Summary and Analysis Cantos XXI-XXII



In Canto XXI, Dante and Virgil make their way to the fifth chasm, which is very dark and filled with boiling pitch. Dante compares the pitch to the material used to caulk the seams of ships. Suddenly, a raging demon appears, and Virgil hides Dante behind a large rock so he can go to the demons and make a deal for their safe passage.

The demon is carrying a sinner, which he tosses into the pitch, saying that he is going back for more sinners to place in the chasm of Grafters. The other demons warn the sinner to get beneath the pitch or the sinners will taste their grappling hooks.

Virgil confronts the demons, and they threaten to harm him. He asks to speak to one of them, and Malacoda, leader of the demons, steps forward. After hearing about Virgil's divinely inspired journey, Malacoda grants the poets safe passage and rounds up a group of ten demons to escort them to the next bridge. The poets must travel on the next bridge, because as Malacoda tells them, the closest bridge fell in an earthquake 1,266 years, one day, and five hours from the present point in time (indicating the Harrowing of Hell on the day that Christ died).

Dante is afraid of the demons and pleads with Virgil to go on without them, but Virgil reprimands him for his fear and reminds him that the demons are there only to guard and torture the sinners in the stew of pitch. After a vulgar sign and countersign between the demons, the poets move on with their escorts.

In Canto XXII, Dante marvels that he is in such terrible company, but he realizes that this part of his trek with the demons is necessary. Every now and then a sinner shows his back at the surface of the pitch to ease his pain, and Dante compares them to frogs squatting about in water with only their muzzles sticking out.

One sinner is slow in ducking back into the pitch fast enough and is caught by one of the demons who pulls him out of the pitch by his hair. Before the demons tear him to shreds, Dante asks if he can listen to the sinner's history. The sinner replies that he was born in Navarre and worked for a king and began to graft, which is the reason he now suffers in the pitch. The demons begin to tear at the sinner, and to avoid this punishment, he offers them a deal. The sinner says that he will whistle, as if he'd been set free, and call more sinners (especially Italians with whom Dante will want to speak) to the surface of the pitch, so that they can suffer at the hands of the demons as well.

The demons are suspicious, but they let him try his plan, warning him that if he tried to escape they would catch him. The sinner, once set free, jumps off of the ridge into the safety of the pitch and escapes. The demons, furious at the deception, fly after him. When they see that he has escaped, two of the demons begin fighting, fall into the pitch, and are unable to rise. The other demons form a rescue party and while they are occupied, the poets use the opportunity to slip away unnoticed.


The language and imagery in Cantos XXI and XXII is coarse and full of grotesque imagery, far more than earlier cantos, suggesting that the lower a person travels in Hell, the more grotesque Hell becomes. The demons in these cantos are described as no other beasts in the Inferno are described, with great detail and an almost comic-relief like quality. Dante the Pilgrim is simultaneously afraid of and fascinated by these beasts.

Like the rest of the sinners in Hell, the Grafters also experience Dante's concept of Divine Retribution. Because they had "sticky" hands in life, stealing and embezzling money, they are damned to spend eternity in sticky pitch, and just as their dealings were hidden from the world in life, their souls are hidden beneath the pitch in death. On Earth, Grafters took every opportunity to take advantage of others, and they are now overseen by terrible demons that use every opportunity to take advantage of them.

Virgil's behavior changes in these deeper circles. No longer does he coddle and behave tenderly toward Dante. In fact, he rebukes Dante twice in Canto XXI, once for hiding behind the rocks (where Virgil placed him) and once for being afraid of the demons. Dante seems almost reluctant to continue the journey, literally and spiritually, and Virgil, as human reason, is frustrated with him.

All that is known about the Grafter from Navarre is what he says of himself. He, as the other sinners in Hell, is unchanged and shows no remorse for his sins; as he was in life, so he remains in Hell. The scene of this sinner and his escape from the demons functions to allow the poets to progress on their journey; there is no other real reason for its presence in the narrative.


Santa Zita the Patron Saint of Lucca.

Bonturo politician of Lucca.

Pisan a person from the city of Pisa of Pisa.

Sardinia Italian island in the Mediterranean, south of Corsica; or the region of Italy comprising this island and small nearby islands.