by Dante Alighieri
Tools of Characterization
Well this one is a dead giveaway. The terrace a soul occupies says an awful lot about his character. Terrace three? You’ve got some rage issues. Terrace six? Hungry, anyone? It’s easy to pick out terrace numbers and start condemning people for their sins, but that’s not what Dante is trying to do here at all. He’s not condemning these penitents. Far from it. He’s admiring and praising them for their penance and hard work. So let’s look a little deeper into people’s locations. The farther down the mountain a soul is, the less purged he is. However, the nearer the top of the mountain a soul is, the harder he has worked, and the more Dante likes him.
Like our analysis in of location, this goes beyond the simple “Oh, you’re running up the mountain? That makes you one of the Slothful!” Because practically everyone in Purgatory is admirable, we have to look deeper for gradations in that general likeability. Cato, who denies his love for his former wife, strikes us as dutiful to a fault, perhaps even cold to the thought of human suffering. Belacqua, who complains about how long he has to wait and how useless it is to hope for salvation, is one of the few characters portrayed as distinctly annoying. The angel at the gate of Purgatory proper opens the gate doors far more than he keeps them locked, revealing his profoundly compassionate nature. Marco Lombardo gives us a rather long-winded discourse on free will, giving the impression of great learnedness. Statius takes over for Virgil, explaining the generation of the soul to us, and we begin to look at him as we do Virgil – as an authority figure and a mentor. You get the point. Matilda’s singing makes her generally pleasant, and Beatrice’s accusations of Dante are a little nasty.
Let’s talk about religion. Virgil is pagan, but he’s not struck down within the first five cantos. Indeed, we learn that God’s mercy is so great that he can ordain even a virtuous pagan to carry out a divine mission. In general, however, Christian characters trump non-Christian ones in Dante’s work. This effectively singles out Virgil, because everyone else in Purgatory is devoutly Christian. Which is what makes Statius superior to Virgil. Virgil is not blind to the fact either, consciously ceding chances to show his authority to give Statius the opportunity, knowing that he will eventually take Virgil’s place. Finally the emphasis on faith over reason points us towards Statius and Beatrice as Dante’s guides.