Summary Cantos XVIII–XX

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.

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.

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.

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.