Summary: Canto XXX

Beholding the Second Zone in the Tenth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell, Dante recalls stories of antiquity in which great suffering caused humans to turn on each other like animals. But the viciousness portrayed in these stories pales in comparison with what he witnesses here, where the sinners tear at each other with their teeth; these are the Falsifiers of Others’ Persons.

Dante sees a woman, Myrrha, who lusted after her father and disguised herself as another in order to gratify her lust. Some of the sinners of the Third Zone, the Falsifiers of Coins, mingle among these souls. Dante speaks with Master Adam, who counterfeited Florentine money; part of his punishment is to be racked with thirst. Adam points out two members of the Fourth Zone, the Falsifiers of Words, or Liars: one is the wife of Potiphar, who falsely accused Joseph of trying to seduce her, and the other is a Greek man, Sinon. The latter apparently knows Adam and comes over to pick a fight with him. Dante listens to them bicker for a while. Virgil harshly reprimands his companion, telling him that it is demeaning to listen to such a petty disagreement.

Summary: Canto XXXI

As Virgil and Dante finally approach the pit in the center of the Eighth Circle of Hell, Dante sees what appear to be tall towers in the mist. Going closer, he realizes that they are actually giants standing in the pit. Their navels are level with the Eighth Circle, but their feet stand in the Ninth Circle, at the very bottom of Hell. One of the giants begins to speak in gibberish; he is Nimrod, who, via his participation in building the Tower of Babel, brought the confusion of different languages to the world.

Virgil names some of the other giants whom they pass until they come to Antaeus, the one who will help them down the pit. After listening to Virgil’s request, Antaeus takes the two travelers in one of his enormous hands and slowly sets them down by his feet, at the base of the enormous well. They are now in the Ninth Circle of Hell, the realm of Traitors.

Summary: Canto XXXII

Dante feels that he cannot adequately express the grim terror of what he and Virgil see next, but he states that he will nevertheless make an attempt. Walking past the giant’s feet, the two come upon a vast frozen lake, as clear as glass—Cocytus. In the ice, souls stand frozen up to their heads, their teeth chattering. The First Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell is called Caina (after Cain, who, as Genesis recounts, slew his brother, Abel), where traitors to their kin receive their punishment. Virgil and Dante see twins frozen face to face, butting their heads against each other in rage.

Walking farther, Dante accidentally kicks one of the souls in the cheek. Leaning down to apologize, he thinks he recognizes the face—it turns out to belong to Bocca degli Abati, an Italian traitor. Dante threatens Bocca and tears out some of his hair before leaving him in the ice. Virgil and Dante progress to the Second Ring, Antenora, which contains those who betrayed their homeland or party. Continuing across the lake, Dante is horrified to see one sinner gnawing at another’s head from behind. He inquires into the sin that warranted such cruelty, stating that he might be able to spread the gnawing sinner’s good name on Earth.

Summary: Canto XXXIII

I did not open them—for to be rude
To such a one as him was courtesy.

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The sinner raises himself from his gnawing and declares that in life he was Count Ugolino; the man whose head he chews was Archbishop Ruggieri. Both men lived in Pisa, and the archbishop, a traitor himself, had imprisoned Ugolino and his sons as traitors. He denied them food, and when the sons died, Ugolino, in his hunger, was driven to eat the flesh of their corpses.

Dante now rails against Pisa, a community known for its scandal but that nevertheless has remained unpunished on Earth. He and Virgil then pass to the Third Ring, Ptolomea, which houses those who betrayed their guests. The souls here lie on their backs in the frozen lake, with only their faces poking out of the ice. Dante feels a cold wind sweeping across the lake, and Virgil tells him that they will soon behold its source.

The poets react with particular horror at the sight of the next two souls in the Third Ring, those of Fra Alberigo and Branca d’Oria. Although these individuals have not yet died on Earth, their crimes were so great that their souls were obliged to enter Hell before their time; devils occupy their living bodies aboveground. After leaving these shades, Virgil and Dante approach the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell, the very bottom of the pit.

