West Chester University
Spring 2006 and Fall
West Chester University
Course Syllabi and Announcements
LIT 165 Syllabus
LIT 165 Announcements and Assignments
WRT 120 Syllabus
WRT 120 Announcements and Assignments
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2008)
A Reading of THE TEMPEST
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Goals of the Course
Fundamental Questions about Literature
Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
Critical Approaches to Literature
Literature as ART
Approaching the Art of Fiction
Defining the Short Story
Evaluating Short Fiction
Craft of Fiction: PLOT
Craft of Fiction: CHARACTER
Small Group Exercise
ARABY by James Joyce
WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? by Joyce Carol Oates
Our RITES OF PASSAGE Theme
A note about GIRL
POE and the art of STORY OF A HOUR
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
YOUNG MAN ON SIXTH AVENUE
Notes on Innovative Fiction
Assignment Sheet for Paper #1
Fiction and Ambiguity - Your Questions
Writing Workshop - Short Fiction
Poetry Journal Project Assignment Sheet
LITERARY SYNTHESIS PROJECT
The Craft of Poetry
Drama and Tragedy
Study Questions: DEATH OF A SALESMAN
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Paper #4 Assignment Sheet
Critical Thinking and Commentary
Casebook: Evaluating Sources Worksheet
CASEBOOK PROJECT Assignment Sheet
Approaching Persuasive Writing
Topic Development - Profile Essay
Generating Ideas for the Profile Essay
Paper #2 Assignment Sheet
Analyzing THE FIVE BEDROOM, SIX FIGURE ROOTLESS LIFE
Objective Writing: Selected Readings
Writing Workshop: Paper #1
Expressive Writing in the NYTimes
Writing Effective Introductions and Conclusions
Paper #1: IDENTITY
Open Letter Exercise and Examples
EMERSON on Individuality vs. Conformity
Literature related to IDENTITY
Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
Weblog for WRT 120
Writing Assistance on the Web
Blackboard at WCU
WCU's Francis Harvey Green Library
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
One Last Look at Imaginary Worlds
Franz Kafka's BEFORE THE LAW
Analyzing WAITING FOR GODOT
Approaching WAITING FOR GODOT
Paper #3: Assignment Sheet
Paper #4: Independent Project
The Problem of Stability in BRAVE NEW WORLD
Analyzing Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD
Embarking on Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD
A Reading of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST
From today's news (11/3/05)
Assignment Sheet for Paper #2
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
INFERNO: Questions for Analysis: Cantos 1-5
INFERNO: Analyzing Canto 1
Relating to Dante's Inferno
Approaching Dante's DIVINE COMEDY
A Little Help with Dante's INFERNO
Assignment Sheet for Paper #1
Notes on LEAF BY NIGGLE
Responses to LEAF BY NIGGLE
ON FAIRY STORIES: An Essay by Tolkien
Notes on Axolotl
Reading Ovid's Tales
From Myth to Literature: Approaching Ovid's Tales
Notes on THE EYE OF THE GIANT
Functions of the Genesis Tales
Analyzing Mythic Tales
Filtering the Introduction to FANTASTIC WORLDS
Commentary on LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI by Keats
Commentary on DARKNESS by Byron
Handout: Imagination Poems Set
What is Imagination?
Our Course Theme: Imaginary Worlds
LIT 165 Assignments: Fall 2005
LIT 165 Announcements: Fall 2005
Imaginary Worlds: Course Syllabus
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Paper #4: Independent Thinking/Reading/Writing
Casebook Preparation Checklist
Casebook Assignment Schedule
Evaluating Sources for the Casebook
Casebook Project Assignment Sheet
Notes on Rational Argument
Assignment Sheet: Objective Writing
Reviewing Elements of the Profile Essay
Writing the Profile Essay
Readings: Objective Writing
Assignment Sheet: Expressive Writing
Rubric for Evaluation of Writing
About SKIN DEEP
Emerson on Individuality vs. Conformity
Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
WRT 120 Course Syllabus for Fall 2005
ENG Q20: Basic Writing
Weblog for WRT 120
Writing Assistance on the Web
Blackboard at WCU
WCU's Francis Harvey Green Library
- Virgil has been demoralized by his failure before the gate of
Dis; Dante isn’t too happy with him either. At the beginning of
this canto, Dante is really sarcastic as when he addresses Virgil, “O
matchless power…who lead me through evil’s circles at your will…”
There’s a serious rift between them; Dante flatters him ironically,
sarcastically; they are both being slightly or largely dishonest with
one another. Virgil is literally and physically pushing Dante
around at the beginning of the canto. What will restore
them? The interaction with Farinata in Circle 6 (the heretics)
seems to smooth the ruffled feathers. Why might this be?
