Dante Alighieri

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Canto 21

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 21 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 21 | Summary



Crossing the bridge into the next pouch and looking down into it, Dante sees that it contains sticky, boiling pitch (a highly flammable tar-like substance). Virgil warns him to "Take care!" and, startled, Dante turns around. He sees a winged demon speeding toward them, carrying a sinner slung over his shoulder. This demon called out to the other demons—the Malebranche, or "evil-claws"—saying "shove this one under." Dante sees that the demons push any sinners who surface back under the bubbling pitch.

Virgil tells Dante to hide out of sight while he advances toward the demons. As Virgil moves into their sight, they begin to come after him. But he stops them, and explains that he is there by the will of God, and they agree not to harm him or the man he is guiding. Then Virgil calls Dante out of hiding. The demon leader, Malacoda, tells the poets that the next bridge is smashed to bits, but there is one further on that can be crossed. He assigns some of the demons to guide them to this further bridge (which does not exist) and warns them not to harm the poets on the way to this (nonexistent) bridge. Dante is not thrilled with the prospect of traveling with demons. Barbariccia, the leader of the demons in this ring, makes "a trumpet of his ass," and they set out.


This canto begins a rather lengthy description of the fifth pouch and its occupants, those who take bribes (grafters) and commit the sin of barratry (barrators—those who buy political or Church positions).

How are grafters and barrators fraudulent? Grafters have misrepresented themselves as public servants and spiritual leaders, when really they are simply using these roles as a way to make money. Barrators use money to obtain what should be obtained by merit. The contrapasso, applied to these men, is to be plunged in dark, sticky pitch, which represents their "sticky fingers" and secret (dark) dealings.

As Virgil confronts the demon Malacoda, Dante's instinct is to hide behind the shattered rocks. (Remember that the last time we saw shattered rocks, Virgil explained that they were a new development, caused by Christ's harrowing of Hell.) This seems like a return to the pattern of the first circles of Hell, when each time a creature challenged them, Virgil would explain that they have permission from God, and they would be allowed to pass. However, this time there's a twist: Dante says, "I feared they might fail to keep their word," and he turns out to be right, while Virgil's assurances are proved wrong. The demons only pretend to submit to Virgil's demands, and Malacoda tells truths (the broken bridge) mixed with lies (an intact bridge farther on) so artfully that Virgil is taken in by the deceit. It is troubling that the demons who supposedly do God's will lie to Virgil and Dante, and place Dante in danger; even those who punish fraud are guilty of the sin themselves.

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