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CANTO SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
As the two poets enter the Fourth Circle, its guardian Plutus shouts at them. Virgil reassures the Pilgrim saying that Plutus is powerless to stop them. Virgil tells Plutus that their journey is willed by Heaven, where archangel Michael fought and defeat rebellious angels. Hearing this, Plutus crumples to the ground.
The poets descend deeper into the Fourth Circle and Dante wonders at the suffering he sees and how people could sin when it ends in this pain. He sees two groups' souls. Each is pushing big weights against the other. These are the Prodigals and Miserly. The Prodigals ask the other group the wisdom of hoarding. While the other group questions the wisdom of waste. Thus they push against each other continuously in the Fourth Circle. This way each group covers a semicircle and together they describe an entire circle by their combined movements.
Dante is moved by pity as he watches the two groups pitched against each other. He asks Virgil about their identity. He sees some tonsured priests among the miserly or the avaricious and wishes to know if all the souls in the group of misers are tonsured priests (the group on the Pilgrim's left). Virgil answers saying that the Prodigals lacked the wisdom to spend money with moderation. And the other group (with "priests, popes and cardinals") were avaricious men who heard and accumulated money. Dante feels that he should be able to recognize some of the souls here. But Virgil tells him that this is impossible because they are all quite undistinguishable (without individuality) since they like undistinguishable lives on Earth. He says that they are damned to fight each other eternally. And when they obtain their bodies, after Resurrection, the Miserly will have fight fists and the Prodigals will be bald. He says it is for their sin (prodigality and miserliness) that they have lost Heaven and it is useless to talk about it. He says that wealth is short lived and its acquisition depends on Fortune's whims. Thus man's struggle for wealth is ironic, since he has no control over it. Moreover not all the gold in the world can ease the state of even one soul in Hell.
Dante wants to understand "Fortune" better and asks his guide the nature of his fortune. Virgil, addressing all mankind, says Fortune is one of God's angels. And she has absolute power over who loses or gains wealth. She is ever changing and raises and lowers men and nations by turns. She is not constant to any one man or nation but gives each its turn at the top and then lowers them to the ground. All men fear and curse her because of her inconsistency. But she is totally unaware of this and blessed with God's power, rules her own sphere of influence.
Virgil points out that time is running and they must move on. They cross the circle and come across a stream that joins a swamp called the Styx. In this marsh there are men fighting each other-- hitting out with their hands, head, chest, feet and even using their teeth against each other. These are the souls of the wrathful. Virgil tells the Pilgrim that deep beneath this mud are the souls of the slothful (lazy). The two poets can hear their voice from the depths of the mud saying just as they were lazy and inactive on earth, they are equally inactive here, trapped beneath the mud. They are unable to truly articulate and communicate by making noises in their throats.
The two poets walk around Styx, keep onto its dry bank, and eventually find themselves at the foot of a high tower.
In classical mythology Plutus is the God of wealth. He guards the Fourth Circle where the Prodigal and the Miserly are punished. Both the groups have sinned in connection with wealth. One group spends it unreasonably and the other is unreasonably attached to it. Both groups lack moderation.
When Plutus beholds the poet, he shouts at them, "Pope Satan, Pope Satan aleppe!" This sentence is open to various interpretations. Some critics (including early ones like Boccaccio and Ciardi) believe that the reference is to Satan. Others think that Plutus is addressing Dante; "Satan" traditionally means "enemy". Most modern critics believe these words are nonsensical. Despite his rage he crumples before Virgil's words (that Dante's journey is willed by Heaven). Thus no matter what the power of a beast in Hell, it is totally subservient to Heaven's will. God reign's supreme in Hell as in Heaven.
Virgil calls Plutus "cursed wolf of Hell" This brings to mind the she-wolf of Canto I. And seems to lend substance to the hypothesis that, the she-wolf of Canto I. And seems to lend substance to the hypothesis that, the she-wolf reigns over the circle of Incontinence. The circle of Incontinence includes Circles Two, Three, Four and Five. Incontinent are those who do not restrain their passions or appetites. And the lustful, Gluttonous; Prodigal and the Miserly; Wrathful and the slothful certainly fit this description.
Dante the Poet exclaims at the state of the soul he sees. He wonders how a person can let sin lead him to such a condition (Hell). Every man knows that unrepentant sinners go to Hell and yet they continue their immoral actions. Dante the Poet seems to be warning his readers to be careful; so that they do no end up in Hell.
The punishment of these souls (Prodigals as well the Misers) takes the form of each group pushing very heavy weights against the other. This pushing occurs all round the circle; so that each group describes a semicircle with their movements. Just as the basic natures of the Prodigals and the Misers are opposed, so are their movements here in Hell. Each is straining against the other. Each seeks to convert the other to its own nature, to compel the other to see the benefit (in their eyes) of their way. It is interesting to note that if prodigality and miserliness were a balanced combination in a person nature, each would dilute the other. And such a person would have a reasonable attitude towards wealth-- neither squandering it nor hearding it, but rising it as the need arises, wisely. Thus the "enormous weight" they have to push around can be taken as a symbol of wealth.