- Francesca was the challenge to understanding and judgment in
Canto 5, and Farinata poses the same kind of challenge here. Farinata
is a heretic because he’s been a follower of the Greek philosopher,
Epicurus, who denied the existence of the “eternal soul”—his teaching
was that when the body dies, the spirit dies with it. Virgil
explains where they are, but you can tell he’s miffed by the way he
accuses Dante of being dishonest about his thoughts. What do you
suppose is the “secret wish” Virgil refers to when he accuses Dante of
holding back his real thoughts? And how does Virgil know about
it? Is he being perceptive, reading Dante’s cues, or is really
inside Dante’s mind? Does it seem as though, slowly, as Dante
gains strength and grows more clear-headed that Virgil is able to
practically read his mind? Dante’s reply is edgy and
evasive. He tells Virgil it’s not that he isn’t speaking his mind
and revealing his heart, just that he’s trying to be quiet as Virgil
has instructed him. Does that mean he has no secret wish, or that
he’s keeping it to himself because Virgil told him to be quiet and
observe back in Canto III? Pretty ambiguous.
- When Farinata enters the scene he addresses Dante as a fellow
countryman, flattering him about his “courteous speech”—which is as
ironic (though probably not sarcastic) as was when Dante flattered
Virgil, since Dante hasn’t been courteous to Virgil but secretive and
evasive. On the other hand, Farinata does recognize Dante’s
“noble” Tuscan dialect; they are countrymen. This direct
recognition seems to startle Dante and he shrinks back towards Virgil,
who pushes him away!!
- Farinata’s first speech acknowledges that he “possibly” has
brought “excessive harm” to Florence. Is this an admission of
guilt, or a polite gesture? Dante’s first description of Farinata
is of a man so proud that he “seemed by how he bore his chest and
brow/To have great scorn for Hell” (lines 32-33). Does such a
proud figure as this ever actually admit guilt about anything? It
seems to be more of a pretense. The image of this kind of pride
surviving even in Hell is unforgettable for many readers, who view
Farinata, along with Francesca in Canto 5 to be ambiguously sympathetic
characters. Farinata has an impenetrable “dignity” that the
Inferno cannot defeat, just as Francesca and Paolo are inexhaustible in
love. There’s no question that these dynamic portraits reveal
Francesca and Farinata’s enduring humanity—that is Dante’s gift
throughout this entire book; yet I’m with the readers who feel more
scorn than approval. I see Dante cleverly, brilliantly exposing
the seductress in Canto 5, and the haughty political warrior
here. And yet in both cases, Dante maintains a high level of
sympathy—he understands what he has in common with these characters,
how he has himself (either in the past or the present) fallen into the
same pit of error. It is his encounters with these contemporaries
that leave him the most deeply shaken and changed; in them he most
easily recognizes himself, his own failings. Meeting Francesca
shows Dante how his participation as a leading poet in the lyrical
tradition of courtly love, a kind of “religion” with its own ethical
codes and its own “truth,” has been in error, off the “straight
path. Farinata and Calvalcanti show him how narrow and
meaningless political and even family ties can be—the only tie that
really matters is our common humanity, and when we allow our partisan
politics to obliterate our awareness of the big picture, we’re in
- Farinata “pierces” Dante with his “proud gaze.” You can
feel, along with Dante, the arrogance and snobbery radiating from his
stare. His first question, “Who were your ancestors?” has all the
warmth of a champion breeder questioning a mutt’s pedigree. Dante
“conceals nothing,” verbally flashing his family crest; he’s ready to
spar. Farinata’s response is a boast, but Dante’s counter-boast
is a thrust. Their joust is interrupted by the appearance of
Calvalcanti, who is anxious to hear news of his son. Notice that
both Farinata and Calvalcanti are driven to address Dante because of
his connection to home, to their life on earth. They have no
other mental orientation; even in the afterlife, all they care about is
home. Imagining his son dead, Calvalcanti bemoans his loss of the
“sweet light” of being alive. Farinata had also been driven to
address Dante because of his connection to Florence.
- While Farinata is still making excuses for himself, insisting on
respect for the fact that he alone refused to “level Florence” when his
party had gained political and military victory. Dante seems to
respond to this argument; it’s as if a little light-bulb goes off in
his head. If her were in a cartoon panel, you might see a little
thinking bubble appear above his head: “It’s true we’re from
different parties. He’s a Ghibelline and I’m a Guelph. BUT
we are both Florentines after all; we both love Florence equally—we
have that in common.” His reply is sympathetic, even tender—”may
your seed find peace again”—and he asks Farinata to reassure
Calvalcanti that his son is alive, also a friendly gesture.
- Dante learns that Farinata is entombed with over a thousand of
the dead—but that is not what concerns him; what concerns him is that
Farinata has told him that in the future he will chased from Florence,
never to return. That is a body blow. When Dante returns to
Virgil he is visibly upset, but this time he’s less sarcastic and more
direct about why. Here Virgil could impatiently rebuke Dante for
being short sighted, for caring more about his “fate and fortune” on
earth than about his eternal soul; he could say, arrogantly, as he did
in Canto 7: “Foolish creatures, how great an ignorance plagues
you. May you receive/My teaching…” (lines 62-64)—but he doesn’t
take this kind of high, haughty tone. It seems he has learned not
to be so impatient and proud, so “holier than thou.” Instead of
shouting at Dante, he tries to patiently reassure him that it’s not his
earthly fortune that matters, so it’s not this fortune-teller in Hell
that he needs to be concerned with: “Preserve in memory what you
have heard/Against yourself…And I pray/You, listen…When you confront
her radiance, whose eyes can see/Everything in their clarity, be
assured/Then you shall learn what your life’s journey will be.”
