Dante and Virgil have set out, and Dante the narrator invokes the Muses to help him tell the story, as epic poets have always done. But the first thing he has to tell shows how very unheroic, at least in some ways, is the “hero” he has chosen: Dante the pilgrim hesitates. Who is he to undertake such a journey? Yes, others have journeyed through the Underworld or visited Heaven-Aeneas, whose story Virgil himself told in his epic poem, the Aeneid, and St. Paul. But Dantes not on their level, he tells Virgil. Virgil diagnoses Dantes problem as cowardice, and tells him the story of the blessed and beautiful lady, Beatrice, who came to Virgil in Limbo, the outermost part of Hell where he inhabits, to urge him to save Dante. She came from Heaven, through the grace of the Virgin Mary and St. Lucy, Dantes favorite saint, and if three such ladies want to save Dante, how can he hesitate? And indeed Dante feels new courage spread through his whole being and tells Virgil he is really ready to follow him now.
In some allegories, the characters are not real people but personified abstractions, as in the pictures of Justice as a blind woman holding scales, or the Statue of Liberty holding up her torch in New Yorks harbor. In Dantes allegory, almost all the characters are real people. (The three beasts of the first canto are an exception.) They are themselves, and they stand for something more, in part for some inner quality that in life they really did embody, at least in Dantes opinion. In life, Beatrice was a young woman who grew up, as Dante did, in Florence, in the late thirteenth century, and died young. When she was eight and Dante was nine, he saw her for the first time at a May celebration. So powerful was her effect on him, then and later, that he came to see her as a revelation of the glory of God, sent to draw him to God. For him, she embodied Divine Grace and all the power of Revelation, which reveals Gods love to us in a way human reason on its own could never reach. So one can see this canto as saying, “Human reason can show us how futile it is to seek happiness in the wrong direction and how joyful to seek it through real growth, but it can never grasp the bliss that is waiting for us when our wills are completely guided by universal love.” Many who do not share Dantes theology, especially the doctrine that some souls will stay trapped in the misery they have created for themselves on earth forever in Hell, have still found much real insight in his psychology. For some, the Inferno is above all a study of the hell of addiction, as it is experienced in this life.