Their movements together describe a circle. This could represent Fortune's wheel, in ancient times, was a Pagan goddess. Seen as a female figure with a wheel. She would lift a man top the top of Fortune's wheel (enrich him) and then suddenly the wheel would turn and the man would find himself at the bottom (poor). This image was a representation of men's fluctuating fortunes in life. Rich one day and poor the next. But the Prodigals and Misers believed they could cheat Fortune by their actions (wasting money or hearding/accumulating it). But they can't escape this law. They may have tried it on earth, but here, their punishment includes completing the turn of the wheel (circle). Thus becoming a slave to the very wheel of Fortune against which they rebelled on earth.
Dante is convinced he will recognize some souls here. But Virgil explains why he will be unable to recognize the souls he had once known. The only goal these shades had on earth was connected with wealth. One group was consumed with a desire to spend it, the other with the desire to hoard it. This was their sole concern during their lifetime. An unworthy goal, that erased any individuality they might have had. Thus, as a result, they are undistinguishable here in Hell. They can only lie recognized either as Prodigals or Misers according to their shouts ("why heard?" or "why waste?"). But apart from that they have no identity. This may contain a subtle warning - "Excessive identification with wealth wipes out everything else, individuality as well as morality".
Earlier on Dante asks Virgil about certain people. He wants to know if there are tonsured priests (tonsured means having a bald spot, the shaved head of priests are referred to as "tonsured" among the group of people he sees (he sees many men with shaven heads). Virgil tells he will find many "priests and Popes and cardinals" in the group of the avaricious. During Dante's time the priesthood was greedy and always craved for wealth. Dante the poet will criticize the materialism of the clergy many times in "Inferno". This is the first criticism that he makes against them.
Virgil tells the Pilgrim that the two groups are doomed to an eternal conflict. After Resurrection (when each soul regains its body), the miserly will be resurrected with "tight fists" (symbolizing their greed) and the prodigals will be resurrected "without any hair". This refers to an old Italian proverb that says that the prodigals spend even the hair on their head.
Virgil says it is the misuse of their wealth that led them to Hell. He also points out the futility of even excessive money, by saying that no amount of wealth can buy any of these souls even a moment's comfort. According to him wealth, over which men fight, is in "Fortune's keep". His implication is that the ups and downs associated with money are totally due to Fortune. And men's attempt to control their wealth is a useless attempt. He describes Fortune's nature to the Pilgrim. His words "O foolish race of man" show that this message is not for Dante alone but for the entire mankind. He says that she is an angel or a minister created by God to rule over the fortune of men and nations alike. She can do as she pleases and no effort on mankind's part can alter the consequences of her decisions. She spins her metaphoric wheel, and thus puts at top one nation, the other nation must perforce (due to the movement of the wheel) fall down. Her very nature is change is men have to gamble with her (they may suddenly rise or they may not be so lucky). Virgil says that her curse is that all men curse her - the fortunate and unfortunate one's alike. The unfortunate for their lack of success and wealth and the Fortunate because they are aware that she may, at any moment take away all that she has bestowed on them. But since she is blessed by God she is unaware of all this and goes about her task happily.
The guide points out the movement of the stars and says they must move on "the stars that rose ...are going down". This shows that the time is past midnight. The stars that are setting now (in the West) were rising in the East when Virgil first encounters the Pilgrim, in the "dark woods" on the evening of Good Friday. He advises the Pilgrim that they must not linger.
They follow a stream (arising from a spring) until it leads to a swamp called the Styx. In this marsh the Pilgrim sees people consumed with anger fighting each other brutally. They use all their body parts to strike their opponent - hands, head, chest and feet. They employ their teeth, as well, to rip each other apart. These are the wrathful, whose consuming passion of earth was anger. Their punishment is that they are put together with others like them in Hell. So they vent their anger on each other, causing great injury. It seems like a just Contrapasso - that the wrathful should be at the receiving end of anger. The same emotion that was their sin and downfall. This same anger now causes them to be torn apart and rip others apart as well.
Virgil informs Dante that beneath the swamp's surface lie more souls. Their presence can be detected by the air bubbles that rise from the swamp's surface. These are souls of the sluggish or the lazy. These souls admit that while they were on Earth their only desire was to be lazy and sluggish. Their punishment is that now, sunk in slime, they cannot move. Their love of inactivity on earth has put them in such a position in Hell that they have lost the freedom/choice to move. Now they are doomed eternally to stay in one place doing nothing. Even these words they speak can't be clearly articulated but are gurgled in their throats.
After this the poets continue their journey. They walk on the dry bank around the Styx and reach the foot of a high tower.