Dante's Inferno Canto 32: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Canto 32 of Dante's 'Inferno' describes two parts of the Ninth Circle of Hell -- the last and deepest circle -- which contains those who commit sins of betrayal. We'll summarize this canto and look at some quotes that make its plot memorable.

Setting

Canto 32 takes place in the Ninth Circle of Hell, which is the final and most harrowing area of Dante's Inferno. Souls in the Ninth Circle are generally guilty of sins of betrayal such as treachery against family, country, political party, guests, or benefactors. Dante describes this last circle of Hell as ''the bottom of the universe'' containing a ''horde [of sinners] beyond all others ill-begot.''

Canto 32 describes two regions within this circle. One is called Caina and is intended for sinners who betray family members. It's named after Cain, the son of Adam and Eve in the Bible who killed his brother Abel because God favored Abel over him. The second is called Antenora, and it contains political traitors. It's named after the Trojan Prince Antenor, who conspired with the Greeks to destroy the city of Troy.

Canto 32: Summary

Hell Frozen Over

After passing the initial ring of giants in Canto 31, Dante remarks that he and Virgil are now far below them, ''deep in the darkness of the pit.'' He realizes they have come to a lake of ice so thick that it wouldn't crack even if a mountain were dropped onto it. A voice instructs them to ''watch how you step... Be careful that you do not set your feet on the weary, wretched brothers' heads.'' Dante sees heads sticking out of the ice everywhere, their teeth chattering.

Family Traitors

One pair is stuck so close that ''their hair [is] interknit'' and their foreheads are frozen together. When he asks them who they are, another soul (whose ears have been frozen off) complains about Dante's staring. However, he gives hints as to their identity. Some scholars believe these were brothers who murdered each other in an argument over their inheritance (which, again, reminds us of Cain). Because the brothers metaphorically butted heads when they were alive, their sin has been transformed into a literal punishment in Hell.

Traitors in Battle

As he walks along, Dante kicks someone else so hard in the face that the sinner starts crying (Dante leaves it unclear whether this was deliberate or an accident). This person yells, ''Why trample me? And if you have not come to add more vengeance for Montaperti's defeat, then why do you molest me?''

To provide a brief background, the Battle of Montaperti (Hill of Death) took place in 1260 between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, two warring political parties in Italy. The Ghibellines (who supported German emperors) defeated the Guelphs (who supported the papacy, and with whom Dante sided) in what is considered the bloodiest battle in Italian medieval history.

Dante demands to know the identity of this person, who is clearly his political enemy, but the man won't reveal it. Dante next grabs a fistful of his hair, threatening: ''Now name yourself forthwith—or not a hair will remain.'' Still the man refuses, and Dante starts ripping out clumps of hair. The man ''bark[s]'' with pain until someone else identifies him as Bocca degli Abati. He's a Ghibelline who remained in Florence after his party was banished from the city. He pretended to support the Guelphs only to betray them at a crucial point in the Battle of Montaperti. Angry at having been identified, Bocca in turn ''rats out'' four other political traitors.

Dante interrogates Bocca degli Abati (illustration by Gustave Dore)
Dante meets Bocca degli Abati

One Traitor Devouring Another

Moving on, Virgil and Dante encounter another two sinners packed close together in the ice. This time one is on top of the other, and the soul on top is biting and chewing on the nape of the other's neck ''the way the starving devour their bread.'' Sickened and horrified, Dante demands to know why he's doing this.

Unfortunately, we don't find out the answer to this until we read the next canto. We do know that the poet is so traumatized by what he sees in the Ninth Circle of Hell that he says: ''I still shiver, and always will, at the sight of a frozen pond.''

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