Recapping Dante: Canto 7, or Hell by the Numbers


Arts & Culture

Virgil rebukes Plutus

Gustave Doré, “Virgil rebukes Plutus at the entrance to the fourth circle,” 1885.

This fall, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along!

Canto 7 opens with Plutus, the god of wealth, babbling unintelligibly at Dante and Virgil. Pape Satàn, pape Satàn, aleppe!, he shouts, a phrase that has left readers and scholars baffled ever since it was written. Many offer their own interpretations, but there is never enough evidence for any critic to settle definitively on a single meaning. Virgil, however, responds to Plutus as though the cry is somehow intelligible to him; Plutus doesn’t want to let the pair pass because he has been tasked with keeping the living out. Again, Virgil works some Roman magic and is able to pass by.

This canto is one of the first instances in which the sinner’s condition in the afterlife begins to correspond almost unambiguously to the sin committed. Here, Dante and Virgil come across avarice and prodigality. The Hollanders note that the reason the avaricious are shown with their hands closed is as a reminder of their greed. The prodigal have their hair cropped to show inattention to property. Virgil gives Dante a discourse on fortune, and, in brief, explains to Dante that fortune is impartial, and that the unlucky are quick to revile fortune, which Virgil suggests is a misguided aggression since in fact fortune couldn’t care less what people have to say. The two carry on and stop at the Styx.

But let’s see what happens of we break this canto down.

Dante by the numbers:

Lines: 130

Number of times Virgil disarms a worker of Hell: 1 (line 8). Charon, Cerberus—and now Plutus. Feels farfetched, and even a bit confusing because theological universes aren’t particularly amenable to any sort of overlap.

Number of similes: 2 (starting on lines 13, and 22). These similes are both nautical, one involving sails, and the other waves. Each simile is three lines long. By now, Dante has it down to a science.

Number of times Dante is afraid: 1 (line 4).

Number of times Dante feels sympathy: 1 (line 36).

Number of times Virgil comforts Dante: 1 (line 4). This number feels low.

Number of times Dante is confused and Virgil explains: 3 (stating on lines 37, 67, and 115)

Number of times Dante admits to being confused: 2 (lines 37 and 67)

Number of times Virgil calls Dante “Son”: 2 (lines 61 and 115)

Number of sinner groups encountered: 3 (2, if you count the avaricious and the prodigal as the same, and then the wrathful)

Number of major Greek mythological elements: 2 (Plutus, River Styx)

Number of times Dante recognizes a sinner: 0. Seems unlikely, but in this canto, Dante may be trying to break away from this model for a bit by having Virgil announce that the sinners are probably too deformed in this circle to recognize.

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.