Inferno Cantos 18 to 31 Questions/Analysis by Stacy Esch
Inferno: Final Destinations
Cantos XVIII – XXI
by Stacy Esch, with illustrations selected by EIL staff
The Eighth Circle, Malebolge
Sins of Fraud
Malebolge, Dante’s name for the Eighth Circle, furthers our understanding of the circular, funnel-shaped landscape; it’s graded very steeply downward towards a low, central pit. This central pit will be the next and last circle, the very bottom and center of Hell. Before arriving at the center, the pit, the travelers have to make their way into and then up out of 10 deep ditches, or “pouches” (“bolgia”), that make up the eighth circle. Each pouch is devised to punish a particular class of sins, all related to fraud. The contrapasso becomes more and more severe the deeper the travelers descend. At the bottom of Malebolge, the horror is not for faint-hearted readers.
Fraud incurs a severe form of divine justice because it involves the active use of reason, our distinctly human, angelic faculty, for unnatural ends. The sins of incontinence may be less severely punished because they can be considered crimes of passion which don’t involve the intellect as directly. Sins of violence can go either way-they are sometimes crimes of passion, sometimes premeditated. Although of course there are exceptions, Dante considers violent crime against one’s neighbor likely to involve the least amount of will, whereas violence against God, Art (“God’s grandchild”), and Nature would be more likely to involve the will. Fraud, however, always involves what Dante considers a perversion of human intelligence-that is, human intelligence used for evil (rather than angelic) purposes. Fraudulent activities always involve the active use of reason; conscious free will is always in operation.
Since humans, according to the Great Chain of Being, distinguish themselves from the “lower” animals by their superior intelligence, it stands to reason that to corrupt this aspect of yourself, to abuse reason, is to fail most miserably at being a human being, and to be, consequently, the worst possible sinner.
Malebolge is the place where these sinners are punished and it is constructed this way:
Canto XVIII (18)
In Ditch One demons whip the pimps and the seducers as they shuffle along. One of the notable sinners we encounter here is the classical figure of Jason, who features prominently in Greek mythology (Jason and the Golden Fleece, Jason and Medea).
Ditch Two contains the Flatterers who are sunk up to their necks in excrement. The contrapasso is not hard to figure out here: they spewed “b.s.” while alive, so now they get to swim in it. Note the way Virgil hurries Dante along out of this pouch… “Let our sight be satisfied” he says, but I’m sure his nose was eager to make a quick getaway, too.
Canto XIX (19)
Ditch Three is reserved for the Simoniacs (sellers of church favors). These sinners are thrust upside down in underground barrels that remind Dante of the baptismal fonts he’s seen in church. All we see are the flailing legs of the sinners, who are further tormented by a fire which burns the soles of their feet. Dante is attracted by one pair of squirming legs that seem to be more agitated than the others; this turns out to be Pope Nicholas III. We learn that he will stay in this position until Boniface arrives, then, like the other sinners in this region, he’ll be squeezed further down into the underground rock crevices, where other souls have been layered and pressed flat before him, one upon the other for all eternity.
- Note how, in his address to readers at the beginning of the Canto, Dante expresses full acceptance, full understanding of Divine Justice; in his opening lines he even levels a kind of threat for readers to beware of sinning in this way. He seems to be gaining confidence, getting his bearings. He’s not disturbed by the terrible punishment he sees; on the contrary, he seems more than gratified. He can barely restrain himself as he lashes out boldly at Pope Nicholas III (p. 155). This outburst marks real progress in Dante’s battle against pity. He has no pity for the squirming Pope, but rather enjoys the sight. We infer that Virgil is pleased by this response.
- Notice, too, how Dante acknowledges Virgil’s ability to read him like a book (p. 153). Ever since they’ve resolved their quarrel, we’ve been observing Virgil’s ability to anticipate Dante’s feelings, to guess his innermost thoughts. Here is where Dante openly acknowledges Virgil’s uncanny ability to “read him.” It’s a motif (a recurring event) that appears throughout this circle, as we see Virgil anticipating Dante’s thoughts so intimately it almost seems as if he can read Dante’s mind. Can he? Why does Dante want to call attention to this? What’s the significance of Virgil’s ability to tune into Dante’s thoughts and feelings so precisely?
