Dante cares deeply about his subject matter—the improvement of man’s soul through penance and hard labor. He doesn't shirk from showing us how physically and emotionally difficult this process is, but he does show us how earnest the penitents are in their desire to wash away their sins and join God:
[...] like a child who weeps and laughs in sport;
that soul is simple, unaware; but since
a joyful Maker gave it motion, it
turns willingly to things that bring delight.
At first it savors trivial goods; these would
beguile the soul, and it runs after them,
unless there’s guide or rein to rule its love. (Purg. XVI, 86-93)
Again and again, we’re given favorable accounts of the penitents. Unlike the sinners in Hell, they don't not whine about their punishment, they realize how just it is for them to suffer, they are grateful for this second chance to prove their worth, and they take joy when others are purged and ascend to Heaven.
Because Dante has learned to harden his heart against harsh punishment, through his lessons in Hell, we do not see as much crying and fainting from him on behalf of the sufferers. Rather, to prove his sympathy, he sometimes shares in the sinners’ punishments—bending over with the Prideful, walking through the dark smoke of the Wrathful, bearing the burning flames of the Lustful.
You can't even count the number of times Dante praises God. This is where the reverent part comes in: Dante is clearly deeply awed by God and his miracles. This awe comes out most clearly in passages about God’s artwork—whether it be the sculptures of Gentleness, the picturesque landscape of the Earthly Paradise, or Beatrice’s blinding beauty.
However, this does not mean he goes around wide-eyed and gape-jawed all the time. In fact, he’s very confident about the material he writes, about both its truth and its quality. Remember that pride is his greatest fault? Well, that comes through quite well in passages where he fumes about the state of politics in Italy, the corruption of the Church, the greed of politicians.
He’s also not afraid to assert that he’s a good poet. In fact, he’s the best poet, and he hails from a line of poets that is groundbreaking in its inventive new style. But that’s not enough for Dante either. Not only does he have to be head of the dolce stil novo style, he must also be the sole heir of to the genre of epic quest poetry, handed down by Virgil and Statius. Dante, however, makes epic poetry better, by putting a Christian reading on his texts. Only towards the end do we find Dante humbled a little by Beatrice. But even then, it’s only character-Dante who’s humbled; author-Dante is still as solid and commanding as ever as he writes himself towards Paradise.
Purgatorio is definitely an epic poem. It’s in verse. It rhymes (in the Italian). It’s about really big epic topics like life and death, good and evil, God and the immortal soul.
Another huge clue is that the dude who takes over for Virgil, Statius, is—like Virgil—an epic poet. So, we have two celebrated poets guiding Dante, an aspiring epic poet, through the afterlife. It makes sense that Dante wrote Purgatorio in the same form as his heroes' works.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: Purgatory is not only the setting, but also the subject matter of the second cantica of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The idea behind Purgatory is that no matter how badly a person sins in life, he can still save his soul by repenting before death.
Instead of going to Hell and suffering eternal damnation, the saved soul thus gets a ticket to Purgatory, where it remains until purged of all its vices. Here’s where the idea of cleanliness comes in. The word “purgatory” is related to the verb “to purge,” meaning to clean or purify. “Purge” has its roots in the word “pure.” So Purgatory is above all a place of education, where the saved souls learn to purify their souls of all the vices they have picked up in life. When the soul is perfectly clean, the gates of Heaven open for it.
As you read through the text, you’ll find that many of the penitents (inhabitants of Purgatory, as opposed to the “sinners” of Hell) have repented prior to their arrival in Purgatory. Ironically, many of the characters inhabiting Purgatory are people that medieval readers would likely have considered completely evil and would’ve expected to find in the Inferno. Scandalous.
Seriously, Dante is known for thwarting expectations; this is his way of showcasing his greatness as a poet and logician. He can take these depraved figures, speculate about their repentance, save them, and then show off their good aspects in Purgatorio.
Theatrics aside, Purgatorio is ultimately about hope. More than the other part of the Divine Comedy, it speaks to living readers because it shows imperfect individuals striving in good faith to become virtuous. Which is really what many of us are trying to do in our own lives here on earth. Unlike the hopelessly corrupt souls in Hell or the perfect souls in Heaven, Purgatory allows for the possibility of self-improvement, showing that against all odds, man really can change for the better. This promise of salvation is ultimately what keeps us coming back to Purgatorio.
