Dante and his Mentor, Virgil
Dante’s Inferno is the story of a middle-aged man’s journey through the varying circles of Hell where he encounters numerous people including previous popes, famous philosophers, and former acquaintances receiving the appropriate punishment for their respective crimes. In literature, it is common for a hero to undergo a journey, whether it is emotional, physical, or spiritual, where his or her battlement of substantial obstacles results in a significant change in persona. While most critics may focus on the change in Dante’s outlook on the sinners and the circumstances of Hell, a more noteworthy concept is the shift in Dante’s attitude towards his mentor, Virgil.
Virgil plays the role of the wise elder who is to guide Dante through the perils of his journey through Hell because the character of Dante is very familiar with and applauds the work of Virgil, making him a trustworthy guide. While Dante begins his journey with complete faith in and dependence on Virgil, his gradual acts of defiance against Virgil’s rules prove to be more impactful than the one before, thus leveling out the relationship between Dante and Virgil from one of an elder and a dependent to that of two mutually independent individuals.
The beginning of the change of dynamics in the relationship between Virgil and Dante is sparked when Dante witnesses his leader being abruptly declined entrance into Dis. After the demons slam the gate in Virgil’s face, Dante immediately responds with pusillanimity: “That hue of cowardice which blanched upon/ my countenance when I saw my leader turn,/ all the more swiftly checked it in his own” (Dante, Canto 9.
1-3). Till this point in their journey, Virgil has been able to cajole any demon that would not allow Dante entry into letting the duo pass, however, this incident marks the first time Dante witnesses his idol fail. Having to see Virgil, the man Dante must trust in order to survive Hell, be unsuccessful in his attempts ignites an urgency for independence within Dante.
Such a realization helps Dante to realize that Virgil might not be the all-knowing man he thought him to be before prompting him to lower Virgil’s metaphorical pedestal. Furthermore, Dante and Virgil’s relationship continues to evolve, as Dante, who would follow Virgil’s instructions blindly before, begins to waver in his compliance of Virgil’s requests. When the three Furies call for Medusa, Virgil must protect Dante from his own curiosity: “Quick, turn your back and cover up your face,’/…and he himself/ turned me around, and since he didn’t trust/ my own, he shut my eyes with his hands too.” (Dante, Canto 9. 55-60). Virgil, realizing that Dante may not follow his instructions to turn around and cover his eyes, had to do so himself. Dante also comprehends that Virgil no longer has faith in him when he states “he didn’t trust/ my own” propounding the idea that the relationship between Virgil and Dante is increasingly weakening from both ends in terms of trust and faith. Moreover, Dante’s act of defiance against Virgil’s rule not to pity the damned souls marks a significant milestone in their changing relationship because it prompts Virgil to flagrantly rebuke Dante for his actions. As Dante enters the Fourth Pouch of the Eighth Circle, he notes, “When I looked on our human image there/ so gone awry and twisted…I wept so, that my guide/ said, ‘Even now, with all the other fools!/ Here pity lives the best when it is dead.’” (Dante, Canto 20. 22-28). Virgil, who continuously warns Dante against pitying the souls in Hell, finally openly rebukes Dante for his actions. To Dante, showing pity is a trivial action, which requires no additional attention from his mentor. Although, to Virgil, not only is Dante showing weakness in Hell, he is also indirectly questioning God’s justice for these individuals, something deemed highly sacrilegious. The vast difference in what Dante and Virgil believe to be correct subtracts from their relationship as mentor and student by fueling their identities as two separate individuals.
Therefore, Dante concludes his journey not only a changed man in terms of his opinions and attitudes towards Hell and the people he encounters there, but also in his view of his mentor, Virgil. While Dante began his journey as a subordinate of Virgil’s, he finishes it as a freethinking individual who was no longer is in constant need of his mentor while touring the Circles of Hell. Witnessing his mentor being denied of his request, exercising his curiosity about Medusa, and sympathizing for the sinners, are the three main factors, amongst numerous others, that result in the change in the relationship between Dante and Virgil from mentor and pupil to two autonomous individuals.
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