Virgil is reminding Dante to keep his eyes on the prize. Farinata
may be able to tell him his future on earth, but Beatrice will tell him
of his future in Paradise. Which is the better future to
heed? This is an extremely warm, reassuring speech from Virgil
(remember he was shoving Dante around when the canto began). They
seem to have gotten past their rift; a common enemy has united them, as
is so often the case. They continue on their way, less at war
with one another, pursuing a common goal. Is it Beatrice, who’s
name radiates with love and understanding, heals their wounds, or that
Dante and Virgil have just learned something from the encounter with
- The canto begins with Dante and Virgil “above a pen more
cruel.” They are above the fray in this canto, taking shelter and
pausing in their journey for a short time. They are getting
acclimated, pausing “until this rotten breath/Has become familiar to
our sense of smell.” Dante the Poet is never far from explicit
sensory detail to make the Inferno seem as real as possible.
- Dante requests that Virgil take the opportunity to discourse upon
some matter that may fill the time productively, and Virgil replies
that he was “so minded”—further proof that the two are back on good
terms with one another, that they are on the same wavelength.
- Virgil takes the opportunity to describe what they will
experience as they continue their journey into the lower regions.
The 7th Circle is subdivided into three regions where the Violent are
punished: the violent against God, against oneself, and against other
people or their property. The 8th Circle is where Fraud is
punished—but a distinction is made between acts of fraud that involve a
betrayal of trust and those that don’t. The 8th Circle punishes
acts of fraud that don’t involve a betrayal of trust. The 9th
Circle, the deepest circle, punishes acts of fraud that do involve a
betrayal of trust. These are the worst crimes against Heaven
because they destroy the trust that LOVE creates.
- Dante’s question show that he is reflecting on what he’s seen so
far. He asks Virgil about the nature of the circles they’ve
already seen? Why aren’t they within the city of Dis?
Virgil admonishes Dante for forgetting his Aristotle, whose
philosophical work, The Ethics, teaches that of the three kinds
“dispositions counter to Heaven’s will”—those encountered earlier in
the form of lust, anger, gluttony, hoarding and wasting, and anger were
the least offensive. They were all sins of incontinence (lack of
self-control); but what’s to come are sins of malice and insane
- Dante asks Virgil to explain why Usury is such a punishable
offense. Virgil explains: Aristotle insisted that ART must
imitate NATURE. NATURE is the image of God’s intelligent
design. It follows that art which imitates nature, also imitates
GOD. Now if we synthesize Aristotle’s philosophy with Genesis’
spiritual teaching, we find that Genesis stipulated that man must
thrive and gain his bread by the sweat of his brow; he must
labor. His arts are to serve this labor. Usury, however
“takes a different way”—that is, the usurer doesn’t produce any labor;
he gets his money by having money. It’s a corrupt system because
it’s not natural, and it breaks God’s decree.
Canto 12, Violence toward others: the
river of boiling blood
- Virgil and Dante meet the Minotaur, another half-human, half
beast hybrid, but notice how the lower we go, the more bestial and the
less human these creatures become. The Minotaur, already, has
very few human qualities.
- • Virgil says he “defies” and quells the
Minotaur. It seems he hasn’t yet transcended that same hubris
that got him in trouble earlier. Here he is making the same
mistake again, confusing the divine power with his own power. In
a sense it’s sad; Virgil is as stuck in his hubris as the Minotaur is
stuck in its rage. They are both paralyzed, or frozen, in their
inability to overcome their sins. Seeing Virgil so blind to his
own pride helps Dante (and his readers) feel less pity, perhaps, for
the fact that he’s stuck in Limbo.
- Virgil explains how the landscape in the Inferno has changed
since he’d last visited this region. Paradoxically, it’s a
dynamic place, even though we are led to think of it as eternal and
static; does the fact that it’s not completely static and fixed help
make it more realistic for readers? When explaining how the
landscape has changed, notice how Virgil emphasizes that LOVE was the
power that shook (even) this world. That LOVE is the primary
divine force is a major theme of the entire Commedia.
- Dante and Virgil have to climb downward; their descent is
difficult physically, which seems realistic enough. Also, the
description of the landscape is compared to a real place in Italy to
further give it that sense of reality. This is a motif that Dante
works through the entire 7th Circle; these places are very comparable
to familiar places in our world, he says to his readers; does this have
the effect of connecting the sinners more concretely to our world, too?
- The travelers descend to the level of the second river in the
Inferno, the river of boiling blood (the Phlegethon, named
later). This river, like the earlier Acheron, is an elaborate
place marker—it helps distinguish the region of the 7th Circle, which
is more complex than the earlier circles outside the gate of Dis.
The 7th Circle is subdivided into three “rings” where different types
of violence are punished: violence against others, violence against
oneself, and violence against God. Violence against God is
further distinguished: first in the form of violence toward God
(blasphemy), then in the form of violence toward nature (sodomy), and
last in the form of violence toward “art”( usury).
- Dante’s address to the reader is a lament—the tone one of growing
awareness. He’s bemoaning this new consciousness he has,
lamenting the covetous desire and insane anger that bring us to this
incredible state of abject misery.