Analysis: Cantos XXX–XXXIII

Although Myrrha’s sin was one of lust, which should situate her in the Second Circle of Hell, she appears in the Eighth Circle of Hell because she concealed her true identity in pursuing that lust, thus committing a sin of fraud. This technicality reveals something about Dante’s technique. The incestuous woman’s punishment implies that one is chastised according to one’s greatest sin; such a rule fails to hold for Dido, however, who committed suicide because of love but was put with the Lustful rather than with the Suicides.

Read more about the complexities behind each sinner’s punishment.

Dante is not trying to make a theological point with this seeming incongruity; rather, as a storyteller, he places sinners according to the sin that their respective stories most embody. Potiphar’s wife, for example, is famous for the biblical passage in which she tries to seduce Joseph and then falsely accuses him of trying to seduce her. It is not her lust that makes the story striking but her lie about it; thus, Dante places her with the liars. Though Inferno often proves rigidly exact in following its self-created rules, at other times Dante simply follows his narrative instinct.

Although Virgil has been gently hurrying Dante along throughout Inferno, his exasperated outburst at the end of Canto XXX comes as a surprise. His forceful admonition responds not merely to Dante’s tarrying but also to its motivation: Virgil here warns both Dante and the reader that the desire to witness Hell and know about its inhabitants must not become a form of voyeurism—we should not watch torture merely for the sake of watching it.

Read more about why Virgil sometimes grows impatient with Dante.

The reminder creates a certain sense of irony, for Dante the poet often encourages voyeurism in his readers, using spectacular imaginative effects and dramatic imagery to hold our interest. Indeed, the poem has endured in large part because of its appeal to human sentiments and to the imagination; in this indulgence, it furthers voyeurism more than it contributes to any quest for moral understanding. Still, Dante continues to place moral issues at the center of his work, and the character Dante’s abashed correction of his behavior emphasizes the poet’s sense of priorities.

After being lowered down to Cocytus by the giant Antaeus, Dante claims that he cannot adequately portray what he sees, saying that he lacks the “harsh and grating rhymes” to depict this section of Hell (XXXII.1). By “harsh and grating rhymes” he means jarring poetic sounds—literally, abrasive-sounding words and phrases, which would best convey the starkness of the scene before him in the frozen lake. This statement reveals a great deal about Dante’s attitude toward poetry, which he implies should be beautiful and balanced rather than strident or discordant.

The horror of Hell is no subject for the melody and metaphor of the high classical style. But Dante’s protestations ring of false modesty; scenes throughout Inferno evidence his mastery of the mixed style. He repeatedly proves just as capable with low style—which he uses here with great skill, painting a truly haunting picture—as he is with high style.

Read more about Dante's use of both high and low style.

Here, in the lowest circle of Hell, Dante finally encounters a sinner who shows no interest in him—Bocca degli Abati, who betrayed the Florentine Guelphs in battle. Degli Abati tells Dante to leave him alone, but Dante cannot hold back his contempt for this traitor to his party, illustrating both his own loyalty to the Guelphs and his increasing inability to pity the punishments of sinners. Despite Dante’s occasional cynicism toward all politics—a result, in part, of his exile—we see now that he remains true to his party, the Guelphs, and that political concerns still weigh heavily on his mind and his emotions.

Read more about how Dante's tone becomes harsher as he descends deeper into Hell.

By placing the still-living Fra Alberigo and Branca d’Oria in Hell, Dante commits his greatest breach of orthodox Catholic theology in Inferno. The notion of a sinner’s soul being placed in Hell prior to his or her physical death diverges radically from Catholic doctrine; whereas Dante intends many of his scenes as illustrations of Christian morals, his purposes in this scene clearly lie elsewhere. Most likely, he means to emphasize the gravity of Alberigo’s and d’Oria’s crimes; perhaps, too, he aims to add some humor to this penultimate canto. It would not be out of character for this poem, which interweaves wildly varying styles, to incorporate a bit of ironic comedy just before the dramatic climax: the approach of Lucifer himself.