Purgatorio ends on perhaps one of the best cliffhangers ever. Having grown so much spiritually during his journey through all seven terraces and finally receiving the final cleansing at the hands of Matilda, Dante is poised for his ultimate reward: to ascend to Heaven with Beatrice at his side. Just as he's about to ascend, the book... ends. Arrrrgh.
Now that we have vented our frustration, we can look at the ending more objectively and see how it does actually provide a sense of closure and sets up a transition to the last part of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso.
First of all, this is the farewell for Virgil. As a pagan poet, he no longer has the right to guide Dante through realms that increasingly require faith over human reason. His status as a virtuous pagan, a renowned epic poet, and Dante’s idol will no longer cut it.
He must step down and relinquish his position to Statius, a poet who has all the qualities Virgil has: well-deserved fame and epic works. On top of that, he also has Christian faith. He is introduced in Canto XXI and from that point his influence only grows, while Virgil’s wanes. Although he never explicitly states why he concedes discussions about philosophy to Statius, Virgil has hinted before that the limits of his knowledge are being tested and that, although his capacity to reason is as keen as ever, the territory Dante is venturing into requires more than just human reason.
So Virgil's increasing reticence from Canto XXI onwards and his absolute silence in the Earthly Paradise prepare us for his eventual departure. By the time Dante turns to find him gone, Virgil has already been a virtual non-presence in the text for some time. His disappearance elicits some tears from Dante, but it also heralds a new beginning, where paganism has no place and where human reason becomes increasingly obsolete as Dante begins to engage us with more fantastic discourse based more on theology than philosophy.
The ending at the same time ties up and puts a twist on a number of our themes. Dante's conception of love has developed significantly since his visit to Hell. We now understand why love is not always inherently good, how it acts as the motive for every human action, and even how it can lead to sin and damnation. We even have an inkling of how love might create a place as hellish as… well… Hell.
But the concept of love really hits home when Dante, upon leaving Purgatory proper, is deemed perfect in his mental love, having aligned it with God. For Dante, this transition represents the opening up of a whole new realm of possibility; for Virgil, it means the end of his mentorship of Dante. As for Statius, he now has a companion with whom to traverse Heaven.
Structurally, the ending brings the second part of Dante’s education to the close, perhaps the most practical part of his spiritual education. Certainly, it completes Dante’s last vestiges of suffering, for having endured Hell and purged himself of his sins, Dante has now only to enjoy his reward. But perhaps most importantly, the ending of Purgatorio establishes Beatrice as a central character for the ongoing narrative in Paradiso.
As a symbol of Divine Knowledge and Justice, she brings Dante unscathed through the harshest, most personal part of his penance. Now, with the love story between them somewhat unresolved and Dante’s acquisition of Divine Knowledge still incomplete, she looks to be a central presence in his experiences in Paradiso.
Yes. The setting is actually that crazy specific.
Dante doesn’t fool around when he’s imagining the settings for his Divine Comedy. So it should come as no surprise that he can practically give us the coordinates for the Mountain of Purgatory. Want to go find it? Be our guest. It’s at the south pole, directly opposite from the city of Jerusalem; and it’s at the tail-end of Hell.
Dante even gives us the story of how the island of Purgatory was created in Inferno, Canto XXIV. Basically, when Lucifer fell from Heaven, he plummeted so far into the ground that he ended up at the center of the Earth, completely frozen in ice.
Now, we know what you’re thinking: from the sky into the middle of the earth? That’s a lot of displaced dirt. Where did it go? You got it. All that dirt was pushed from underneath the falling body of Lucifer, right through Hell and straight into the other hemisphere, where of course, everything is upside down (in comparison to the northern hemisphere). So instead of forming a hole the size of Texas, it piled up into a mountain island on the far side of the world. Voila, Mount Purgatory!
Now, let’s talk about the mountain itself. It’s divided up into three basic sections: ante-Purgatory, which consists of the shores and the flattest lowest parts of the mountain; Purgatory proper, which takes up the majority of the mountain; and the Earthly Paradise, which resides as a heavenly little forest at the peak of the mountain.
Ante-Purgatory is a pretty chill place. All its inhabitants pretty much do nothing but lounge around all day, sitting on the rocks and getting a nice tan. All well and dandy? Not really. They’re suffering extreme pain. As live human beings, we might call it boredom, but for them it’s more than that. They feel intensely their painful separation from God and use this time (some thirty times the span of their lifetimes, so we’re talking up to 3000 years of downtime) to meditate on the sins they committed in life and to repent for them. After that time, they’re allowed to approach and enter the gate of Purgatory and begin their penance.