Canto XX (20)
In Ditch Four Dante sees the Fortunetellers. These sinners have been contorted and twisted so that their heads face backwards. Because they claimed (falsely) to be able to “see” the future, they must spend eternity seeing only the past. Like commuters sitting backwards on a bus or a train, they seem to be moving backwards, and they can never see ahead, a fitting contrapasso. Here Dante finds Tiresias, the prophet of ancient Greek myth, as well as other false prophets, palm readers, and fortunetellers.
- The battle against pity resumes as Dante sympathizes with the fortunetellers who are contorted and twisted so that their heads face backward, an ingenious contrapasso for their sins. Virgil has strong words for Dante, seeing him once again making this error in judgment (p. 159).
- Notice how Virgil launches into a long discourse on the history of his hometown, Mantua. Dante comments that Virgil’s speech inspires “certainty,” presumably because it is about the past rather than the future. If we want to see clearly, we have to look behind and understand where we’ve been, not try to “divine” the future through false prophesies, a pagan practice. Notice how Dante, after Virgil’s history lesson, says that his mind “turns back” to the fortunetellers and their fate, which is a clever pun. It also re-emphasizes Dante’s mistaken orientation in this canto, which has Virgil a little peeved. They are still talking as they exit the pouch, about what we can only imagine. Perhaps Virgil is lecturing Dante on his misplaced sympathies.
Canto XXI – XXII (21 – 22)
Ditch Five holds the Grafters. These are people who use their official offices for profit or personal gain; they make money or win advantage by an abuse of their office. Barratry, specifically, is the buying or selling of church or state office. These sinners are sunk in sticky tar (“pitch”). They are carefully watched by the “Malebranche,” a troop of demons armed with razor-sharp hooks and claws with which they jab at sinners who try to rise up from under the pitch.
- Despite Virgil’s rebuke in the last Canto, Dante and Virgil have been chatting like chums. They do not quarrel at all anymore, even when Dante is in the wrong. Virgil has learned not to get haughty with Dante even when he applies corrections. Notice how Virgil is as alert as ever as he moves very quickly to protect Dante from the Malebranche.
- These two cantos are known for their slapstick comedy. They provide a measure of comic relief from the seriousness that’s been and the horror that’s to come.
- We see one sinner as he rises butt first and the Malebranche laugh at and call it his “Sacred Face,” which is a reference to a landmark in the city where he comes from.
- Sinners are compared to meat in a stew of tar.
- When the demons try to attack Virgil he plays them like a fiddle; there’s no real danger or fear involved. Virgil has learned that evoking the heavenly power is all that’s needed. There’s no ego left.
- Despite the heavenly protection, the demons beg to give Dante just “one touch on the rump.” Their leader rebukes them.
- The leader’s name is “Malacoda” or “Bad-Tail,” which is funnier to us if we translate it “Bad Ass.” Bad-Ass ends Canto 21 with a fart. (“And the leader made a trumpet of his ass.”) Timeless bathroom humor?
- The troop of Malebranche all have names that are puns on the names of prominent families from an Italian city Dante is parodying.
- In Canto 22, a sinner is caught because he’s too stupid or too slow to dive away. All we know about him is that he’s from Navarre.
- The Malebranche rip at the lazy sinner they’ve caught, but it’s not horrifying. Just as he was slow getting away, he’s slow to respond to his punishment, which involves ripping out a muscle in his arm. He just “stares at his wound” (p. 181). Then he proceeds to lie through his teeth. He wheels and deals and “sells” them a promise of seven other souls to torment, if they just stand aside and let him whistle. They suspect his cunning and threaten him elaborately, but he convinces them he’ll be cunning on their behalf. When he dives away and escapes, the demons are so furious at being tricked they end up fighting among themselves and they end up in the pitch. They are baked to a hard crust before they can be “rescued.”
- The whole experience is likened to an Aesop’s fable at the beginning of the next canto: the treacherous frog (the Malebranche) are defeated and the innocent mouse (Virgil and Dante) go free.
Canto XXIII (23)
A somber tone returns as we accompany Dante through Ditch Six, where Dante meets the Hypocrites who plod along weighed down by deceptively painful robes that appear spectacularly beautiful on the outside, but inside are lined with heavy lead. The splendid appearance belies the soul-crushing reality, just as hypocrites deliberately manipulate appearances to fool us about reality.
- Notice how Dante’s intelligence kicks into high gear. He’s not the same dumbfounded, confused wanderer we met in Canto I any longer. As he reflects upon the “comic” encounter with the grafters-how it has been like walking through an Aesop’s fable (the frog and the mouse)-Dante suddenly realizes that the Malebranche are likely to be hopping mad and looking for vengeance. He suggests getting out of there right away, before there’s trouble. Virgil readily agrees, and we see something new here. Dante is the one to suggest the plan of action; Virgil goes along-it’s a real sign of progress.
