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


Arts & Culture

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.

After the demons tear apart the sinner in a gruesome display, Virgil tells Dante to hide behind a rock for his safety. This is one of the only times in the book that Virgil has warned Dante to take cover and has given him instructions to ensure his safety. This fact sets this scene apart as one of extreme danger. Virgil then goes out, and as he is about to be attacked, he speaks to the leader of the demons and convinces him that he and Dante are on a divine journey and should not be harmed. After the negotiation, he calls out to Dante and almost mocks him for hiding, saying, “You there, cowering among the broken boulders of the bridge, now you may come back to me in safety.” This is the beginning of the third step in Dante’s transformation from fear to faith, as he learns that Virgil has secured them safe passage. The demons try to attack Dante, but the leader warns them not to, and puts together a team to take Virgil and Dante to their next destination.

Though the surroundings may appear safer than before, Dante remains apprehensive. When the demons escort the travelers, Dante begs Virgil to find another way to continue their quest, and wishes that they did not have to rely on the demons for help. Virgil assures him he needn’t worry. These words from his guide help put Dante into his final stage of faith, faith that the Demons might be there to help them in their divine quest. Finally, we see the demons make farting sounds with their mouths; the leader makes “a trumpet of his asshole,” indicating that between the demons there is a secret code that relies on farting noises. Dante must then realize that they are not out to kill him, but, instead, are goodnatured. To a reader, these demons become a source of comic relief, undoing the tension we felt when Dante was still mistrusting of them. It is clear that while at first he feared the demons, he has moved on to trust them.

In conclusion, canto 21 is evidently focused on the notion of movement: it offers a lot more action-based plot developments than previous cantos, and it also gives the reader a firsthand account of Dante’s transformation. Dante’s emotional range goes from confused, to scared, to accepting. From the many series of events that move the plot forward, to the emotional journey Dante undergoes, this canto has a great deal of momentum, and movement is one of its fundaments. It can also be said that as Dante grows, so does the Inferno as a book. As a result, not only do we see movement as one of the major themes of this canto, but the growth that follows this movement. Movement is not meant simply to take one from A to B, but to help one grow along the way.

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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.