Purgatory proper has a bit more of a lively environment. Consider this: on the second terrace of the Envious, the rock walls match the color of the penitents’ robes, a color suggesting envy. On the third terrace of the Wrathful, a cloud of smoke envelops the penitents and blinds them. The sixth terrace of the Gluttonous features a fabulous tree laden with fruit hanging above a pool of soothingly cool water; yet the penitents cannot touch such fresh fare. Finally, on the seventh terrace of the Lustful, the penitents burn in a literal hotspot, a huge wall of flame that encloses them all.
Get our drift? The different environments of the various terraces reflect the sin and punishment of its penitents. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s a bit like Hell, but perhaps Hell-lite since these inhabitants are only here temporarily.
Did you notice that the terraces of Purgatory are in the same shape as the circles of Hell? Yes, they’re circles. So what? Remember the funnel shape of Hell—concentric circles that get smaller and smaller the deeper one goes? Take a gander at Purgatory’s shape. It’s a mountain, so… oh, got it. It’s the opposite of Hell. Instead of a funnel, it’s like a dome (an inverted funnel), with its concentric circles getting smaller the closer one gets to the top.
Also, its structure is the opposite of Hell’s. The most serious sins are punished at the bottom while the farther you progress up the mountain, the more virtuous you become. Whereas the penitents at the bottom are weighed down heavily by their sins, by the time they get to the top, their sins have been removed and thus they’re feeling lighter. You get the basic idea: Purgatory is designed to be the exact opposite of Hell because its purpose is the exact opposite of Hell’s. Instead of punishing the eternally damned, Purgatory cleanses the worthy and makes them more virtuous in preparation for Heaven.
The Earthly Paradise is testament to all of this. As we learn from Matilda, this place is the Garden of Eden, the place God made to delight his favorite creation—man. This garden boasts every species of flower, fruit, and flora in general. The weather is always perfect because the altitude makes it impossible for clouds to form… or something like that. The water in the rivers is clear enough to act as a mirror. We bet even the lions and lambs cuddle at night and sing kum-ba-ya to each other. Everything’s just perfect.
There’s one little inconsistency that only literature buffs would care about. (That means you, Shmoopsters!) Dante puts the rivers Lethe and Eunoe up in the Earthly Paradise. But Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in the Underworld of Greek mythology, so it’s supposed to be in Hell. Oops.
But Dante spins it well enough so that it makes sense for it to be in Purgatory, as a pseudo-baptism and, more importantly, the final purgation process: the washing away of one’s memories of sins. What about the Eunoe? It’s fake. Dante makes it up to complement the Lethe because you simply can’t have amnesiac souls running amok in Heaven. That would be disastrous. So Dante makes a river up and puts together some random Greek words (“Eu” = good, “Nous” = mind or memory; Eunoe = “memory of the good”). Bathing in the two rivers is a ticket to Heaven.
But wait! Don’t rush off to Paradise just yet. We still have to talk about time. Purgatorio begins at dawn on Easter Sunday, the day that Christ rose from his grave after his crucifixion. By coincidence it’s also the same day that Dante starts climbing Mount Purgatory after a depressing journey through Hell. Parallel metaphorical deaths? Check. Parallel upward movement? Check. We think we see a Christ figure being set up. Just a hunch, but maybe you can back us up.
So why does it take Dante almost four full days to climb the mountain? Wouldn’t the allegory be perfect if he spent the 24 hours of midnight on Good Friday to midnight that Saturday (Christ’s death) in Hell, 24 hours of Easter Sunday (Christ’s resurrection) in Purgatory, and the following day in Heaven? Wouldn’t it be perfect and symmetrical and allegorical and just what English teachers want to see? Well yeah, but that would be too easy. And if you haven’t noticed, Dante isn’t down with easy.
So why four days? It seems clear that the penitents labor harder in Purgatory than the sinners in Hell, simply because they have a goal; they’re working towards something. This labor, this improvement of the spirit, takes time. More than twice as long as it takes to tour Hell, because Dante is doing the work too.
If you think about it, this is the hardest Dante will have to work in the entire Divine Comedy. In Hell, work has no point because the sinners are already damned; in Heaven, there’s no work to do because everyone is perfect. That leaves all the work for Purgatory. So, the main message? Self-improvement takes time.
Purgatorio is so formal. There’s very little that’s easy and accessible about Dante’s style.
