he needed to go. In Canto I of The Inferno, Virgil is first introduced when Dante is being pushed back by the beasts in the Dark Wood of Error. Virgil first appears as a shade to Dante: “And as I fell to my soul’s ruin, a presence gathered before me on the discolored air” (Inf. 1. 61-62).  Since Virgil is the symbol of human reason for Dante the character, Virgil first appearing as a shade to Dante illustrates how Dante has strayed from human reason or the “True Way” (Inf. 1. 17).  Then, at the end of Canto I, Virgil tells Dante to follow him and Dante “followed where he led” (Inf. 1. 128). In this scene, Virgil is needed because without him, Dante would have been driven away from the “True Way” and the poem would be over very quickly (Inf. 1. 12). Dante needed to take the first step towards this “True Way,” requiring human reason, as Virgil, to do so.

Virgil early in The Divine Comedy illustrates Dante the poet’s intention of creating a Catholic journey which requires one to take the first step towards human reason. Virgil appears to be like Jesus in that he is the guide that leads people to salvation.  Because the overall allegory is about Dante’s growth, the success of it relies on its early foundations. Virgil is represented as a sort of “shepherd” for Dante who is just a “sheep” that needs herding when at the end of Canto I, Virgil tells Dante to follow and Dante obeys. This recalls an event in the Bible where Jesus calls Matthew: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” (NRSV, Matthew 9:9). Virgil in Canto I is key to the beginning of Dante’s spiritual growth.

The readers gain a better understanding of the scenery and population of Hell through Virgil’s information. Virgil is an essential informant for Dante during their journey together. His knowledge allows readers (and Dante) to understand the different Circles of Hell and the sinners that reside within them. Dante is full of questions and Virgil answers many of them. During Canto II of Inferno, Dante asks Virgil whether he is worthy to take on such a quest as traveling from Hell to Heaven. When Virgil answers, he explains how Beatrice sent Virgil to lead Dante back to the True Way (Inf. 2. 57-70). In Canto IV, Dante asks about those in Circle One and Virgil informs that they are pagans that have left a “signature of honor” on Earth, allowing them to have “ease in Hell” (Inf. 4. 76). Not only does the information guide Dante in the right direction, the information also assists in creating the context for the setting of the story.

Virgil’s insightfulness and human rationality, however, are not sufficient enough without faith in God. Virgil is able to answer any question that is logical, such as why certain circles have certain punishments. Once faith in God gets involved in the question, Virgil is unable to answer it completely. For example, at the end of Canto VIII, Virgil cannot get through the gates separating Upper Hell from Lower Hell. When they are denied entry to the City of Dis, Virgil is confused and cannot tell Dante why they are delayed, just that they will eventually enter somehow, but the two wait a long time while being terrorized by the Furies (Inf. 9. 49-51). In Canto IX, Virgil grows impatient as he complains, “‘Yet surely we were meant to pass these tombs…if not…so much was promised…Oh how time hangs and drags till our aid comes!’” (Inf. 9. 7-9).

His complaint is literally and metaphorically significant in showing that Virgil lacks the basis for obtaining faith. Virgil literally needs God’s messenger to open the gates for him so the two may continue. As the embodiment of human reason, Virgil’s complaint signifies that human reason cannot progress spiritually without the Catholic faith, and God’s messenger, who later in Canto IX opens the gate, represents the entirety of this faith. Figuratively, Virgil does not understand why it takes a long while for their “help” to arrive and grant them passage. Like The Parable of the Sower, Virgil lacks a proper foundation in God, as his “seed” was not “sown in soil” but “fell on the path” (Matthew 13:4) so he will never be able to understand it: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path” (Matthew 13:19). Therefore, Virgil is unable to understand dilemmas regarding faith, because he cannot understand it and never will, as his “seed” was “scorched” (Matthew 13:6). When the angel comes, he comes for Dante to assist him in completing his journey. Since Dante is already a Catholic, he has the basic foundations for his faith, allowing him to get closer to God. Virgil does not have these foundations, so he cannot ever have faith.

Virgil illustrates perfect human rationality without perfect faith. This is important for the allegory because Dante must have perfect human rationality with perfect faith in order to get into Heaven. With Virgil, Dante is on both of these paths. Dante is able to obtain perfect rationality with Virgil simply by experience with him. Virgil is insightful and explains in detail about punishments in Hell. Dante, having been born after Jesus, has had his faith “sown in soil,” and therefore is able to obtain perfect faith. Dante obtains this perfect faith because he can understand the works of God in Hell and Purgatory, unlike Virgil who simply understands the logic behind the structures.

