Dante has no rhymes harsh and grating enough to speak of the bottom of the universe, the place where the two poets find themselves now. It is a completely frozen lake, and as they cross it they see the heads of those most famous for betraying their kin. They are frozen in the ice forever, and their only desire is to make others suffer. This first part of the frozen lake is called Caina, after Cain, who slew his brother. Shivering in the eternal cold, they move on into the second part, Antenora, named for the Trojan believed in the Middle Ages to have betrayed Troy to the Greeks. In the darkness, Dante accidentally kicks the face of one of the sinners, and when the man refuses to tell his name, Dante seizes him by the hair and pulls out clumps, until someone nearby says the mans name, and Dante has his suspicion confirmed that this is the man who betrayed the Guelphs at a great battle. Next Dante sees two souls packed in one hole. One of them is gnawing the others head. Dante asks to hear their story, promising to make the deed for which the gnawer seeks revenge known in the world above.
Having “lifted his mouth from his savage meal” (line 1), the sinner consents to relive the horror of what happened by telling it, for the sake of revenge. He was Count Ugolino, and his victim is Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino trusted Ruggieri, and, together with his sons, was captured by him. That part of the story Ugolino doesnt need to dwell on. It had happened recently, and Dante and his audience knew it well. But exactly how he died he will tell. He and his sons were shut in a tower, and one morning after an ominous dream they heard, at the time when food had usually been brought to them, the door of the tower being nailed up. He couldnt weep, but his children did. After two days, he bit his hands for grief, and the youngest son, “my little Anselm” (line 50), thinking he was biting his hands for hunger, urged him to eat them. He kept himself calm after that, so as not to add to their grief, and all stayed silent for two more days. Then the first son, asking his father why he couldnt help him, died, and so, one by one, did the others. He, now blind, for two days called their names. “Then, more than sorrow, hunger had power” (line 75). Having told his story, Ugolino goes back to gnawing his enemys skull. Dante the narrator, having recorded the story, bursts forth in reproaches on Pisa, the city that allowed Rugierri to punish innocent children so cruelly.
The poets move on to the region where those who betray guests lie with faces turned up. Because the tears they weep form pools and freeze over their eyes, they become unable to either weep or see. Dantes face is so numb he can hardly feel, but he does feel a wind, and asks what can possibly be causing it, down here where there are no variations of heat and cold. Virgil replies that he will soon see the cause.
One of the traitors in this area asks Dante to remove the ice from his eyes, so that he can give some vent to his misery. Dante replies that the sinner must tell Dante his name, and then may Dante have to go to the bottom of the ice if he doesnt help him. Dante is surprised to hear someone named he had thought was still alive, a friar named Alberigo, who had invited his brother and the brothers son to a feast and then murdered them. Alberigo tells him that this area, called Ptolomea (from a Ptolemy who invited his father-in-law to a banquet and then murdered him), has the unique privilege of receiving souls whose bodies are still alive. Such a soul, as soon as it has committed its treachery, falls straight into the ice, and a devil takes its place in the living body.
Having answered all Dantes questions, Alberigo asks to have his eyes opened. Dante does not keep his promise, “and it was courtesy to be rude to him” (line 150).
No one before Dante had given such a detailed description of Hell, so full of meaning; perhaps his most brilliant stroke was to make the bottom of Hell ice instead of fire. In many ways all along he has been telling us that choosing to try to be happy by going against the divine order of the universe and hurting oneself and others actually means moving away from life and love, from everything that really makes us happy. Ice is a perfect symbol for the hardening that comes with the complete rejection of life and love seen when people betray those they are most closely bound to, whether by the ties of kinship and country, into which they are born, or by offering them hospitality. Guests are seen as sacred in every traditional society. And how horrible to think that treachery as deep as that to a guest could even have such a profound effect on the soul that one would no longer be able to repent. All the sinners seen up till now could, according to the teaching of the Church accepted by Dante, have repented and turned to God, even at the last second of their lives, and no matter how horrible their sins, they would have been forgiven. They would have had some work to do in Purgatory to get rid of the effects of their sins on their souls, but in the end they would have entered Heaven. But here Dante suggests that it is possible to lose the ability to repent. Whether we accept Dantes theology or not, perhaps we can think of people so lost in egotism and hate, so unable to feel for anyone else, that they seem utterly frozen and cut off from ordinary human life.
The two instances of Dantes cruelty to sinners in these two cantos has led once again to the question of whether he is being shown as affected by the sins he condemns. In this case, has he been frozen by the winds of Hell and lost the ability to pity these souls so completely that he even adds to their suffering? And again, the answer that has been given is that those who have rejected life and love cannot in any meaningful way be treated kindly-from Dante, as from the universe, they get what they have chosen.
Certainly the story of Ugolino shows how deep was Dantes pity for the suffering of the innocent. It is the longest story in the Inferno, and it is the saddest, whether one interprets its last line, “Then, more than sorrow, hunger had power” (line 75), as meaning that Ugolino died too or that he ate the bodies of his children. Dante tells the story in a way that seems to be deliberately meant to make us remember the story of Paolo and Francesca in Canto 5, and it is fascinating to see the similarities and differences between the two stories. Just to take the most striking contrast, instead of the “love” that unites Paolo and Francesca, here Ugolino and Ruggiero are united by hatred, so closely that the one gnaws on the other.