The protagonist of the Inferno is Dante, who, through Virgil’s teaching, transforms from being lost and fearful to being courageous and virtuous. The Inferno is essentially a self-improvement project for Dante. Middle-aged at the start of the story, Dante wakes up suddenly to find that he has “wandered from the straight and true” and is now lost in the “deepest wood[s].” He is unable to leave the woods because wild beasts, representing human wrongdoing, “dr[ive him] back / to where the sun is silent evermore.” Dante’s predicament represents his inability to act virtuously and his abandonment of his religious practices. When Beatrice sees Dante’s danger and sends Virgil to him, Dante eagerly accepts the Roman poet’s help. Dante’s goal in descending through Hell is to “flee [the] evil” he has fallen into and return to his faith.
Despite this goal, Dante is initially cowed by Hell and unwilling to undergo the necessary dangers, yet by the end of the Inferno, he has grown in both courage and virtue. Dante faints from fear when he first enters Hell, and, stopped at the City of Dis, he quickly suggests they “trace [their] footsteps back at once,” escaping the dangers of Hell but also ending any hope of spiritual renewal. Dante also initially ignores the seriousness of sin, weeping for sinners such as the adulterous Francesca and the dismembered schismatics. Dante’s reactions show he is confused in his faith and lacks the courage necessary to tackle the hardships involved in spiritual transformation.
Yet Dante changes by the end of the story. He demonstrates wise discernment in calling out the sin of wrongdoers such as the traitorous Alberigo and Pope Boniface VIII, both of whom he criticizes sharply for their sins. He also, at Virgil’s urging, “arm[s himself] with fortitude,” or courage, enough to survive the sight of Lucifer, the angel who rebelled against God and the worst sinner in all of Hell. That Dante does not faint but instead escapes with Virgil demonstrates his spiritual growth throughout the story. Dante ends the Inferno preparing to enter Purgatory, meaning that he has shaken off his confusion and cowardice and is ready now to receive real spiritual training.