West Chester University
Spring 2006 and Fall
West Chester University
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A Reading of THE TEMPEST
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Fundamental Questions about Literature
Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
Critical Approaches to Literature
Literature as ART
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Craft of Fiction: PLOT
Craft of Fiction: CHARACTER
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ARABY by James Joyce
WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? by Joyce Carol Oates
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A note about GIRL
POE and the art of STORY OF A HOUR
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
YOUNG MAN ON SIXTH AVENUE
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Fiction and Ambiguity - Your Questions
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Analyzing THE FIVE BEDROOM, SIX FIGURE ROOTLESS LIFE
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Expressive Writing in the NYTimes
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Open Letter Exercise and Examples
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Literature related to IDENTITY
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One Last Look at Imaginary Worlds
Franz Kafka's BEFORE THE LAW
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Approaching WAITING FOR GODOT
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The Problem of Stability in BRAVE NEW WORLD
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A Reading of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST
From today's news (11/3/05)
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Goodbye to Dante's Imaginary World
Stepping Through Dante's Inferno: Cantos 10-34
Stepping Through Dante's Inferno: Cantos 1-10
INFERNO: Questions/Analysis: Cantos 32-34
INFERNO: Questions/Analysis: Cantos 18-31
INFERNO: Questions for Analysis: Cantos 12-17
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ON FAIRY STORIES: An Essay by Tolkien
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Reading Ovid's Tales
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About SKIN DEEP
Emerson on Individuality vs. Conformity
Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
WRT 120 Course Syllabus for Fall 2005
ENG Q20: Basic Writing
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Blackboard at WCU
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Malebolge, Cantos XVIII - XXXI ~~
PRINTER FRIENDLY NOTES
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.
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.
is the place where these sinners are punished and it is constructed
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
XXI - XXII (21 - 22)
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.
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.
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
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.
are compared to meat in a stew of tar.
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.
the heavenly protection, the demons beg to give Dante just "one
touch on the rump." Their leader rebukes them.
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?
troop of Malebranche all have names that are puns on the names of
prominent families from an Italian city Dante is parodying.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
XXVI - XXVII (26 - 27)
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.
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.
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.
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.
are the parallels between Dante and 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.
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.
are leaders, counselors-but Ulysses supposedly gives false counsel (to
his crew) and Dante true (his Commedia).
are extremely clever (the Commedia is Dante's clever achievement; the
Trojan Horse is Ulysses').
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.
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.
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.
ripped torsos of Mahomet and Ali, his nephew, are vivid and
horrifying…Muslims would not like this canto.
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
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.
XXIX - XXX (29-30)
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.
Virgil rebukes Dante sternly for his "low desire" to eavesdrop…Dante is
so shamed that Virgil forgives him right away.
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.
been following the "battle against pity" theme, you can note especially:
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.
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"
in Canto XVI, Dante is about to describe Geryon, and he says:
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"?
in Canto XXXII, he urges himself not let words "diverge from fact."
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."