- The Centaurs are the first creatures we encounter who are not
merely guards, though they still are guards, but also participants in
the punishment. The Centaurs are there to shoot at the sinners if
they rise too high out of the river of boiling blood.
- The contrapasso at this level is pretty obvious: the people
whose violence has harmed others, much or little, are submerged to a
greater or lesser degree in this gruesome river of boiling blood.
Since these people submerged themselves in blood while alive they now
get to spend eternity submerged in the same. While Dante uses
examples from classical literature and history as well as his
contemporaries, notice how the contemporary examples range from all
sides of the political spectrum—since his experience with Farinata,
he’s losing his partisanship and seeing things more universally.
Canto 13, Violence toward oneself: the
suicides (Pier della Vigna, Frederick’s counselor)
- Notice how syntactically, grammatically, Dante emphasizes the
negative as this Canto opens. There are lots of “negative
descriptions” because these are the negators of life, the suicides.
- • The Beasts in this area are, like the
Centaurs, not one, but many: flocks of Harpies feed on the trees, which
are the startling incarnation of the human souls who’ve committed
suicide. Also like the Centaurs, the Harpies actively participate
in the punishments.
- The strife of pity theme is developed here, very subtly.
Virgil intentionally leads Dante to break a branch, knowing that this
will inflict suffering on the soul entombed inside. Does this
mean he has no pity for these suffers? He claims he was just
trying to teach Dante by experience what he wouldn’t learn any other
way. Dante himself can’t speak because he is stunned with
dread. Virgil must address the sinner instead of Dante.
Pier della Vigna tells his story, which fills Dante with pity.
Why are the suicides so severely punished? (See the note in your
text, p. 325.)
- Dante learns that this horror only gets more horrible; that
there’s no hope for these souls ever being released from this torment
- A dramatic moment interrupts Dante’s interview with Pier della
Vigna. Two naked men are crashing through the wood. When
they stop they are torn apart by “black bitches” who “set their teeth
on the one who stopped to crouch, and tore his limbs apart; and then
they took the wretched members away.” These are the spendthrifts,
who squandered fortunes, or threw their lives away rather than be
- Dante takes pity on a bush which addresses him with a request; it
turns out that this was an anonymous suicide from Dante’s beloved city
of Florence. He provides a bit of the history of Florence and
demonstrates his wrongheadedness in attributing Florence’s continued
fortunes to Mars, a false (pagan) god. Yet, the more poignant
point the reader is meant to understand is that while Florence has been
destroyed and rebuilt many times, survived many wars and disasters,
this person took his own life.
Canto 14, Violence toward God,
- Notice the quick summation of themes and threads: (1) The
expression of pity at the beginning; (2) a description of area, which
is the third ring of the 7th Circle; it’s a flat, barren plain; (3) the
address to readers, where Dante stresses that this is a place which
represents the “vengeance of God” which should be feared by all…Dante’s
text is meant to inspire the fear of God which might save a few
souls; (4) the description of sinners: naked souls in herds,
lying, crouching, walking restlessly about, rained upon by fire.
There’s no shelter, no protection, just a ceaseless rain of fire.
Dante the Poet compares the scene to Alexander’s campaign in India (a
doomed campaign that defeated him).
- Dante’s address to Virgil is a bit of Pythonesque black
comedy! “O Master…who vanquish all except the stubborn fiends
that opposed us at the gate,” Dante begins. Is this a nasty
reminder of Virgil’s limited power, because he was too proud about
“defying and quelling” the Minotaur, or is it Dante’s attempt to be
polite while urging Virgil to notice that they might be in trouble?
- Capaneus is a vivid character who embodies a defiant (stubborn?)
spirit. Death can’t defeat him; no punishment can cow him.
He declares, “What I was Alive, I am in death!”—and he goes on to boast
of his great stubbornness at defying God’s vengeance. He won’t
give God the satisfaction of seeing him miserable. This is
Violence against God—blasphemy, defying God. Virgil takes a
strict tone with Capaneus and points out that his constant raging only
makes his punishment the worse. Here’s another sinner in the
Inferno who can’t transcend his sin. He’s doomed to go on sinning
in the same hopeless, fruitless way for eternity.
- They reach the spring of the bloody river, Phlegethon.
Virgil makes the uncanny claim that this is the most amazing thing the
travelers have seen so far! Notice how Dante responds: he says
he’s “hungry for the food to fill the appetite these words inspired”—in
this pupil/teacher relationship, Dante is playing his role very
well. You have to be hungry for knowledge in order to acquire
it. If you’re ever going to seriously learn anything, you have to
have a hunger for learning. This simile helps him express this
abstraction, and it also emphasizes Dante’s active role in the learning
process, how his free will is always engaged. Virgil teaches him
that the river of blood has its origin in our own world. I think
we get the allegorical significance of that piece of information!
Canto 15, Violence against nature
Violence against nature is violence
against God, because nature is the child of God. Sodomy is
“unnatural” and here we meet the Sodomite, Brunetto Latini
- Once again, we begin with a description of the landscape, which
is compared to a real place in Italy.
- Brunetto Latini’s group is squinting at Dante, eyeing him
closely—a sexual advance? (Look for other hints of homosexual
behavior; I’ve read analyses that can build a pretty convincing case!)