- Dante’s progress is also Virgil’s progress, in a way. In this Canto, we get the vivid image of Virgil swiftly and unconsciously, unconditionally lifting Dante away from danger, just as a mother might unthinkingly move to protect her child. Not only is Virgil fatherly, he’s motherly, too. His loving care is a source of strength for Dante as they continue through the ditches.
- Notice how angry Virgil gets when he realizes that the Malebranche lied to him! His anger explodes across his brow, which Dante finds disturbing. There is a little bit of suspense as to how Virgil will react to his anger that leads us into the next Canto.
Canto XXIV – XXV (24 – 25)
Here in Ditch Seven the Thieves are punished by monstrous snakes that surround and attack them. At first they coil like ropes around the hands, binding them fast. Once the hands are bound and the bite inflicted, the sinner explodes into flame and the two melt like hot wax, losing all substance until they are reduced to a pile of ashes. From the flaming ashes, the sinner re-forms and must endure the same torment again and again. Later, the travelers witness a variation: the thief and the serpent “exchange substances,” slowing morphing into one another.
- The long, elaborate pastoral simile that opens Canto 24 recalls Virgil’s Eclogues, a little-used form he borrowed from the Greeks and developed masterfully. Pastoral poetry celebrates the simple agricultural life and the virtues of living close to nature; here Dante dabbles in the pastoral form (is there anything he can’t do?) to demonstrate how Virgil is able to put his anger aside, how he is able to master that animal emotion, that bestial side of himself-he can conquer his body-something he will urge Dante to accomplish later in the Canto. This is a highly significant moment in the book, I think. Dante is observing Virgil very closely because he’s disturbed by the anger that he saw erupting in the last Canto. He’s waiting to see what will happen, where this anger will go. As he’s looking closely at Virgil he’s amazed at what he sees. Virgil conquers his anger. The only way to describe it is to compare it to the pastoral image of a late winter snow melting away at the first sharp, powerful rays of late winter sun. The light of intellect is no match for the animal emotion. Dante is filled with love and admiration for his mentor, his friend. He recalls fondly the “sweet face” that came to rescue him in the dark wood of Canto I. It’s a touching moment-both because of Virgil’s strength of character and because of Dante’s warm response to it. And because Dante has paid such close attention, he’s more likely to be able to emulate his noble friend and teacher, who is demonstrating how to have self-control, how to make the body, the emotions, obey the reason, the will.
- Virgil has to lecture Dante when it seems he’s giving into his body, which is tired from a hard climb. Virgil observes that Dante still lacks the strength of will he’ll need to complete his journey. He steps in to coach, to motivate. Athletes may want to take note of the passage (p. 199) in which Virgil urges Dante to dig deep and find the soul to go on despite being tired of body. He argues that FAME (honor, reputation, being known for your great deeds) is only won by putting your whole soul into the effort and conquering your body. What is life without fame? A thin wisp of smoke easily dispersed into thin air. To really win fame (a form of earthly immortality to correspond to spiritual immortality), you must conquer your body. Dante responds and really tries to follow Virgil’s advice, hiding his tiredness in a stream of speech. Philadelphia sports fans demand no less of their teams than what Virgil demands here.
- After we see Fucci flaming into ashes, he tells Dante a prophecy “to bring him grief.” It’s a prediction about Dante’s bleak political future. Yet does it bring Dante grief? He never even mentions it! He completely shrugs off the need to tally these worldly gains and losses now. He has his eyes on the prize.
- At the beginning of Canto 25, there’s the indelible image of Fucci giving two “figs” to God, a major blasphemy. He runs away, demons hot in pursuit. It’s a small moment, but it’s one of those small moments that resound in a big way. Is the cup half empty or half full? The audacity of his protest is funny, but the futility of it is infinitely sad.
- The horror of the thief who exchanges substance with a serpent is something new in terms of metamorphoses, as Dante can’t help boasting. (He’s not humble. There’ll be no false modesty.) Let Ovid and Lucan (both famous Roman poets of antiquity) come and look on. The contrapasso is pretty obvious: the thieves stole others’ substance, so they must lose their own.
