Summary Cantos XXI–XXIII

The success of the Navarrese soul’s trick on the two demons in Canto XXII comes as somewhat of a surprise. In general, the ministers of Hell seem too powerful to be duped by the sinners they so gleefully and effortlessly torture. One may account for the seeming anomaly in two ways. First, the demons are captives here too, as we realize in Canto XXIII when it is revealed that they cannot leave the Fifth Pouch. Just as every sinner is allotted a specific place, so are the demons—they are, after all, fallen angels, and have thus probably been given their own particular tortures for their disobedience to God. Second, the fact that these demons have erred and landed themselves in Hell points to their fallibility; such creatures may continue to make mistakes here in the underworld.

While the Navarrese soul manages to outsmart his torturers and win himself a sustained period of relief, it is important to note that other sinners also experience a respite from their sufferings—though only briefly—when Dante visits their circles. When the inhabitants of Hell speak with Dante, they step out of their tortures momentarily. Given the remarkable precision with which Dante the poet sketches out the complex rules that govern Hell, it seems paradoxical that the presence of Dante the character could lead to an interruption, albeit only temporary, of a sinner’s eternal punishment. It creates no more of a paradox, however, than Dante’s presence in Hell and ability to interact with the dead in the first place. Dante’s presence in Hell, itself an exception to the rules, seems to upset Hell’s equilibrium.

Dante’s encounter with the crucified Caiphus constitutes a dramatic and moral highlight. Caiphus served as the high priest under Pontius Pilate, who advised the Pharisees to allow Jesus to die rather than provoke trouble in the nation. His punishment bears a threefold allegorical significance: because he was a hypocrite, preaching prudence but not showing it, he resides in the Sixth Pouch; because he called for Christ’s crucifixion, he himself lies crucified; and because his actions contributed to the suffering of one for the sins of many, he now bears the weight of all of the other lead-laden Hypocrites.

Dante continues to use his gift for symbolism to make moral points about the sinners of myth and history, rendering this section the most ominous and grotesque so far. As the poets progress ever closer to Satan, their surroundings grow darker and more dangerous, to the extent that they only barely escape attack by the demons in Canto XXIII. Only Virgil’s bizarre use of his own body as a sled saves Dante from the rampaging demons—surely one of the strangest chase scenes in all of literature.