The closer the two get to Heaven, the less Christ-like Virgil seems, again illustrating the limits of human reason without faith. Another reason Virgil is significant is that his lack of faith juxtaposes to Dante’s growing faith, emphasizing to Dante the poet’s readers how important the Catholic faith is. After passing Hell, Virgil and Dante step into Purgatory, which Catholic tradition states is a place where sinful, but remorseful souls go to be purified before entering Heaven. In Canto I of Purgatorio, Virgil must cleanse Dante before moving deeper into Purgatory: “[I] lifted my tear-stained cheeks to him, and there he made me clean, revealing my true color under the residues of Hell’s black air” (Pur. 1. 124-126). This scene recounts another episode in Jesus’ life. Though not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, many devout Catholics know the story of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus as he carries his cross to his death. Like Veronica wiping Jesus’ face, Virgil wipes Dante’s face, illustrating that Dante is now becoming more Christ-like than Virgil. The Christ metaphor in this scene begins to transition from Virgil to Dante.

During much of Purgatorio, Virgil is seen relying more on Heavenly instruction than on his own reasoning. For instance in Canto I, Cato tells Virgil how to proceed with Dante: “Go then, and lead this man, but first see to it you bind a smooth green reed about his waist and clean his face of all trace of the pit” (Pur. 1. 94-96). The closer the two get to Heaven, the less Dante relies on Virgil, as other guides await him, like Statius. Statius joins the two in Canto XXI. He adores Virgil and even states that Virgil’s Aeneid had converted him: “in pondering those line in which you cry, as if you raged against humanity…I understood then that our hands could spread their wings too wide in spending, and repented of that, and all my sins, in grief and dread” (Pur. 22. 38-45).  Vigil lets Statius explain to Dante how the gluttons in Canto XXV appear starved despite not needing food, rather than explaining it himself. As the three get closer to Heaven, Virgil’s human reason seems to be reaching its limit.

Dante’s journey with Virgil is nearly complete in Canto XXVII, and the journey has made Dante sinless and able to go to Heaven, where the teacher Virgil paradoxically cannot enter. At the end of Purgatorio in Canto XXVII, Virgil watches as Dante steps through the flame and into Heaven. Again, Virgil is not able to go on to Heaven with Dante because he lacks Catholic faith. Everything that Virgil had done to help Dante was ordered by a higher power, rather than Virgil volunteering from the beginning, showing that he embraced his own sin regardless of all that he has seen from Hell and Purgatory.

Virgil cannot go on to see God because he will not understand what he sees. Throughout Purgatorio, the need for Virgil slowly diminished. If he were to enter Heaven, Virgil’s presence may cease to exist because he could never fathom anything divine, like the angel opening the way to the City of Dis. This is why Virgil is among the virtuous pagans in Hell–he has done good, but will never be able to comprehend God because he never knew faith during his life. Therefore, Dante’s allegory may be proposing that Hell is needed for those who cannot comprehend God or God’s love, otherwise they may cease to exist. Allegorically, Hell may be a place built out of God’s divine love.

Dante the poet’s allegory would not have been as successful in telling a Catholic transformation journey without the character Virgil. Virgil’s lack of faith makes him an important character in the allegory for the audience to juxtapose to Dante and allows Dante to witness the borders of human reasoning without faith. Virgil’s human reasoning does aid in Dante’s spiritual development and in their overall journey by being his guide and providing sufficient knowledge, but Virgil’s reasoning is not enough as the two get closer to Heaven. The whole allegory shows how those of Catholic faith may be able to enter Heaven, as they have the proper foundations, where one who never knew faith will never be able to enter Heaven. Virgil being an allegory for lack of faith while Dante being an allegory for growing faith illustrates the two common paths people go through within their lives. Since Virgil had no Christian foundations during his life, he can never know true faith in the afterlife. Perhaps if Virgil were alive while guiding Dante, rather than already in Hell, Virgil may have had a chance at receiving salvation.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: New American Library, 2003. Print.

Clarke, A.K. “The Scope of Virgil’s Influence.” Greece & Rome. Cambridge University Press, 16 (1947): 12. JSTOR. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

The Holy Bible. Web. Rev. New Revised Standard Version. <https://www.biblegateway.com&gt;

Written for Dr. Brenda Machosky’s ENG 331: Topics in British Literature

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