Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first part of his epic poem Divine Comedy, tells the story of the protagonist Dante’s journey through Hell with the Roman poet Virgil as his guide. Dante has lost his way in the forest and on the path of life: by letting sin enter his life, he has become alienated from God. The Divine Comedy provides an allegorical representation of Dante’s endeavor to transcend his sins and reconnect with God’s love.
In Inferno specifically, the character Dante travels through hell to examine the nature of sin. As the Divine Comedy functions as an allegory, his story represents more than just the personal quest: it represents the universal search to connect with God within Christianity. This allegorical function proves to be defining for the nature of the protagonist in Inferno. Though the Divine Comedy is an epic, the character of Dante as protagonist is meant to be representative and relatable for the entirety of the human race. This form of allegorical protagonist that symbolizes humanity in general is in keeping with the ‘Everyman’ tradition from the medieval morality plays which center on man and his characteristic human traits (“Everyman”; Van Gorp 287-288).
Any difficulties in defining the character of Dante in his capacity as protagonist stem from this allegorical nature: his defining traits are intentionally left vague and universal, though the reader does know for certain that he committed a non-specified sin at some point in his life, and that he takes part in the local political scene in Florence. In terms of the formal features of the protagonist as set out in the theoretical part of this discussion, this is another move further away from the original notion of the tragic hero. This protagonist is no longer a model symbolization of what man should strive to be. He is meant to serve as a mirror for mankind, rather than as a template. He is also intended to embody the intrinsically human traits that every human being shares: he sympathizes with other people while still remaining capable of anger; he feels a strong sense of injustice and the sight of people suffering makes him weep, while still sensing a strong feeling of satisfaction at the public destruction of his political enemies. He is proud, but at the same time he is deeply unsatisfied as he feels conflicting desires on his journey through Hell. His instincts tell him he belongs among the great poets in Limbo, but he also strongly wishes to find his love Beatrice, and to live within God’s love. Unlike Beowulf, who relishes danger, Dante shows great courage in spite of his fears, and he is not afraid to be highly emotional either (as demonstrated by how frequently he faints when faced with overwhelming danger or when profoundly moved).
As Dante’s journey through Hell continues, he becomes increasingly desensitized to the harsh punishments doled out by God. The deeper he goes down into Hell, the less sympathy he shows for the suffering of the damned.