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Canto 13

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 13 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 13 | Summary

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Summary

Nessus leaves them on the other side of the river and they enter a dark forest where twisted trees have black leaves. Poisonous briars grow here, and harpies—creatures with the heads of women and bodies of taloned birds—nest. This is the second ring of the seventh circle of Hell, where those who committed violence against themselves take the form of trees, which the harpies feed on. At Virgil's urging Dante discovers this when he breaks off a piece of one of the trees, and the tree begins to complain. One of the souls imprisoned here, Pier delle Vigne, personal advisor and assistant to Emperor Frederick II, explains that even at the Last Judgment, when souls are reunited with their bodies, those who committed suicide will not be able to fully take their bodies back, but will simply hang them on their trees.

Suddenly two naked, wounded people appear, chased by savage dogs. One tries to hide in a thorn bush, but the dogs catch and tear him to pieces. The thorn bush, who tells them he is a Florentine who committed suicide by hanging himself, asks Virgil and Dante to gather up the branches that were broken off by the fleeing spirit, and pile them at the base of his bush.

Analysis

Like the previous ring of this circle of Hell, the suicides are guarded or tortured by creatures that are half animal, half human. This is appropriate, for those who have given in to violence have shown their animal nature—they have behaved like savage beasts rather than civilized humans. This is an important concept for Dante, who believed that part of the human condition was to have received reason and intelligence from God. Acting as an animal is to reject that divine gift.

It is a little tricky to understand why, among the trees, there are other spirits who run naked, pursued by dogs. If they are not suicides, why are they here? If they are suicides, why are they not trees? These are people who spent their money, then placed themselves in violent battles where they would likely be killed rather than continue living in poverty. So, they were not just wasteful (which would have placed them in a higher circle) but were violent toward themselves by intentionally placing themselves in harm's way. This is reinforced when one of the spirits calls out for death to relieve his suffering. Even in Hell, the spirit would rather be relieved of suffering than submit to God's will and divine justice.

At the end of the canto, Dante speaks to an unnamed Florentine who hanged himself in his home. His woeful story provides a bitter contrast: Florence, which was destroyed by war, was rebuilt by its citizens "on the ashes" of the destruction. But this anonymous speaker, by committing suicide, gave up his ability to recover from disaster.

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