David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 13: The Suicides”

“Canto 13: The Suicides”

  • Describe the place where the Suicides reside. Why is this place appropriate for the Suicides to reside?

This is a gloomy wood with trees or shrubs with black leaves. Trees do not have self-determination the way that human beings do. Human beings can decide to move around; trees can’t. Human beings can decide where to live; trees take root where a seed falls. Human beings can make decisions; trees can’t. Human beings can solve problems; trees can’t. Human beings have free will; trees don’t have free will.

By committing suicide, these human beings gave up the power of self-determination; therefore, this is an appropriate place for the Suicides to be punished.

  • Why does Dante use the words “no” and “not” so often at the beginning of Canto 13?

Canto 13 begins this way:

Not yet had Nessus reached the other side,

When we had put ourselves within a wood,

That was not marked by any path whatever.

Not foliage green, but of a dusky color,

Not branches smooth, but gnarled and intertangled,

Not apple-trees were there, but thorns with poison.

Such tangled thickets have not, nor so dense,

Those savage wild beasts, that in hatred hold

’Twixt Cecina and Corneto the tilled places.

(Longfellow 13.1-9)

Obviously, we have a lot of negative words at the beginning of these stanzas. This is appropriate because the Suicides have said “no” to life. They have rejected the life that God gave them.

Cecina and Corneto are towns in Italy. Corneto is now called Tarquinia.

  • The Suicides are the grubby shrubs. Why is being turned into a shrub an appropriate punishment for the Suicides?

After leaving the boiling river of blood where the violent are punished, Dante and Virgil arrive at a gloomy wood where the Suicides are punished. The Suicides are the grubby shrubs of the wood. The Suicides cannot even determine when they will talk; they can communicate only when one of their twigs or branches is broken, because they use the resulting hole as a mouth until the blood congeals. (The blood oozes from the wound the way that sap would ooze from a broken twig or branch.) The punishment of the Suicides is appropriate because by killing themselves, the Suicides gave up the privilege of self-determination. As shrubs, the Suicides have no free will because plants have no free will. This is appropriate because in life the Suicides rejected free will by committing suicide. As grubby shrubs, the Suicides cannot move around, and they cannot even speak unless someone breaks off a twig or branch.

  • What are the Harpies?

Guarding the Suicides are the Harpies, who are half-bird and half-woman. Violence is a bestial sin, and this is reflected in the Harpies, who feast on the leaves of the shrubs and so allow the Suicides to complain about their pain.

  • What happens when Dante breaks off a twig from a shrub?

The shrub speaks and complains to him.

The same thing happens in the Aeneid. Aeneas breaks a branch and then the shrub begins to bleed and to speak to him. It turns out that a Prince of Troy is buried there. The Prince was murdered with spears so the murderers could take his wealth. The body fell to the ground, and the spears took root and grew.

Virgil asks Dante to break off a twig so that he could witness for himself what happens. If Virgil were to simply tell him what would happen, Dante is unlikely to believe him.

  • Write a short character analysis of Pier delle Vigne.

We find out that the shrub is Pier delle Vigne (Peter of the Vines), who says:

“I am the one who both keys had in keeping

Of Frederick’s heart, and turned them to and fro

So softly in unlocking and in locking,

That from his secrets most men I withheld;”

(Longfellow 13.58-61)

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II fought the Pope for control of Italy. He died in 1250, and we know from Canto 10 that Frederick II ended up in the Inferno in a tomb with Farinata, so we know that he is an unrepentant sinner.

Pier delle Vigne was basically the Chief of Staff to Frederick II. He controlled who got access to the Holy Roman Emperor. He also wrote propaganda in support of Frederick II. He advised Frederick II — the two keys that Pier delle Vigne refers are “yes” and “no.” Pier advised Frederick II on whether something was good or bad.

However, eventually he was removed from office and treated badly (he was blinded, and he was put in prison), and as a result he committed suicide by hitting his head against a wall.

