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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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CANTO XXXIII

What is more repulsive than cannibalism? Picture this final
scene of human depravity. Dante speaks to the two sinners in
the filthy ice. One lifts his head from his feast, wipes the
blood and brains from his chin on the remaining hair of the
skull he has been chewing, and then answers. What could
these sinners have done that is so disgusting as to deserve this
punishment?

The two are Roger (Ruggieri degli Abaldini) and Ugolino
(Count Ugolino della Gherardesca) who were involved in a
plot and counterplot to seize power. Ugolino and his grandson,
Nino, were rival heads of families. In order to get rid of Nino,
Ugolino allied himself with Archbishop Roger. Once Nino
was out of power, Roger turned on Ugolino. Ugolino, his two
sons, and two of his grandsons were imprisoned in a tower for
months. After this long imprisonment, Ugolino woke one
morning to the sound of the tower doors being nailed shut.
The family was left to starve.

Dante knows how to throw in an emotional clincher to sway a
jury! Ugolino tell Dante that when he bit his hand to stop from
crying, one of the boys mistook the gesture as one of hunger
and offered up his own flesh to Ugolino. Horrible as Ugolino's
fate is, we must wish an even worse fate on Roger, who
caused Ugolino's tragedy. Ugolino renews his savage
chewing.



NOTE: Roger and Ugolino are the last of the pairs of sinners.
If you think back, you'll remember several notable pairs:
Paolo and Francesca, Ulysses and Diomede, Farinata and
Cavalcante. Why does Dante use them? Are there any special
ties here?

First comparison works. You can say a lot about a person
simply by placing him, literally or figuratively, next to
another. (Think of how many similes and metaphors you have
had to identify over the years.) The lines that introduce the
stories of Paolo and Francesca and of Roger and Ugolino are
drawn from the same passage of Virgil. As we have been
noticing all along, Dante seems to have left nothing to chance,
so this is probably not an accident. The lovers are in the First
Circle; the traitors are in the last.

Reinforcing the comparison, Dante emphasizes this final
image of mutual sin. Remember how Francesca wept as she
told her story, took the blame for the mutual sin, and, even in
Hell, saw beauty in Paolo? Although they had sinned, there is
still love and trust. Looking at Roger and Ugolino-the starver
serving as food for cannibalism, the hatred that seems to grow
with each mouthful-we see the end of any possible human
relationship. This truly is Dante's image of sin as a devouring
passion for destruction.

The final sinners whom Dante encounters in his journey
through Hell are the Treacherous against Guests and Host.
They are frozen face up in the ice of the last ring of Cocytus,
which is Ptolemea, named for Ptolomeus, who slaughtered his
father-in-law at a banquet. You are probably wondering why
this is the most serious wrong. After all, you see horrible
kidnappings and murders in the papers all the time. What
makes this sin so wrong? Some of you may even remember
this sin as a major issue in Macbeth and in the history of the
House of Atreus in the Aeschylus trilogy, the Oresteia.

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