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  • Writer's pictureTyler Hauth

A case for not eating your sons.

One of the most interesting pieces of literature I've studied--a text I come back to time and time again--is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. What I love about the text, indeed, what I love about all my favorite pieces of literature, is the power of its ambiguity. The joy in being able to interpret a sentence one way while someone else, who is equally as sane and reasonable as you, might interpret it another way entirely is unparalleled. And there are very few texts with more ambiguity than The Divine Comedy.

A section I find particularly interesting, a section which is no doubt as infamous among scholars as the book itself is infamous to the general public, is Canto XXXIII of Inferno. Herein lies one of the most pivotal and emotional scenes in the book. Allow me to set the stage.

Dante's descened into the ninth circle of hell. He comes upon a grisly scene (far from the first) that involves a man eating the skull/brain of another man. Keep in mind this act is being committed for all eternity. Pretty gross! But why? What's it meaning? Dante wasn't just writing for entertainment here--he was making grand and sweeping statements about society and culture. So of course, these two people were known to his audience and their being in the 9th circle of hell is, to say the least, a bit dramatic.

Let me spill the tea.

The individual who is eating the skull of the other unfortunate soul is none other than Count Ugolino. Keep in mind that the 9th circle of Hell, the deepest circle, was reserved for traitors. Which means both the eater and the eaten must be traitors. Count Ugolino is famous for having been imprisoned and starved (along with his three sons, who were innocent of any wrongdoing, by the way--talk about wrong place, wrong time) by Archbishop Ruggieri, who, you guessed it, is the guy that Ugolino is feasting on.

So here's what happened.

Archbishop Ruggieri decided the best way to punish Ugolino for (allegedly) being a traitor was to lock him in a tower with his 3 sons and not give them any food. That's also known as starving them all to death. Now, Ugolino's sons were pretty much triple G's, and so when they saw their dad getting hungry, they literally said, "hey, you gave us life, why don't you go ahead and just eat us?" Pretty metal, right?

Well, Ugolino wasn't about that cannibal life (ironic, huh?). He didn't take his kids up on the offer. But he was powerless to do anything to save them, so he was forced to watch the three of them die. But here comes the ambiguity I was talking about earlier. Here comes one of the most beautiful lines in the whole of the Divine Comedy. After his sons died, Ugolino claims to have called for them for two days and, "then fasting had more force than grief."

That's it. That's the end of his section. After he tells Dante that final line, he sinks his head back down and begins devouring the Archbishop again.

So what does it mean? That question has actually led to some pretty hot debate--in fact a couple of people have publicly dueled to the death over the different interpretations of it. On one side you have a camp that sees it pretty clearly. Count Ugolino, like his sons, died of starvation. That's a fair reading, right? I mean, he is dead after all.

But the other side points out that everything in Dante has meaning. And a lot of times, you're being eternally tortured in a poetic way. If he ate his own kids, wouldn't it make sense for him to be permanently locked in a cannibalistic embrace in hell? Sure. So the other side says that, "fasting had more force than grief" clearly means he got so hungry he could no longer resist the temptation of eating his sons!

Now I'm not a specialist, and I certainly haven't made a career out of literary analysis. But I would argue that there's meaning to be made out of Ugolino's situation in the 9th circle of hell that doesn't involve him being punished for cannibalism. This involves looking not at Ugolino, but at Archbishop Ruggieri. You see, Archbishop Ruggieri starved Dante and his sons to death. And now he's the victim of Ugolino's eternal hunger, the very thing he, himself, created. That's poetry! That's irony! That's meaning! And it seems to me that the subtext of the scene paints Ugolino as a bit of a victim. It's definitely sad hearing him talk about how he cried over his sons dead bodies.

Anyway, this is a great case for the importance of concise and clear language. Dante's inarguably an incredible author, and even he sometimes wrote lines that weren't perfectly clear. Of course, there are some folks who say the line is purposefully ambiguous. And to them I say:

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