Then Latini recognizes Dante. Dante seems surprised to find his
old teacher here, and his address is tender. He welcomes the
chance to talk, and his interaction with Brunetto Latini is very
respectful and poignant, though sometimes ironic. For instance
when they first start walking and talking (they have to keep moving),
Dante has to bend his head in order to converse; his body language is
ironic because although it looks like the proper reverence a student
might have for his teacher, the appearance belies the reality: Dante
has surpassed Latini in every way—intellectually as well as spiritually.
- Latini understands that Virgil is Dante’s guide; but his tone
suggests he feels a bit competitive, a bit jealous. His former
star student has a new teacher. Notice how Dante answers his
defensive questions so clearly and succinctly; he summarizes his
experiences and explains who Virgil is with no stumbling or
confusion. It’s a sign that Dante’s head is getting clearer and
clearer. He’s a lot less disoriented.
- Latini graciously acknowledges that Dante was a star pupil—and he
wishes he could have lived longer to cheer on his success; yet (maybe
vindictively?) he reveals the difficult future he is able to
foresee. Dante’s “fortunes” will be bleak; the prophecy is all
negative. Yet he’s also amble to see that, like a sweet fig among
the bitter sorbs (trees), Dante will emerge from his bad fortune
victoriously. By his rhetoric, Latini reveals that he is highly
politicize and embittered; there’s a kind of class/race war behind his
jabs at the “mountain people” who will invade and take over Florence.
Dante has looked up to Latini as a father figure, but now he can see
that he was a misplaced father figure. His teaching, that the way
a man makes himself eternal is by earthly fame (books, publishing,
scholarship), is grave error.
- You can vividly see how Dante has progressed by the way he reacts
to this bleak fortune Latini reveals; he hears the prophecy with a
sense of calm—he has learned to remember that it’s Beatrice who (who
will show him his “fortune” in eternity) who deserves the last say in
this matter. He’s learned that from his encounter with Farinata
earthly fortune is less important that eternal salvation, and he
declares: “This much still/I say: so long as conscience is not
betrayed,/I am prepared for Fortune to do her will./My ears find
nothing strange in what you have said:/As Fortune pleases let her wheel
be turned,/And as he must let the peasant turn his spade” (p.
123). This is definitely a kind of spiritual progression.
He’s absorbed Virgil’s lesson about Fortune. These prophecies
about his difficult future don’t disorient him any longer. When
Virgil hears how well Dante has understood this lesson, he nods his
- Latini leaves Dante declaring that his eternal life is in his
book, the Tesoro. But Dante the Poet knows better. He is
not so bad-mannered as to contradict Latini to his face, but he has
learned that, on the contrary, Latini’s “eternal life” is to be trapped
in the Inferno, along with the other sodomites (especially now that
Dante has imagined him there!). Dante tells, poignantly, how his
last glimpse of his old teacher is that of a runner who seems to win
the race. But it’s a sad victory, a pyrrhic victory.
- Brunetto Latini’s character closely parallels Dante’s (as many of
the main characters he feels pity for do). If we understand
Brunetto’s sin not as simple “homosexuality” but as “sacrilege,” we can
see that Dante is observing how he went astray by being too worldly,
too caught up in scholarly pursuits. The fame Latini seeks (his
notion of “eternity”) has to do with earthly fame for his book rather
than spiritual transcendence. It’s a short view as opposed to a
long view. Dante is learning to take the long view. What is
so great about gaining the world if you lose your soul?
Brunetto’s eternity is therefore hell; he sins in a scholarly,
intellectual way, putting human knowledge ahead of spiritual
pursuits. Brunetto’s work, the Tesoro (Treasure), is very
parallel to Dante’s Commedia. Studying how they are similar and
different (a research project) would reveal much about Dante’s purpose
in the Divine Comedy.
- Dante is recognized once again by his fellow Florentines.
The three who run toward him and then weirdly link together like
wrestlers challenge Dante’s pity; their burned limbs cause him “painful
distress.” Is this the same as sympathy? Virgil encourages
Dante to stay and speak with them; he seems to pity them as well,
telling Dante they deserve “courtesy.” (Why?)
- The three “wrestlers” turn out to be politicians, Florentine
Guelphs (Dante’s party) from the era just before Dante’s birth.
These are men he had asked about earlier (Canto 6) along with
Farinata. Although he sympathizes strongly with these men (he’d
join them if he didn’t know he’d be badly burned), he is able to
demonstrate that his political bitterness is behind him. The
three want news of Florence, but Dante is only able to tell them the
bad news: “newcomers” have brought the corruption of sudden profits and
- Distances are a little surreal in this canto—the waterfall that
seems distant at the beginning of the canto is suddenly, with little
movement, so close as to be deafening. Perhaps this sets the
scene for the surrealistic monster Geryon, and their flight to
Malebolge on his back.
- The travelers turn toward the right—a movement which links this
canto with the only other right turn at the gate of Dis.
- When the travelers walk to the edge of the precipice and Virgil
summons Geryon by tossing Dante’s cord into the abyss, Dante wonders
what “strangeness” will “answer from the deep.” He is trying to
imagine what it might be when Virgil tells him he’ll soon see it for
himself: “What your mind dreams will soon be before your eyes.”