By “formal,” we mean that Dante adheres to a very rigid literary form. In this case, epic conventions include tons of invocations to the muses, epithets, apostrophes, epic similes, divine creatures, and a character list longer than the Encyclopedia Britannica:
But here, since I am yours, o holy Muses,
may this poem rise again from Hell’s dead realm;
and may Calliope rise somewhat here,
accompanying my singing with that music
whose power struck the poor Pierides
so forcefully that they despaired of pardon. (Purg. I, 7-12)
The “elevated” part points to the difficultly of the text. Sentences tend to be about fifty lines long and chock full of prepositional phases. This sort of language tends to describe a larger-than-life topic—like the purgation of man’s eternal soul—and to address it in a very serious, occasionally stuffy way.
Is it just us or does Matilda’s entrance in Canto XXVIII strongly mirror something we’ve heard before…where was it? Oh yeah. In the last canto. Matilda seems to be a foil (albeit, a fictional one) of Leah, the exemplar of the active life in Dante’s final dream sequence. Compare the language:
[for Leah]: ….I seemed to see a woman
both young and fair; along a plain she gathered
flowers, and even as she sang…(Purg. XXVII, 97-99)
[for Matilda]: I saw a solitary woman moving,
singing, and gathering up flower on flower –
the flowers that colored all of her pathway. (Purg. XXVIII, 40-42)
That sounds about identical. So what does it mean? Well, if Leah symbolizes the active life, then it makes sense for Matilda to represent something similar.
Matilda is certainly is happy. She herself points out how strange it is that she should smile and laugh in a place where original sin was committed, and that her touchstone piece of Scripture is the Delectasti Psalm which reads, “For thou, Lord, hast made me glad through Thy work; I will triumph in the work of Thy hands.” The fact that she takes such joy in this garden is proof that she “triumph[s] in the work of [God’s] hands.” This is because the very description of the Earthly Paradise early in the canto says how picturesque the place is; it’s like a painting and even the birdsong is called “art” at one point. We don’t need many reminders that God fashioned this place as an artist, because the Bible makes a big point of saying that God made Eden specifically for the enjoyment of Adam and Eve.
Finally, her beauty seems to reflect that of the earth. Her figure is always fraught with bright flowers, her singing is wordless and unintelligible like the birdsong in her garden, and she “keeps her soles close to the ground” as if dependent on it. Dante describes her as Proserpina, the daughter of the earth goddess Ceres in Roman mythology (she is known as Persephone in Greek). Proserpina is traditionally thought to come up from Hades (the underworld) after winter to bring joyous spring. If we think about the Earthly Paradise, with its lack of bad weather and constant sunlight, we might be tempted to think of it as an eternal spring. How appropriate.
In almost all contexts, water in Purgatory signifies purification. The one exception is the sea surrounding the island. If it were possible to be purified in that, who in his right mind would climb the mountain? The idea of water as a cleansing agent is rather intuitive, especially given that Purgatory is a place for cleansing or purgation. In case you’re not convinced, let’s take a look at a specific instance. In Canto I, Virgil bathes Dante’s face with dew at Cato’s command before girding Dante with a new rush belt. The lines go:
When we had reached the point where dew contends
with the sun and, under sea winds in the shade,
wins out because it won’t evaporate,
my master gently placed both his hands –
outspread – upon the grass; therefore, aware
of what his gesture and intention were,
I reached and offered him my tear-stained cheeks;
and on my cheeks, he totally revealed
the color that Inferno had concealed. (Purg. I, 121-129)
Virgil uses the dew from the grass to wipe away the tears from Dante’s cheeks and “reveal the color that Inferno had concealed.” In other words, he cleans all the dusty filth from Hell off Dante’s face to reveal his true complexion beneath. If on the purely physical level, the dew washes away dust and grime, we might also draw an inference that it’s washing away the emotional remnants of Hell as well – the fear and desperation of the damned.
Now for the rivers: Lethe is the Classical river of forgetfulness. That’s right folks, Dante didn’t invent it, the ancient Greeks did. But Dante has a way of giving all things Classical a Christian spin. When all the vices have been purged from a soul by the rigors of Mount Purgatory, the soul undergoes the last round of purgation by being immersed in the river Lethe, where even the memories of sin are washed away. Talk about the ultimate purgation. Once a person has gone through the Lethe, he can’t even remember his sins on earth. It seems as though Heaven doesn’t want even the slightest thought of evil in its celestial realm, so the Lethe takes care of that. Once that’s done, the soul is immersed one last time in the river Eunoe, which restores the individual’s good, virtuous memories.