Pier does say that he was loyal to Frederick II: “I was so faithful to my glorious office, / I lost not only sleep but life itself” (Musa,Inferno13.62-63).

Note that Pier delle Vigne was a workaholic.

In addition, we learn that Pier delle Vigne likes fame. In the top Circles of the Inferno, many sinners want to be remembered on Earth; however, the deeper we go into the Inferno, the less the sinners want to be remembered on Earth.

Virgil wants Pier delle Vigne to talk to Dante, and so he tells Pier:

“But tell him who thou wast, so that by way

Of some amends thy fame he may refresh

Up in the world, to which he can return.”

(Longfellow 13.52-54)

Pier delle Vigne wants to be remembered on Earth, so he tells Virgil, “So appealing are your lovely words, / I must reply” (Musa, Inferno13.55-56).

  • Like the other souls in Hell, Pier delle Vigne tells his story in a very self-serving way, in a way that puts the blame on somebody or something else. How does he do this?

Pier delle Vigne blames envy for his problems:

“The courtesan who never from the dwelling

Of Caesar turned aside her strumpet eyes,

Death universal and the vice of courts,

Inflamed against me all the other minds,

And they, inflamed, did so inflame Augustus,

That my glad honors turned to dismal mournings.

My spirit, in disdainful exultation,

Thinking by dying to escape disdain,

Made me unjust against myself, the just.”

(Longfellow 13.64-72)

We see that Pier delle Vigne overvalued Frederick II, whom he calls “Caesar” and “Augustus.” In addition, because Pier is in the Inferno, we know that he undervalued God.

Of course, although Pier delle Vigne was loyal to Frederick II during Pier’s life, he was disloyal to God when he committed suicide.

At the end of his speech, Pier delle Vigne makes clear that he blames Envy for his problems:

“And to the world if one of you return,

Let him my memory comfort, which is lying

Still prostrate from the blow that envy dealt it.”

(Longfellow 13.76-78)

Of course, we know that Pier (not Envy) was the person who committed suicide.

To some extent, Pier delle Vigne’s story is effective, for Dante pities him. When Virgil tells Dante to ask Pier delle Vigne any questions he has, Dante replies:

Whence I to him: “Do thou again inquire

Concerning what thou thinks’t will satisfy me;

For I cannot, such pity is in my heart.”

(Longfellow 13.82-84)

Mark Musa thinks that the pity Dante feels here is different from the pity that Dante felt for Francesca da Rimini (193). I am not so sure. It is possible that Dante pities Pier because of the false rumors that led to his imprisonment, as Musa thinks; however, it seems plausible to me that once again Dante the Pilgrim is being scammed by a sinner.

  • What is the nature of suicide? When does the person who commits suicide want to live? When does the person who commits suicide want to die?

Suicides want to live life on their own terms. When things are going well, they want to live. When things are going badly, they do not want to live.

  • How will Dante the Pilgrim’s situation in life be someday similar to Pier Delle Vigne’s situation in life?

Dante will be under attack one day. Dante will lose his political position, and he will be exiled. Like Pier delle Vigne, Dante will be discouraged and wonder whether life is worth living.

  • What can Dante learn from Pier Delle Vigne?

The main thing Dante can learn is to not act like Pier delle Vigne. Pier delle Vigne committed suicide, and he ended up in the Inferno. If Dante commits suicide when he is discouraged, he can end up in the same place as Pier delle Vigne. Dante will be sent into exile, and he will be discouraged, but if he wishes to stay away from eternal punishment in the Inferno, he must respond to his discouragement differently from the way that Pier delle Vigne responded to his discouragement.

As human beings, we have free will, and we can choose how we respond to disaster. We can give in to discouragement and commit suicide, or we can respond in a more courageous way.

Some women who have been raped become counselors for other women who have been raped or they become self-defense experts and teach other women how to defend themselves.

  • At the Last Judgment, what will happen to the Suicides?

At the Last Judgment, the Suicides will be given back their bodies, but because they rejected their bodies when they were alive, their bodies will hang from the branches of the shrubs.