Canto XXVI – XXVII (26 – 27) [see illustration at top of page]
The Evil Counselors are punished in Ditch Eight, completely encased in flames that perhaps symbolize their guilty consciences. Here Dante sees Ulysses and Diomede, the instigators of the Trojan Horse ploy.
-The highlight of this canto is the travelers’ encounter with Ulysses, the hero of Homer’s great epics, the Iliad, which tells the story of Greeks’ defeat of Troy, and the Odyssey, which tells the story of Ulysses’ adventures as he returns home from the Trojan War.
-Dante’s portrayal of Ulysses is ambiguous, like many of the great memorable characters we meet in the Inferno. Like Francesca, Farinata, and Brunetto Latini, Ulysses’ “sin” may be recognized by some readers as a kind of nobility; all of these characters present “traps” for the Pilgrim, who must struggle to understand the nature of their sin, and his own, since many of these characters are not only vividly themselves but also very much complex projections of the various aspects of Dante’s own self. Just as we felt sympathy for Francesca the lover, Latini the scholar, and Farinata the proud Florentine, Ulysses gains our sympathy-maybe even more so. As with the previous characters, there are many parallels between Dante and Ulysses to observe. First, understand that Dante invents this episode in the life of Ulysses. He imagines Ulysses’ death. It is not in Homer or Virgil. As far as those poets are concerned Ulysses was a great hero who helped the Greeks win the Trojan War; at the end of the Odyssey, he is home with his wife and son. That is where Homer leaves him.
- Now look at what Dante invents for him, beginning with his speech on p. 221. Note the nobility of character and the noble aim. If Ulysses has a tragic flaw, it must be his wanderlust, his thirst for “experience”-for knowledge of the world which is not his to have. Why can’t he have it? Why is it forbidden? Why does his ship sink within sight of Mt. Purgatory?
- What are the parallels between Dante and Ulysses?
- Ulysses drowns in the sea that Dante has metaphorically come out of in Canto I (he almost drowned, but didn’t). Both characters come within sight of Mt. Purgatory but can’t reach it. Both have pursued it by the wrong road. Ulysses “thirst for knowledge” is pagan, and Dante has equally lost the “straight road.” When Ulysses spots Purgatory, God sends out a storm to destroy his ship, whereas Dante (metaphorically) swims ashore where Virgil finds him in the dark wood.
- Both characters have a thirst for knowledge; when he was younger Dante pursued learning with vigor and thought Philosophy was to be his “consolation” after the death of Beatrice. Ulysses eloquently expresses his hungry and very human desire for knowledge and experience.
- Both are leaders, counselors-but Ulysses supposedly gives false counsel (to his crew) and Dante true (his Commedia).
- Both are extremely clever (the Commedia is Dante’s clever achievement; the Trojan Horse is Ulysses’).
-In Canto 27, we meet Montefeltro, another “false counselor,” a contemporary of Dante’s this time, a character whose discussion seems to prefigure some of the Machiavellian arguments made in The Prince, a hundred and fifty years or so later. This is interesting because the character would never speak about these secret things if he thought word would get out. These are the dirty little secrets that politicians like to keep hidden from public view, but which Dante exposes here, well before Machiavelli.
Canto XXVIII (28)
Ditch Nine condemns the schismatics-the sowers of religious, political, and family discord. In life these sinners tore at the fabric of a sacred tapestry; their punishment is to experience the same manner of tearing. Dante meets Mahomet (Mohammed), the founder of Islam, one of the “worst” schismatics, responsible for ripping people away from Christianity. Mahomet’s is sliced open from his head to his middle, his entrails dangling for all to see. Later Dante finds Bertrand de Born, a French troubadour, or knight, traditionally blamed for the rift between Henry II and his son. Horrifyingly, de Born’s head is completely severed; his headless trunk holds its head before him like a lantern, one of the most gruesome scenes in the whole poem.
- It makes sense that the blood and gore which feature prominently in this canto should be present. Schism leads to feuding and war. There’s an immediate focus in this canto on the horrors of war, the physical and mental toll it takes, the insanity that can ensue.
- The ripped torsos of Mahomet and Ali, his nephew, are vivid and horrifying…Muslims would not like this canto.
- The severed head at the end of the canto is one of the more gruesome images in the entire Inferno, though we’ve yet to experience the horrors of Circle 9.
- Notice that Dante expresses a modified kind of pity at the beginning of the Canto (p. 245, 247), but he’ll lose his pity entirely by Circle 9. This is the last of it.