Virgil once again demonstrates his ability to “read” Dante’s
thoughts. But even more amazing is how the way he responds to
Dante underscores the Poet’s power, which is the power of the
imagination—the power of dreaming, of mythic language, of metaphor, to
describe abstract truth, abstract reality. Dante marvels at
Virgil’s ability to not only “observe the action but see the thought as
well.” It’s an exchange rich in layers of meaning. Is Dante
remarking on Virgil’s ability as a mind reader, a perceptive companion,
or a great poet? It’s all there.
- Study the section where Geryon rises from the abyss. Here’s
a really significant theme that’s explored as Dante prepares to
introduce Geryon: the relative “truthfulness” of the Comedy as a work
of “true fiction” and not “fraud” (lies, deception, etc.). Dante
emphasizes that the image of Geryon is almost too incredible to
describe, and describing it will give it the appearance of a lie—it
will seem like he’s lying. So he takes extra care to assert that
this is “true.” What does he really mean by “true”? It
seems that what he really means is that this vision of Geryon expresses
an abstract truth, that if it seems merely imagined and “made-up” (a
lie) that it’s nevertheless authentic on a metaphorical level.
This poem is an authentic testament—readers must understand that
allegorical truths may come wrapped in seemingly false imagery.
Dante can communicate his “vision of truth” in powerful poetic imagery
which may not appear to be literally true but is nevertheless
allegorically true. If we don’t make this distinction, if we
expect the story to be literally true, then the author might be accused
of the very fraud he’s going to describe in the next circle, the sin
that Geryon represents. But here Dante asserts that poetic truth
is as valid as literal truth, and that the Comedy is true, despite its
obviously imaginary, surrealistic people and places.
- Notice Virgil’s elaborate, dramatic introduction of Geryon, who
is a fearful creature, a kind of precursor or foreshadow of
Lucifer. He has a deceptively kind face and the body of a
serpent. He’s an arch demon who “crosses mountains, leaves walls and
weapons broken,/and makes the stench of which the world is full!” Dante
the Poet, with narrative hindsight and omniscience characterizes Geryon
as “fraud’s foul emblem,” making his allegorical significance quite
explicit for a moment. In Greek mythology, Geryon is a monster as
well, a man with three bodies and three heads, the strongest man
alive. In Dante’s text he’s another infernal hybrid, half
man/half beast. Dante emphasizes his intricate, artful
design. I wonder if Geryon, as “fraud’s foul emblem” might not be
the allegorical equivalent of “money” (which we are still apt to call
the “root of all evil”).
- Geryon’s flight down into Malebolge is a major place-marker in
the text, a graphically vivid image that helps signal a significant
division between Circle 7 (violence) and Circle 8 (fraud). The action
and the imagery link this scene with Canto 8; they compare/contrast in
interesting ways that reveal Dante’s (and Virgil’s) development, as
well as the development of the book’s themes.
- Virgil leaves Dante to parlay with Geryon, sending him off to
encounter the usurers alone. What do you notice about this
incident that is different from a similar incident in Canto 8?
- Dante meets the “usurers” who are meant to represent a kind of
violence toward art, which is a kind of violence toward God (because
God is the grandchild of art, as Virgil explained in Canto 11).
How does a usurer become an “artist”? He is an adept at the “art”
of making money. Think of art, not as the “fine arts” but as a
technology, a technique, a method. The ursurer makes money not by
any productive labor, but only by manipulating money. The
description is vivid, almost comic; Dante unleashes some of his
sharpest ridicule: the usurers resemble dogs with fleas—now biting
their tales, now scratching their necks. One man, behaving like
an ox, sticks his tongue out at Dante, which makes him look absurd. The
purses that hang around their necks are parodies of family
crests! What do they stand for? Money, money, money.
- We are just over midway through the book; there’s a real
convergence of themes, motifs, and developments in this Canto.
See if you can recognize them. You can especially note Dante’s
power as a poet capable of revealing “truth” powerfully,
articulately. Earlier (at the end of Canto 16) he was able to
acknowledge the poem’s fictiveness (it has the “face of a lie”) while
boldly declaring its underlying truth. This is quite a different
poet from the one we originally encountered in the dark wood—the poet
who fumbled for words and couldn’t describe anything. Dante is
beginning to surpass Virgil in both his grasp of the truth and in his
poetic power. There are still setbacks ahead, but it’s a hopeful midway
point. Dante seems eager to show that the newer Christian
mythology has the power to surpass its pagan ancestors. And yet
these mythological figures from ancient Greece and Rome are too
powerful and “true” in their own right to be simply discarded; instead
they are integrated, brought within the fold; and in that process, this
brilliant student is surpassing his brilliant teacher.
- Until now the demons in the 7th Circle have posed no real threat
to the travelers and need no rebuke (except maybe the Minotaur).
