Inferno Cantos 32 to 34 Questions and Analysis by Stacy Esch

Inferno: Final Destinations


by Stacy Esch, with illustrations selected by EIL staff

Gustave Doré, Canto 34

“By that hidden way
My guide and I did enter, to return
To the fair world.” Canto 34
Gustave Doré

Circle 9, The Frozen Pit

Treacherous Fraud

[To be expanded]

Dante arrives at the bottom of the Inferno, and the first book of the Divine Comedy builds to the travelers’ climactic encounter with Lucifer, the source of all sorrow and futility. Readers encounter some of the most graphic, gruesome material known to western literature in the animalistic battle of wills between Dante and Bocca (Canto XXXII) and the cannibalism of Ugolino (Canto XXXIII). As Virgil and Dante prepare to exit this most sad, most horrible, most terrifying, and most human landscape of unredeemed evil, they look upon what was supposed to be the Inferno’s most fearsome demon yet: Lucifer himself. But Lucifer, though more gigantic than anything in Hell, is strangely powerless and passive. He makes no move at all to threaten Dante and Virgil as other lesser demons have. Lucifer turns out to be a weeping, drooling, pathetic sort of monster, unforgettably sunk into immobility, flapping his wings in futility like the rest of the Inferno’s sad castaways.

Canto XXXII (32)

  • Dante addresses readers, warns them about the R-rated violence; this will not be for the faint of heart. He writes of his struggle to find the appropriate language to convey the grating nature of his subject. This is an aesthetic struggle, and we know by now that if such language exists, Dante is the poet to discover it.
  • Dante once again insists his work is true, and struggles once again for words that will not “diverge from fact.” This struggle for language is also an artistic struggle, but perhaps a mystic one, too. Even the most “realistic” imaginative literature struggles to convey its measure of “truth,” not just to the mind but to the heart and to the stomach. These cantos engage us at every level, and they do not fail to make the “stomach believe” (a Tim O’Brien phrase from “How to Tell a True War Story”).
  • Notice the foreshadowing: Dante reports hearing a voice which tells him to watch his step. He then takes notice of the lake of ice where the sinners are buried up to their heads in ice so thick even volcanic lava wouldn’t melt it. Later, when Dante kicks the head of Bocca accidently, or maybe on purpose, or accidentally on purpose, he’s just not sure, we can remember this passage and do a little reading between the lines.
  • Notice the incredibly intense image of the two sinners facing one another in a perverted kind of “heart to heart” conversation which climaxes in silenced rage.
  • Antenora, where those who’ve betrayed their country are sent, is the second area in this pit “where all gravity convenes.” The first area was called Caina, for the betrayal of kin. Here in Antenora is where Dante “accidently” kicks one of the partially buried heads, yet isn’t sure whether it’s an accident or not. This man he kicks turns out to be Bocca, as Dante learns after their futile violent struggle. Readers may be shocked at how Dante’s behavior with Bocca is so strikingly different from his behavior earlier, because he seems to cross the line into cruelty, violently pulling out tufts of Bocca’s “hair” and threatening him repeatedly. When Dante attacks Bocca, it’s obviously no accident, but an attempt to demonstrate his contempt and his superior “power.” Yet Dante’s power seems a little lacking, as Bocca stubbornly refuses to cooperate, “barking” at him in a subhuman, animal rage. I think it’s significant that the shade who calls out to Bocca says, “What devil is at you now?” The “devil” turns out to be Dante. But is Dante devilish? Has he become demonic? Why is he behaving this way? What has become of the sympathy he’s been struggling with the entire book? Has the evil he’s witnessed warped him somehow, or has he learned the essential lesson that sinners in hell are to be punished, not pitied? If so, then where must we draw the line between suppressing our pity in the service of a higher understanding, and actually being cruel? Is there a line there? Has Dante crossed the line? Some readers might want to argue that the lack of pity which Dante feels and demonstrates actually has the effect of dehumanizing him, in which case it’s a good thing they’re about to leave. It’s significant, I think, that Virgil does not rebuke him for any of his cruel behavior (including his bald lie in the next canto).
  • The roller coaster dips momentarily at the end of the Canto, and Dante feels something when they notice Ugolino. He decides he wants to hear Ugolino’s story, promising to repeat it in the upper world if it’s “worthy.” Notice the boldness, the audacity. Unlikely it’s a promise he decides to keep.

Canto XXXIII (33)

  • Ugolino tells his story and it is worthy to be reported, Dante has decided. Not only that, but Dante the Poet, the narrator, cries for divine justice to swallow the city of Pisa, to drown in between two rivers for breeding such horrible citizens who do nothing but committ crimes against humanity. Is Dante expressing sympathy here or is he passing judgment? How are the two related? Are their differences more significant than their similarities?
  • Ugolino’s tale is truly one of the most pitiful, disgusting things in the entire book. Yet the contrapasso outdoes even the tale. Here, crowning the horror, is the mother of all bloody retribution, the most clever of Dante’s contrapassos, because not only is the sinner being punished, but he is inflicting punishment, which is also a kind of punishment for him. All of this is accomplished in the same action, the horrifying cannibalism he inflicts on Ruggieri.
  • Notice that this is perhaps the longest narrative speech given by any of the sinners we meet. That seems appropriate, given its penultimate position.
  • Why is this Canto so horrifying, do you think? Why the extreme violence? What does Dante the Pilgrim make of it? How does he respond? How do you respond?
  • Alberigo, the sinner who is covered in ice, explains that his body may still be “alive” though his soul is down here in Hell. This is the arguably the first representation in literature of the “zombie.” This sinner is so evil that he lost his soul and a demon possessed his body while he was still alive. Dante listens, shocked to learn that there are others who may have experience a similar fate. What’s his response? What has Dante learned is the proper response to the evils he encounters?

Canto XXXIV (34)

-As the last Canto of the Inferno opens, Virgil speaks for the first time in a long while. Why has he been silent through this circle, do you think? He speaks to urge Dante to have “fortitude.” What’s significant about this request? Fortitude is the “strength of mind that allows one to endure pain or adversity with courage.”

-This image of Lucifer is one of the more vivid images in Western literature. What do you notice about it?

  • Lucifer is weeping. What’s the significance of Lucifer, the arch demon, weeping?
  • The image of Lucifer seems static, remote. Why? Why doesn’t Dante talk to him?


Previous: Questions/Analysis of Cantos 18 – 31

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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:

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