Summary: Canto XVIII

Virgil and Dante find themselves outside the Eighth Circle of Hell, known as Malebolge (“Evil Pouches”). Dante describes the relationship between the circle’s structure and its name: the circle has a wall running along the outside and features a great circular pit at its center; ten evenly spaced ridges run between the wall and the pit. These ridges create ten separate pits, or pouches, in which the perpetrators of the various forms of “ordinary fraud” receive their punishments. Virgil leads Dante around the left side of the circle, where they come upon the First Pouch.

Here, Virgil and Dante see a group of souls running constantly from one side of the pouch to the other. On both of the pouch’s containing ridges, demons with great whips scourge the souls as soon as they come within reach, forcing them back to the opposite ridge. Dante recognizes an Italian there and speaks to him; the soul informs Dante that he lived in Bologna and now dwells here because he sold his sister to a noble. This pouch is for the Panders (pimps) and the Seducers—those who deceive women for their own advantage. Moving on, Virgil and Dante also see the famous Jason of mythology, who abandoned Medea after she helped him find the Golden Fleece.

As Virgil and Dante cross the ridge to the Second Pouch, a horrible stench besieges them, and they hear mournful cries. Dante beholds a ditch full of human excrement, into which many sinners have been plunged. From one of these souls, he learns that this pouch contains the Flatterers. After a few seconds, Virgil says that they have seen enough of this foul sight. They progress toward the Third Pouch.

Summary: Canto XIX

Dante already knows that the Third Pouch punishes the Simoniacs, those who bought or sold ecclesiastical pardons or offices. He decries the evil of simony before he and Virgil even view the pouch. Within, they see the sinners stuck headfirst in pits with only their feet protruding. As these souls writhe and flail in the pits, flames lap endlessly at their feet.

Dante notes one soul burning among flames redder than any others, and he goes to speak with him. The soul, that of Pope Nicholas III, first mistakes Dante for Boniface. After Dante corrects him, the soul tells Dante that he was a pope guilty of simony. He mourns his own position but adds that worse sinners than he still remain on Earth and await an even worse fate. Dante asserts that St. Peter did not pay Christ to receive the Keys of Heaven and Earth (which symbolize the papacy). He shows Nicholas no pity, saying that his punishment befits his grave sin. He then speaks out against all corrupt churchmen, calling them idolaters and an affliction on the world. Virgil approves of Dante’s sentiments and helps Dante up over the ridge to the Fourth Pouch.

Summary: Canto XX

In the Fourth Pouch, Dante sees a line of sinners trudging slowly along as if in a church procession. Seeing no apparent punishment other than this endless walking, he looks closer and finds, to his amazement, that each sinner’s head points the wrong way—the souls’ necks have been twisted so that their tears of pain now fall on their buttocks. Dante feels overcome by grief and pity, but Virgil rebukes him for his compassion.

As they pass by the Fourth Pouch, Virgil names several of the sinners here, who were Astrologers, Diviners, or Magicians in life. He explains the punishment of one specific sinner, saying that, since this individual wanted to use unholy powers to see ahead in life (that is, into the future), he has now been condemned to look backward for all of time. Virgil and Dante also see the sorceress Manto there, and Virgil relates a short tale of the founding of Mantua. They then continue on to the Fifth Pouch.

Analysis: Cantos XVIII–XX

In life, the Panders and the Seducers in the First Pouch acted as slave drivers, moving women as merchandise from one buyer to the next. Now they run from one demon’s whip to another’s. The fate of the Flatterers is even more fitting, almost humorous in its allegorical suitability. For the excrement-lined pit they inhabit is, like these sycophants, “full of it.” This coarse punishment demonstrates the great range of Dante’s poetry, which encompasses both lofty rhetoric and scatology; like Geoffrey Chaucer, his near contemporary, Dante could appreciate the power of Scripture and still enjoy the humor of a dirty joke.

He is equally at home recounting the classical legend of Jason and describing a scene fit for an earthy medieval comedy: “Searching it with my eyes / I saw one there whose head was so befouled / With shit, you couldn’t tell which one he was” (XVIII.106–108). This vulgarity marks a departure from the high, classical style of Virgil that Dante often echoes in Inferno.

Read more about the use of dirty humor in Inferno.

In the scene with the Simoniacs, we find some of Inferno’s most biting criticisms of the Catholic Church. At the beginning of Canto XIX, before he and Virgil (or the readers) have even looked into the Third Pouch, Dante launches into an angry, six-line speech against these Simoniacs, followers of Simon Magus, a Samaritan sorcerer who tried to “buy” the gifts of the Holy Ghost. These lines underscore the moral intensity of the poem; however psychologically perceptive, imaginatively compelling, and emotionally affecting the poem may be, Dante always strives to separate good from evil and castigate vice in the name of justice.

His moral diatribe to Pope Nicholas III contributes to this righteous tone. Serving as pope when Dante was only an adolescent (1277–1280), Nicholas was not Dante’s greatest enemy in the Catholic Church. The diatribe here reflects not so much Dante’s personal resentment of the man as his objection to certain church practices, which Nicholas represents.

Read more about why Dante reserves a special place in Hell for popes.

Specifically, Dante condemns the Catholic Church’s exchange of spiritual services for cash, especially in the granting of indulgences and in the reduction of penance, practices hotly condemned by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. It was this corruption that helped fuel Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. Dante felt that church and state should have equal but separate powers; the church should have jurisdiction over the spiritual life but should avoid temporal power entirely. Hence, he has no sympathy for those churchmen who succumbed to the temptation of earthly wealth, alleging that they have transformed gold and silver into a god and thus have worshipped a false idol.

Read more about why Dante’s tone becomes harsher as he descends further into Hell.

Inferno is rare among works of fiction in that it is not driven primarily by character. Insofar as Virgil and Dante the character emerge as fully realized human beings, they do not constitute especially complex figures, with Virgil generally embodying the traits of rationality and scrupulousness and Dante embodying those of sympathy and uncertainty. Their respective motivations throughout the story remain simple, even one-dimensional: Virgil acts according to his God-given duty of guiding Dante through Hell and offering him moral clarity; Dante generally acts only in response to the stimuli of the present moment, or out of the desire to traverse Hell safely.

What does drive Inferno is its progressive geography and moral symbolism; the poem’s action arises as a result not of the traits and motives of Virgil and Dante but of their continuous forward motion through the different regions of Hell. Dante the character may develop somewhat over the course of Inferno, but only insofar as he learns to abhor sin and not pity its punishments, which are part of God’s divine justice. The structure of this simple evolution generally parallels the story’s linear narrative and geographical layout: the deeper Dante goes into Hell, the worse the sins and punishments become. Correspondingly, he becomes less likely to pity the suffering souls and more likely to repudiate them, as in the case of the Simoniacs in Canto XIX. This shift in Dante’s behavior serves less to illumine Dante as a character and more to make moral statements.

Read more about how the narrative form of Inferno is tied to the poem’s geographical structure.