Taking stock, you can see that at this point Dante the pilgrim is more
enlightened, less apt to quarrel with reason, and less encumbered by
confusion and the threat of despair. But now, faced with the
prospect of climbing on Geryon’s back, Dante is nearly paralyzed with
fear. How does he react? Does he master his fear or does it
master him? How does this compare to Canto 8? What kind of
example does Virgil provide that is different from the example he
provides in Canto 8? In spite of the fear, there’s a funny moment
when he tries to talk to talk to Virgil (“Hold on to me!”) and his
voice goes squeaky with fear. From this moment of comedy, Dante
deftly changes the mood and plunges us into one of the more poignant
moments between Virgil and Dante in the entire book. Before Dante
could so much as squeak out a syllable, Virgil had already encircled
him in his protective arms. He was already there, no need to
ask. Virgil’s commanding voice is reassuring. So different
from Canto 8.
- Dante’s sensory description of his flight on Geryon is famous for
its sublime believability in a time before flight was possible for
humans. The imaginative power of our poet shines through
here. Allegorically, Dante is proving his ability to overcome the
sins of fraud that Geryon represents (just as, later, he will muster
the courage to scale Lucifer’s back and climb “up” his leg to exit the
Inferno). But even if readers never think for a minute about the
allegorical significance, they will still likely remember the
image of Geryon’s surrealistic, slow-motion descent into the abyss of
Malebolge, and the way, once he’s dropped them at he bottom, he shoots
off supernaturally like a speeding arrow.
The 8th Circle: Malebolge, the sins of
Malebolge, Dante’s name for the Circle 8, continues the circular,
funnel-shaped landscape; it’s graded steeply downward toward 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 type
of fraud. It’s apparent that the contrapasso become 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.
Violent crimes against your neighbor are likely to involve the least
amount of will, whereas violence against God, Art (“God’s grandchild”),
and Nature are more likely to involve the will. Fraud, however,
always involves a perversion of human intelligence—that is, human
intelligence used for evil (rather than angelic) purposes. There
is always the active use of reason, the active free will involved.
Since in Dante’s medieval scheme, humans are distinguishable from the
“lower” animals by their rationality, their intelligence, it stands
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.
- Dante describes the landscape, and the travelers make their way
through the first two “pouches” or ditches. They pass the
“seducers, pimps and panderers” walking in endless circles; they pass
the smelly, unforgettable “flatterers” who are swimming in a ditch
filled with excrement. The contrapasso is not hard to figure out here:
they spewed “b.s.” while alive, so now they get to swim in it.
Interesting how Virgil hurries them 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.
- In Pouch 3 they encounter the simoniacs, who are half-buried
face-first underground; just their legs are sticking up and on
fire. Notice how Dante intensifies his tone in his address to
readers—a righteous anger emerges; there’s no sympathy here.
These are the corrupt church officials who used the trappings of the
church for fraudulent purposes, to gain money or power. In
another address, Dante acknowledges the “Supreme Wisdom” that rules
Heaven, Earth, and the Inferno. These are just punishments, in
his opinion. There’s no sympathy (or alter-ego) to stand between
him and an appreciation for the wisdom of divine justice here.
- Another ironic moment emerges when Dante addresses a pair of feet
dangling upwards out of a hole in the ground. He tilts his head and
listens in the pose of a “confessor”—but the confessee turns out to be
Pope Nicholas! When Nicholas mistakes Dante for Boniface, his
successor, Dante is momentarily disoriented, stunned. Virgil has
to prod him to answer. But when he does find his voice, notice
how boldly he lashes out and lectures Nicholas on the evils of
simony. Dante’s long tirade helps readers understand why the
Pope’s simony is particularly heinous (it “distributes grief,
afflicting the world by trampling good and raising the wicked”).
It all started with that land grant from Constantine—that power and
wealth came to no good.
- Virgil’s approval is so strong it’s visceral. He lifts
Dante completely up and carries him like a child up the difficult ridge
to the next ditch.
Canto 20, the diviners
- Pouch 4 is where the fortunetellers are punished. The
“liturgical” pace of their walk is one thing that gets Dante’s
attention, but he quickly notices why they are so weird looking—their
bodies are distorted; their heads are twisted completely backwards so
that they are deprived of forward vision. Dante’s pity for these
fortunetellers greatly contrasts his lack of pity for Pope in the
previous canto. And yet, there’s that touch of black
comedy: Dante tells us how he pities “our human image so
grotesquely reshaped,/Contorted so the eyes’ tears fell to wet/The
buttocks at the cleft. Truly I wept…”
- Virgil is angry at Dante for this regression into pity, and he
regresses, too, back into his former arrogance, calling people “fools”
- As part of his lecture, Virgil launches into a long discourse on
the history of his hometown, Mantua. You can imagine there are
subtleties to this discourse that we won’t go into here. But we
can note how Dante comments that Virgil’s speech inspires “certainty,”
presumably because it is about the past rather than the future.
Hindsight is one of the keys to clearer understanding; 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 kind of a 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 are free to
Pouch 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
immersed in sticky tar (“pitch”)—a fitting punishment for their “sticky
fingered” crimes. These sinners are watched over by the
“Malebranche,” demons armed with murderous hooks and claws which they
use to keep the sinners under the pitch.
- We hear that Dante and Virgil have been chatting like
chums. They do not quarrel at all anymore, even when Dante is in
the wrong. Virgil doesn’t get haughty with him. Notice how Virgil
is very quick to protect Dante from the Malebranche.
