The Inferno: Novel Summary: Canto 34

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Canto 34

Now in the deepest depth of Hell, the lowest point in the whole universe, Virgil announces to Dante that he is about to see the being who is the king of Hell. Dante looks through the gloom and sees something that looks like a huge windmill in the distance. Certainly the wind is strong, and he has to shelter himself behind Virgil. In the icy plain beneath them the souls are now completely buried in the ice, through which he sees them. When they get closer, Virgil makes Dante come out from behind him and stop and look at Satan. Dante is so frozen and weak he feels neither dead nor alive, but he looks. There stands the being who was once the fairest angel in Heaven, Lucifer, who rebelled against the Creator who had made him so fair. Utterly ugly now, he is as much bigger than the giants Dante saw at the outer edge of the deepest pits as those giants were bigger than Dante. His head has three faces, one red, one white and yellow, one black. Two great bat wings sprout under each face, and it is the flapping of those wings that freezes the ice of Cocytus. He weeps tears and blood from each of his six eyes, and in each mouth he chews on a sinner. Virgil explains that the one suffering most is Judas Iscariot, and the other two are Brutus and Cassius. Now, having seen everything, they must go.
Dante holds tight to Virgil, with his arms around Virgil's neck, and Virgil goes right up to Satan and takes hold of his flanks, which are covered with tufts of hair. From tuft to tuft he descends to the midpoint of Satan's body, and then manages to turn himself upside down and start climbing. They reach a cleft in the rock and there Virgil puts Dante down on the edge. Dante looks back, and there are Lucifer's legs upside down. Dante is utterly bewildered. Virgil explains that the midpoint of Satan's body is the center of gravity of the earth, and so at that point Virgil had to turn himself around and start climbing. Now they have a long climb to make through a hollow in the rock made by a river. It takes them a whole day; in the end, Dante says, "We came out from there to see again the stars" (line 139).
No one else has ever shown Satan like this-not full of energy and wit and power, but trapped forever in the negation of life that results from turning against the source of life. Every detail of the description is full of meaning. The hardest part for a modern reader is the suffering of Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Julius Caesar. Influenced by Shakespeare and by modern democratic ideals, we tend to see at least Brutus as a hero, but Dante saw him, not only as a man who treacherously turned on his friend and leader instead of opposing him openly, but as having betrayed, in Caesar, the man who was in effect the first ruler of the Roman Empire, which Dante believed was ordained by God to bring peace to the earth.
The way Dante and Virgil get out of Hell has a much more universal meaning, one that seems brilliant, even to those who share none of Dante's beliefs. In a way it sums up the whole of the poem. The only sure way out of Hell is by seeing Hell for what it is. To escape from the negation of life represented by Satan, we must use Satan. And once we have finally and completely gotten over the idea that there is anything appealing about the kind of turning against life and love that Satan embodies, we also see how powerless, meaningless, even absurd that rejection is. The last view of Satan is of two hairy legs upside down in the darkness.
The last line of the Inferno, "We came out from there to see again the stars," beautiful as it is in itself, after the dark stench and paralysis of Hell, is even more full of meaning for Dante than it can be for us. The earth is the center of Dante's universe, and that means that it is the lowest point. Only here does sin have any power. Beyond the circle that the moon makes around the earth, all is order and beauty, and the stars are obviously and always moving in an ordered dance. The Purgatorio ends with the line, "Pure and prepared to leap up to the stars," and the Paradiso ends with the will of the pilgrim Dante completely one with "The love that moves the sun and the other stars."

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