LIT101: Inferno Canto 21 Analysis

Analysis of Canto XXI

Originally submitted to Medieval Literature (LIT103) on October 2, 2012 

Canto XXI takes place in the fifth pouch of Malebolge, where Barrators or Grafters are punished in a boiling pitch. Malebranche demons watch the sinners closely so as to grapple and prick anyone who surfaces the pitch. When Dante and Virgil journey through the fifth pouch, they see a demon that plunges a new sinner into the pitch. Once the sinner resurfaces, other demons pierce him with hundreds of prongs. Then Virgil warns Dante to hide himself from the demons behind a large rock. Virgil then speaks with Malacoda, the leader of the demons, to allow them passage because their journey is according to the will of God. Malacoda recedes and offers ten demons to escort them in an alternative ridge.


At the beginning of the canto, Dante introduces his readers to the nature of the Barrators’ punishment by means of a simile. On the surface, the simile looks as if Dante simply wants to lengthen the canto, but that’s not Dante. Even its length (12 lines) subtly beckons the readers to pay attention to the lines.

As in the arsenal of the Venetians,
all winter long a stew of sticky pitch
boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships
that cannot sail (instead of voyaging,
some build new keels, some tow and tar the ribs
of hulls worn out by too much journeying;
some hammer at the prow, some at the stern,
and some make oars, and some braid ropes and cords;
one mends the jib, another, the mainsail);
so, not by fire but by the art of God,
below there boiled a thick and tarry mass
that covered all the banks with clamminess. (21.7-18)

Dante compares the pitch where sinners are submerged with the tar used in the Venetian Arsenal. If the lines are studied closely, one can see the irony that is underneath the simile. Lines 7-15 explain how tar is used to repair and restore tattered ships. Dante likened the sinners’ pitch with tar. It is also dark, sticky, and boiling, but that’s where the similarities end. Unlike the tar used in the Venetian Arsenal, the pitch where the sinners are submerged does not repair broken souls. The fact that they are in hell implies that the pitch can never repair or restore them.
            In fact, they even suffer because the pitch is boiling and the demons are waiting to prick them once they resurface.

The sinner plunged, then surfaced, black with pitch;
But now the demons, from beneath the bridge,
Shouted: “The Sacred Face has no place here;
Here we swim differently than in the Serchio;
If you don’t want to feel our grappling hooks,
Don’t try to lift yourself above that ditch.”
They pricked him with a hundred prongs and more,
Then taunted: “Here one dances under cover,
So try to grab your secret graft below.” (21. 46.54)

Dante’s use of “The Sacred Face” is interesting because even the demons acknowledge that man is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). But the truth irates the demons that’s why they don’t want to see the sinners resurfacing the pitch. In case they do, the demons will prick them with prongs to plunge them in the pitch.
            Another excerpt that is noteworthy to discuss is the mention of the death of Christ (21.106-108; 112-114). Why would Dante bring it up in the same canto as the barrators? As previously mentioned, the sinners are in a pitch that does not restore nor repair; rather, they even suffer more. Christ suffered and died on the Cross, but His suffering and death led to man’s redemption. His death could repair broken souls and broken lives, but the suffering of the barrators is meaningless because it would lead to nothing.

So that's my simple "Classics" notes for you guys! :D I hope you find it interesting. ;) I just want to you remind you though that Dante's Inferno is fictional, but the message it conveys is meaningful.  We must learn how to read the message behind the lines. Let's not take Dante's writing as it is because the meaning lies beneath the story. Okay, that's it! 'Til next time! :D God bless you! <3


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