- These two cantos are famous for their slapstick comedy.
It’s a little comic relief from the seriousness that’s been and the
horror that’s to come.
- The sinner rises butt first and the Malebranche call his butt his
“Sacred Face,” which is a reference to a landmark in the city where he
- Sinners are like meat in a stew of tar
- When the demons try to attack Virgil he plays them like a fiddle;
there’s no real fear involved.
- The demons beg to give Dante just “one touch on the rump” but
their leader rebukes them
- The leader’s name is “Malacoda” or “Bad-Tail” (Bad Ass?).
Canto 21 ends with a fart. (“And the leader made a trumpet of his ass.”)
- The troop of Malebranche all have names that are puns on 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
- The Malebranche rip at the sinner they catch, 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.
In Pouch Six Dante sees the Hypocrites who now wander through all
eternity weighed down by heavily weighted robes that appear golden and
bright on the outside, but inside are laden with heavy lead.
Hypocrites deliberately manipulate appearances to be more attractive
- Considering how their experience was like an Aesop’s fable leads
Dante to realize that the Malebranche are likely to be hopping mad and
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.
- Virgil’s loving care is emphasized; the way he carries Dante (and
he carries Dante a lot from here on out) is described in maternal terms.
- 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
Here in Pouch Seven the Thieves are punished. Their punishment is
fairly complicated. At first they are surrounded by monstrous
snakes that coil like ropes around the hands, binding them fast.
Once immobilized, another reptile darts out to strike the sinner’s
throat, causing the sinner to explode into flame. But the punishment is
not over yet—from the flaming ashes, the sinner re-emerges to undergo
the torment again and again.
- The long, elaborate pastoral simile that opens Canto 24 reminds
me of Virgil’s Eclogues, a form of poetry that celebrates the simple
agricultural life and the virtues of living close to nature; here Dante
demonstrates 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. Dante fondly recalls the “sweet face” that Virgil showed him
in the dark wood of Canto I, the sweet face that rescued him from
despair. It’s a poignant moment that reminds us of the feeling
Dante has for Virgil.
- Athletes take note of the passage where 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
- 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 of these worldly gains and
losses now. He has his eyes on the prize.
- In Canto 25, there’s the memorable image of Fucci giving two
“figs” to God, a major blasphemy. He runs away, demons hot in
- The horror of the thief who exchanges substance with a serpent is
something new in terms of metamorphoses, as Dante boasts. 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 26, 27
The Evil Counselors are punished in Pouch Eight, hidden in great cups
of flame that 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 returns home from the 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, being very close to them in one way or another. There’s much
to sympathize with in the case of Ulysses, and there are so many
parallels between Dante and Ulysses to observe. They have a lot
in common. 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
he 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.
- Now look at what Dante invents for him, beginning with his speech
on p. 221. Note the nobility of character. Ulysses has a
tragic flaw, however, and that is his wanderlust, his thirst for
“experience”—for knowledge of the world which is not his to have.
Why is it forbidden? Why does his ship sink within sight of Mt.
- What are the parallels between 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.
- 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.
- Both are leaders, counselors—but Ulysses give false counsel and
Dante true (the Commedia).
- Both are extremely clever (the poem is Dante’s evidence of
cleverness; Ulysses is celebrated for his cleverness).
- Both have political cunning (Ulysses was able to persuade
Achilles to go to war, and he devised the strategy of the Trojan Horse)
- 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, before Machiavelli.
Pocket Nine holds the sowers of religious, political and family
discord. In life these people ripped apart peace and placidity; now in
death they are ripped apart physically. Dante sees Mahomet, who, in
Dante’s view represents religious schism. Mahomet’s torso is ripped by
a sword slice. As he approaches, Dante observes that Mahomet is
“mangled and split open.” Dante then sees Bertrand de Born, a French
troubadour/knight traditionally blamed for the rift between Henry II
and his son. As he comes closer, Dante sees that de Born’s head has
been severed—as he advances he holds his head before him like a
lantern, one of the most horrifying 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.
In Pocket 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 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
The 9th Circle: the frozen pit and the
sins of treachery
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 32) and
the cannibalism of Ugolino (Canto 33). 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.
- 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 The
Things They Carried).
- 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 accidentally, 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 futile, 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 “accidentally” 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 32,
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. The dead want
so badly to be remembered among the living. Dante uses (abuses?)
their desire as a bargaining tool. But unlike his previous empty
promise, this is one he decides to keep.
- 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
the divine will to swallow the city of Pisa, to drown it between two
rivers for breeding such horrible citizens who do nothing but commit
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
- 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?
- It’s hard not to make note of Alberigo, the sinner who, covered
in ice, explains that his body may still be “alive” though his soul is
down here in Hell. This is 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
experienced a similar fate. What’s his response? What has Dante learned
is the proper response to the evils he encounters?
- 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 9th
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
- This image of Lucifer is one of the more vivid images in Western
literature. What do you notice about it? Lucifer, the arch demon,
is weeping. Why? Compared to the drama of Bocca and
Ugolino, Lucifer seems static, remote. Why? Why doesn’t
Dante talk to him?