Canto XXIX – XXX (29-30)
In Ditch Ten Dante views the falsifiers-alchemists, evil impersonators ( NOT Elvis impersonators!), counterfeiters, and false witnesses. These sinners, who in life, corrupted all, now are made to endure every sort of corruption and pain. Darkness, dirt, filth, disease, hunger, thirst and noise surround them.
- Notice Virgil rebukes Dante sternly for his “low desire” to eavesdrop…Dante is so shamed that Virgil forgives him right away.
Canto XXXI (31): An Interlude
Canto 31 is a chance for the travelers to get their bearings. They’re about to enter the 9th Circle…they can see, through the mist, darkly. At the bottom of Malebolge a ring of Giants guard the central pit.
If you’ve been following the “battle against pity” theme, you can note especially:
- Dante rides the roller coaster through much of the book, feeling pity, feeling disgust, feeling pity once again, but he does make some solid progress, especially by the end.
- Read the Cantos in circle nine with the battle against pity theme in mind. What do you notice?
If you’ve been following developments in the relationship between Dante and Virgil, you can note especially:
Virgil and Dante develop a very poignant relationship, one of total trust, deep bonding. Virgil is very parental towards Dante, very nurturing, and very loving. There are many instances in the second half of the book where Virgil carries Dante like a father or mother would carry a child. He is a stern authority when authority is needed-he is always alert and ready to provide the right correction and guidance. Dante stops battling with Virgil completely in the second half of the book; he is completely trusting. The two are so tuned into each other that Virgil can practically read Dante’s mind. Some critics have suggested that he actually does read Dante’s mind, but I think that is a misreading, myself. It’s just that Virgil is so intelligent; he’s always one step ahead of Dante, able to anticipate his problems, guess his apprehensions. On one level, he personifies Reason, remember. It is very poignant when, in the ninth circle, Virgil steps back and you hardly hear from him. The pupil has learned the lesson so well that he can travel through the deepest most horrible section of Hell and leave his pity behind (way behind, we see). Dante proves, by the time they leave the ninth circle, that he’s learned what he needs to know about the nature of sin, and the nature of sinners, and he’s ready to take on the next stage of his journey. As observant readers, we know Virgil’s calm example, his poise and his intelligence, have been a big part of Dante’s success. Dante never would have made it out of the woods without Virgil. There’s a poignant scene in which Dante recalls that scene in the dark woods when Virgil came to rescue him; he remembers Virgil’s “sweet face.”
Imaginary worlds and their “truth”
Back in Canto XVI, Dante is about to describe Geryon, and he says:
“A man should close his lips, if he’s able to,
When faced by truth that has the face of lies,
But here I cannot be silent; reader, I vow
By my Commedia’s ines-so may they not fail…”
He goes on to describe the fantastic monster, Geryon. Why this elaborate prelude? Why this justification that what seems like a “lie” is actually “true”?
Again in Canto XXXII, he urges himself not let words “diverge from fact.”
What can Dante mean when he insists his story is true, despite the fact that everyone immediately knows it is a “fiction.” How is it both “fictional” and “true”? If it isn’t true in its surface details-these are fictional characters (no matter how “real”) in a fictional setting (no matter how “believable”)-what exactly is true about it? What “truth” can it tell? Does it tell the truth?
This gets to the heart of what literature has to offer in its deepest sense-a form of truth, artistic truth. Although the details of the fictional journey might not be “literally” true in the sense that Minos and Geryon and Lucifer and the rest obviously do not “exist,” the journey, along with its vivid cast of characters, is “true” allegorically, symbolically, metaphorically. Dante declares that the truth need not reside on the literal level; the poetic image, the metaphor, can convey allegorical, symbolic truth which is equally valid, equally worthwhile. It’s what the metaphor suggests about the nature of ourselves and our world that we respond to as “true.” In that sense, we might decide Genesis is “true,” although we might not believe in a literal “Garden” and a literal “Adam and Eve.” This is the same decision we make (about truth) whether we’re reading about a fantastic, alternate world like the Inferno or a very realistic world like the one Tim O’Brien evokes in his Vietnam masterpiece, The Things They Carried. Great literature, by providing us with provocative poetic images make us feel, make us think, make us imagine, is always an invitation to truth: the truth about the very things we think of as “human.”
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Stacy Esch teaches composition and literature at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She is an avid supporter of the liberal arts tradition in higher education.
This article is reprinted here for educational purposes only, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work. Many thanks to Professor Esch for letting us reproduce this resource, which was originally published on her website: http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/inferno-malebolge.html