Study Guide

Inferno Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)

By Dante Alighieri

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Inferno Canto VIII (the river Styx, the gates of Dis)

  • Belatedly, Dante tells us that this tower—something like a lighthouse—has been guiding them towards itself for a while.
  • As they approach it, Dante notices another flame flickering in the distance. He asks Virgil why.
  • Trying to cultivate his air of mystery, Virgil tells Dante to look harder. Dante does and goes "I see it! It’s a boat!"
  • The boatman gruffly stops them. He, like Charon, has issues with Dante's alive-ness. By the way, his name is Phlegyas. Try to say that five times fast.
  • Virgil puts him in his place, Phlegyas pouts, and they board the boat, which promptly sinks a little under Dante's weight. (Live people are heavier than dead ones.) Thankfully, it doesn’t stop them from crossing the Styx.
  • While on the boat, Dante leans down towards the river and asks one of the mud-encrusted sinners: "Who are you, who have become so ugly?" Seriously.
  • When the sinner gives an ambiguous answer, Dante becomes infuriated and curses him. Which is… well… different from his usual responses to sinners, like crying or fainting.
  • When the sinner reaches out towards the boat (presumably in a gesture of longing), Virgil pushes him back into the river.
  • Then in another switch of personality, Virgil joyously hugs and kisses Dante.
  • Why? Dante is making Virgil proud by feeling righteously indignant enough to not sympathize with sinners and instead to rage at them.
  • He continues, using his prophesying skills to predict that before reaching the far shore, Dante will see a sight that justifies his insult to the sinner.
  • A bunch of muddy sinners attack the same guy Dante did, crying, "At Filippo Argenti!" At which point Filippo goes crazy and starts biting himself.
  • Having filled his meanness quota for the day, Virgil turns into Mr. Explain-Everything again, telling Dante they are approaching the city of Dis.
  • Dante catches sight of it on the horizon and is struck by how red everything is.
  • Yes, red. Apparently, this comes from the eternal flame that burns within the city, signaling that it is within lower (worse) Hell. So says Virgil. In other words, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
  • When they arrive at the gates of the city, they find a thousand enraged sinners trying to bar Dante from getting through. Because of his alive-ness.
  • To recap, we’ve got a thousand angry sinners waving their pitchforks around and spitting at Dante. So Virgil "makes a sign" to fend them off and has a private chat with them.
  • Dante can’t hear what they’re saying. Probably because he’s freaked out by the mad sinners and wants to go home.
  • The citizens of Dis agree to open their gates, but only for Virgil. The live guy has to go back.
  • Dante freaks out at the thought of having to go back on his own, so much so that he tells the reader directly about his fears.
  • Then he begs Virgil to come back with him if these sinners are so intent on blocking their way.
  • Virgil, his ego puffed up now, scoffs at Dante’s words and says he’ll take care of it.
  • So while he does the fast talking, Dante wrings his hands with indecision.
  • And then the crucial moment: the gates slam shut in Virgil’s face and he’s forced to make the slow shameful walk back to Dante. Virgil failed? (Hmm, Important Passage.)
  • Virgil rants at the sinners, but reassures Dante that he will win against them.
  • He tells Dante that this has happened before at the entrance of Hell (when Christ harrowed Hell) and that an angel is now descending to help them. Thank goodness.

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