David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 21: The Grafters”

“Canto 21: The Grafters”

  • What is graft?

Graft is a bribe. Usually, it involves the giving of money, although other things can be used for the bribe, such as drugs or sexual favors. A politician who takes money to pass legislation favorable to a certain corporation is guilty of graft. A judge who takes money to rule a person innocent is guilty of graft.

Dante writes that one of the devils says, “You can change a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ for cash in Lucca” (Musa, Inferno21.42). That is graft.

  • What modern examples of graft do you know about? (Hint: For examples, Google “Bob Ney” or “Jack Abramoff” or “Duke Cunningham.”)

We do have a number of modern cases of graft. Bob Ney, a Republican congressman from Ohio, was sentenced to 30 months after being involved in Jack Abramoff’s bribery scandal.

Jack Abramoff bribed politicians to pass legislation that was favorable to his clients. He was sentenced to almost six years in prison and ordered to pay millions of dollars in restitution.

Duke Cunningham was bribed in an interesting way. One of the people this politician did favors for bought his house for a price that was well above fair market value. Duke Cunningham pled guilty to accepting over $2 million in bribes and was sentenced to over eight years in prison.

  • Briefly summarize what happens in Canto 21.

Dante spends more space describing this place of punishment than any other. This is perhaps understandable, since one of the trumped-up charges made against him to justify his exile was that he was guilty of taking bribes (aka barratry or graft).

In Canto 21, Virgil and Dante come to the place where the Grafters are punished by being submerged in boiling pitch (tar). Devils are the guards here. A devil throws a sinner into the boiling pitch, and Virgil tells Dante to hide — these are dangerous devils. Virgil talks to the devils alone, and then Dante comes out of hiding. Virgil needs to talk to the devils because the bridge crossing the bolgia is broken, and Virgil hopes to find another bridge in working order. Supposedly, Virgil and Dante will be able to reach a bridge to cross later, so the devils and Virgil and Dante start walking to the bridge that the devils say exist.

Of course, as we will see, no bridges are intact across this bolgia; all were destroyed during the Harrowing of Hell. Once again, we see ruins in the Inferno. Ruins are certainly appropriate for a place such as Hell.

  • How does Virgil take care of Dante the Pilgrim?

Virgil takes good care of Dante the Pilgrim. When they see the devils, Virgil wants to speak to them alone while Dante hides:

Said the good Master to me: “That it be not

Apparent thou art here, crouch thyself down

Behind a jag, that thou mayest have some screen;

And for no outrage that is done to me

Be thou afraid, because these things I know,

For once before was I in such a scuffle.”

(Longfellow 21.58-63)                                               

Only after Virgil has let the devils know that he is on a mission from God does he allow Dante to reveal himself. The devils seem to respect the power of God as their leader, Malacoda, tells the other devils, “Don’t touch this man!” (Musa, Inferno21.87). After hearing this, Virgil allows Dante to come out of hiding.

This is the place in the Inferno where Dante is most in danger of physical harm. This is appropriate because one of the false charges made against him when he was exiled from Florence was that he was a grafter.

  • Who are the Malebranche? (Note: The word “Malebranche” is plural.)

The Malebranche, or devils, are the guards here. They try to catch sinners and torment them. They sometimes are able to catch sinners because the sinners, to somewhat relieve their torment, will raise their backs out of the boiling pitch. At that time, the devils are occasionally able to spear the sinner and lift the sinner out of the boiling pitch to be tormented up close and personal by the devils.

Malebranchemeans “evil claws.”

  • How can the names of the black devils be translated?

Mark Musa chooses not to translate the names of the black devils because he feels that doing so would result in losing much of the names’ “grotesque appearance” (266). He does point out that Malacodameans “evil tail” and that Barbaricciameans “Curly-Beard.”

John Ciardi uses these names for the devils in his translation:











Mr. Ciardi does not translate “Malacoda.”

  • In this section of the Inferno, Dante the Poet uses very coarse language.

Note that the language used in the Infernois pretty bad. The devils are uncouth, as their leader, Malacoda (Evil-Tail) uses his butthole for a bugle.

At the end of the canto, the devils engage in a parody of military salutes:

Before they turned left-face along the bank

each one gave their good captain a salute

with farting tongue pressed tightly to his teeth,

and he blew back with his bugle of an ass-hole.

(Musa 21.136-139)

Dante will change his use of language in both the Purgatoryand the Paradise.

In the Infernowe see some “bathroom” words. Speaking of bathrooms, one of my students was talking on the telephone to her boyfriend. Her younger brother noticed this, went to another phone that was portable to listen in on the conversation, put the phone on mute, and then carried it to the bathroom. When there was a pause in the conversation, he turned off the mute button and flushed the toilet. My student’s boyfriend asked, “Whereare you?”

  • Do you know anyone who uses his butt for a bugle?

In the mid-1800s, a French entertainer named Joseph Pujol was able to pass gas at will. He created an act in which he would strip naked (when in front of a male-only audience), use a tube to blow into and fill his rear end up with gas, then play songs and do other feats with his anus. Yes, he made his living by farting. He played a flute with a rubber tube inserted into his anus. You can read about him in wikipedia.com (“Le Pétomane”) and Laurence J. Peters’ book titledPeter’s People. It’s available in many libraries.

I used to tell this anecdote in my Ohio University course in Great Books and then ask, “How many of you students are going to call your mother tonight and say, ‘Hey, Mom, guess what I learned in school today?’”

By the way, one of my students in junior composition began a short reaction memo about his best friend by writing, “I had been best friends with Jared for almost three years, and not a day went by when I didn’tsee his butt cheeks.”

  • How does the theme of appearance versus reality play a role in this section of the Inferno?

Grafters are able to make appearance different from reality. For example, a person may actually be guilty of a crime, but bribe a judge to find him innocent. Thus, the appearance is that the person is innocent, but the reality is that he is guilty.

We can wonder about the reality of the devils. Very often, they appear comic, and very often, they appear frightening. The reality is that they are indeed comic, and we will see later that they chase after Virgil and Dante, although because God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, the devils would in reality be unable to do harm to Virgil and Dante.

We can also wonder about who is wiser is this canto: Virgil or Dante? Dante is worried about the devils and thinks that they are dangerous. Virgil thinks that the devils are a danger to the sinners punished here but not a danger to himself and Dante.

Of course, we need to remember that Virgil is on a mission from God, and God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. God is not going to allow anything very bad to happen to Virgil and Dante.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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