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Canto 33

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 33 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 33 | Summary

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Summary

The sinner who is chewing on his neighbor raises his head and, wiping his mouth on the other's hair, tells Dante that he, Count Ugolino, gnaws his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri. Then he recounts how he had been shut up in a tower with his four young sons and had starved along with them after having been accused of betraying his kinsmen in Pisa. He remembers biting at his hands out of grief, and how his sons mistook this for hunger and offered their bodies as food, and how they all finally died of starvation.

Ugolino was a traitor, and he and his sons were starved to death as a punishment for Ugolino's betrayal of the city-state Pisa. Ugolino's story causes Dante to make an apostrophe addressed to Pisa, "the scandal of the people." It is unclear from the text whether Ugolino actually engaged in cannibalism when his "fasting had more force than grief," but his punishment suggests this may be the case, because he is gnawing his killer, Ruggieri.

Moving on to the next ring, Dante sees more sinners with their faces half buried in ice so they cannot look down as the others do. Their tears freeze as they weep, thus covering their eyes. He feels a wind, and asks Virgil about it. Virgil says Dante will soon see for himself what is causing the wind. One shade, Fra Alberigo, now begs Dante to scrape the ice from his eyes so he can weep for a bit until they ice over again. He also explains that he actually has no idea what his fate on Earth has been: sometimes, when someone becomes a traitor, his or her body is actually possessed by a demon, so that it may seem that the person is still alive when really the soul is in Hell. This, he says, is true of Branca Doria, who, Dante objects, is still alive on Earth.

Analysis

Dante only mentions Ugolino's story in passing, in an apostrophe that accuses the Pisan government of unjustly punishing Ugolino's sons. For Dante the author, even the worst of traitors is not completely evil, and Ugolino's betrayal of his city does not negate or make invalid his love and grief for his sons, or the horror of what they underwent.

Dante's sense of God's justice is evident as Fra Alberigo asks him to scrape the ice from his eyes. Dante refuses, saying, "it was courtesy to show him rudeness." The canto draws a contrast between Dante's condemnation of the Pisan government, which is fallibly human and capable of unjustly punishing the innocent, and God, whose punishments may seem harsh but are always just. Alberigio (one of the Jovial Friars) is guilty of murdering guests at a banquet, a sin similar to that of Branca Doria, a Ghibelline who murdered his father-in-law at a banquet. Doria's murdered father-in-law, Michele Zanche, appeared in Canto 23 as a barrator.

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