  • Why is the punishment given to the Suicides fitting?

The Suicides have no free will because they rejected the chance to use free will to solve their problems.

The Suicides rejected their bodies, so they will not be reunited with their bodies.

Because the Suicides gave up their right of Self-Determination, they no longer have Self-Determination in the Inferno. Minos throws their souls into Circle 7, and the souls sprout wherever they fall. The souls cannot move around freely, and they cannot speak unless one of their twigs or limbs is broken.

In life, the Suicides mutilated themselves. Now, as shrubs, they can no longer mutilate themselves.

  • Two naked souls are found fleeing from black dogs. These two people are Profligate Spenders — they violently wasted their wealth. Why are they here among the Suicides?

Perhaps surprisingly, we see Profligate Spenders among the Suicides. These Profligate Spenders are not among the Spendthrifts who are incontinent because after these Profligate Spenders violently wasted their wealth, they courted death by going into battle and hoping to be killed. Black dogs attack these “Suicides” as violently as the Profligates wasted their wealth.

  • Who are the Profligates? How are they different from the Spendthrifts?

The Profligates are different from the Spendthrifts in that they actively courted death in battle as a kind of suicide after violently wasting their wealth. The Spendthrifts wasted their money, but the Profligate Spenders violently wasted their money.

  • Why is the punishment given to the Profligates fitting?

The Spendthrifts simply wasted their wealth; the Profligates are violent in their wasting. After wasting their wealth, the Profligates courted death by acting foolishly in battle — a kind of suicide.

We learn that the dogs tear the shades of the Profligates to pieces and then carry off the limbs. Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea hides among the Suicides, but the dogs find him:

On him who had crouched down they set their teeth,

And him they lacerated piece by piece,

Thereafter bore away those aching members.

(Longfellow 13.127-129)

It is fitting that the Profligate Spenders are torn by dogs — an act that mimics doing violence to wealth and courting violent death.

Of course, the punishment of Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea also causes pain to the Suicides among whom he was hiding. When the dogs tear Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea to pieces, they are also tearing the branches of the Suicides. In particular, they are tearing the branches of a Florentine who committed suicide by hanging himself in his home.

The souls must be reconstituted at a later time after they are torn to pieces by dogs. Souls do not die; they are immortal.

The black dogs are yet more guards of the Inferno.

  • Who are some of the Profligates?

One Profligate is Giacomo da Sant’ Andrea, who supposedly once deliberately set on fire several houses that he owned just because he wanted to.

Lano of Siena wasted his wealth and then deliberately sought death in a 1287 battle; he could have escaped by retreating, but stayed to fight so that he would die.

  • Why are so many half-human, half-beast characters from ancient mythology found in Hell?

The sins are bestial in nature. Sins go against reason — reason is one characteristic of human beings at their best.

  • Which examples can you give of Suicides and of Profligates?

Cato the Younger, whom we will see later, is a famous Suicide. He fought against Julius Caesar, and rather than surrender to him, he committed suicide.

I once read a science-fiction story in which people are born with a credit card. They charge as much as they want up until they are 18, and then they start working to pay off the credit-card debt. One person charged vast amounts, then on his 18thbirthday tried to commit suicide. However, the credit-card company knew that he might do that, so they stopped his suicide. He ended up with a very bad job — flying a spaceship for years and years at a speed less than the speed of light.

Today, some people commit Suicide by Cop. They don’t want to live, so they charge at a police officer and force the police officer to shoot them in self-defense.

Here is an anecdote about suicide:

Can a hit man do a good deed? Yes. When Angelina Jolie was a young actress enrolled in film school in New York, she became depressed and decided to hire a hit man to murder her, believing that if she committed suicide directly it would be harder on her family and friends. However, when she contacted the hit man, he advised her to wait a month and then call him if she still wanted his services. One month later, Ms. Jolie was no longer depressed and she did not call the hit man.(Source: Rachel Lynette, Angelina Jolie (Lucent Books), p. 37.)


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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