IS DANTE AN EVERYMAN?
We know Dante represents the man in the street, sharing common traits and fears. One could argue he’s on the verge of a midlife crisis; he’s charged, erratic and emotional, and we know he has loved and lost. He’s generally adrift, wandering off course; aimless, with a hint of Imposter Syndrome to boot. The crux is he’s relatable on many different levels so we readily embrace this regular Joe and follow him on his quest though Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. It’s a similar story told by Dickens in A Christmas Carol, the three realms represented by Scrooge’s past, present and future. The moral of both tales is: redeem yourself. Redemption is possible - and entirely plausible. Atone for your sins because with atonement one can attain salvation. And ultimately that’s the message both authors aspire to convey.
Yet for all his normality and averageness, Dante is not an Everyman. Not every man is challenged with saving mankind from spiritual destruction. Your average man doesn’t travel through three realms of the afterlife while still alive. Nor does he get to reunite with his dead lover who is delivered to him in a chariot pulled by a magnificent griffin. Not every man is a poet gifted with a lexicon of language so extraordinary as to inspire an entire nation to rethink their relationship with God. Certainly no regular man can say he has looked directly into the face of God.
It's true; Dante is a man who experiences the challenges every man faces and, like them, feels the inevitable unease that these trials may overpower him into submission. However, his quest, which begins with a terrifying encounter with three salivating beasts in The Dark Wood, demonstrates from the outset that although not fearless - he’s far from it - he has courage. Indeed, it is this courage - combined with the hope of a suggested reunion with his beloved Beatrice - which inspires him to succeed. An ordinary man may well have given up at the first hurdle.
Dante has a huge task to undertake; to direct an entire populace away from temptation. He must inspire his fellow man to renounce sin and reject temptation in all forms; to restore their faith in God and atone for past misdemeanours. Grab any chance to repent, to redeem yourself through penance he says, as this will spiritually cleanse the soul and prepare it for ascension. No one enters Heaven without Faith, he reminds them, and to reach the celestial spheres is to enjoy eternal life with God in his Kingdom. It would take a pretty remarkable person to achieve conformity in those numbers, wouldn’t you say?
Indeed, he’s been chosen for this specific and monumental task precisely because he’s a very particular and persuasive beast. He’s already lauded as one of a new breed of poets who celebrate the spiritual theme of Divine Love, eulogising about romance and delicate femininity. This has him well placed to journey through the afterlife on a promise of one last kiss from his dead lover, idealised throughout The Divine Comedy in the form of the beautiful, knowledgeable, benevolent, yet formidable Beatrice. And this is why she has hand-picked him over all her other suitors, for who else could convey the savage brutality of Inferno, the awe and might of the Mountain of Purgatory and the bliss and perfection of the spheres of Paradise but this rather remarkable poet. She's supremely confident that he, over every man, can succeed in the enormous task of directing mankind away from the downward path of temptation and sin to the path of love, light and truth and, ultimately, eternal life and eternal bliss in the perfection of Paradise. Extraordinary!