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Recapping Dante: Canto 21, or a Middle-Schooler’s Essay

March 17, 2014 | by

This winter, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: how to write a C- five-paragraph essay on canto 21.


Gustave Doré, Canto 21

As Dante enters the next ditch, he addresses his reader, saying he and Virgil have encountered things about which his “Comedy does not care to sing.” One has to wonder what Dante is seeing that makes him so overwhelmed. Upon reading the notes in the back of the book, a reader can discover that this area of hell is reserved for those who committed barratry, which, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “sale or purchase of positions in the state.” Because this sin is so similar to simony, which was punished in a recent canto, we can understand that Dante means for the reader to undergo a sequential experience—as our thoughts move from simony to barratry—and that the theme of this canto is motion. Following this theme, we can also see Dante go from a state of confusion and horror as the canto begins, and then to a state of fear as he encounters demons, and finally to a feeling of faith as he learns to trust the demons. 

Dante spends a lot of time describing a vile lake that surrounds him and Virgil. It is made of boiling pitch—similar to modern-day tar—in which the sinners are forced to swim. The great detail he uses to describe this lake of boiling pitch (nine lines are dedicated to a small story telling the reader how it reminds Dante of Venetian ship makers) shows that he is clearly both captivated and terrified by it. Eventually, Dante sees a demon that further moves him into a mindset of absolute fear. He warns Virgil, who is less concerned. Dante then describes the way the beasts chase down a sinner who has come to the surface of the pitch, and how they rip him apart, because the sinners are supposed to stay below the surface. Already Dante has gone from a foggy notion of his surroundings to a very concrete sense of fear. Read More »