Interestingly, there is one more blatant symbol of purgation, which has nothing to do with water. Actually, it’s the exact opposite – fire. Remember that on the seventh and last terrace, Dante has to walk through a wall of fire to purge himself of the final sin of lust? Instead of soaping up and gently rinsing away, lust must be burnt clean off.
In the procession Dante witnesses in the Earthly Paradise, the griffin and chariot, which are positioned centrally, represent Christ and the Church.
It makes sense that Christ draws the chariot of the Church forward since he is the founder of the religion. But why a griffin? Well, the dual nature of the mythical beast parallels both the divine and human nature of Christ. A mythological beast, the griffin is half eagle and half lion. The golden eagle head symbolizes Christ's divinity. You know because eagles can fly and divinities are always located in the sky. Plus, gold is a special color in general.
The bottom half of the griffin – the lion’s body – is “white mixed with bloodred.” Lions are a symbol of nobility. Christ – as the son of God – is pretty much as royal as you can get. Now we’re pretty sure you’ve never seen a “white mixed with bloodred” lion (but then again, we’re pretty sure you’ve never seen a griffin.). However, the colors have symbolic value. White is the color almost universally used to symbolize purity. “Bloodred” is a harder one since it’s not even a real word. But it could easily represent Christ’s passion for his faith or the blood he spilled at his crucifixion – the blood he sacrificed to save the rest of the world.
Let's move on to the chariot, the symbol of the Church. The chariot is described as so beautiful that “even the Sun’s own can’t match it.” We know from Inferno that the sun is often a symbol of God, so the message here is that the Church is pretty beautiful, which also means it’s nearly divine. So why a chariot? Why not – say – a church? Well, we’re supposed to think of the Holy Roman Church as a vehicle for conveying men to God. It’s a vehicle that follows Christ. It’s pulled by Christ…which means that the Church is dependent on Christ and his teachings. Sounds right.
The eagle and fox attack, drop feathers on, and generally give a hard time to the chariot. The animals, as you might guess, represent a couple enemies of the Church. It’s interesting that there are multiple enemies of the Church, isn’t it? Don’t we usually think of it purely as God vs. the Devil?
For the Church as an institution, the secular side of things generally causes problems. Here, that side is symbolized by the eagle. It was the preferred symbol of the Roman emperors and thus here it represents the Empire. In other words, the “state” side of the Church and the state conflict. When the eagle first swoops down and terrorizes the chariot, the eagle represents the early Roman emperors persecuting Christians. The eagle represents this period. All well and good. But what about when it attacks the chariot a second time and leaves its filthy feathers scattered all over the chariot? Well, according to Dante, the eagle is basically laying claim to the Church. Remember that Dante does indeed want a strong Roman Empire to rule over both the Church and the state. Thus, the feathers represent the “earthly rule, the exclusive prerogative…of the Empire.” In other words, it is signifying the coming of an emperor who will unite the kingdom under the twin pillars of the Church and the state and put everything to rights.
The fox launches his attack on the chariot between the two dive bombs of the eagle. A conventional symbol of trickery, the fox represents heresy. Why might it come between the first and second attacks of the eagle? Well, after the initial persecution of Christianity by the early Roman emperors, Christianity was still a new religion trying to establish its identity. So it comes as no surprise that there were still disbelievers – heretics, we now call them – who challenged the Church. It is telling that Beatrice herself drives the fox away. As a symbol of Divine Knowledge, not only can Beatrice defend herself against all the heretics’ arguments against Christianity, but also anticipate their arguments. So she ousts the upstart fox with little trouble.
During the procession Dante witnesses in the Earthly Paradise, an eagle sheds its feathers all over the chariot. Then the chariot transforms into a monster, then a whore. And there’s a giant in there somewhere. Hmm, are you following the imagery? Even though a chariot is inanimate, at least it doesn’t sleep around. So the transformation of the chariot into the whore can safely be called a degeneration.
So who’s this giant that sleeps with her? Many scholars interpret it as the French monarchy, especially the Capetian line, who did all sorts of bribing of clerics, treading on the Church’s toes, and installing of false popes. The Church’s reaction? It pretty much rolled over and opened its coffers to please the French kings. Hence, we have the metaphor of the whore and the giant. So things at this point are looking pretty bleak. The kings don’t really care about the common people; they’re off screwing the Church, and the Church is being screwed while trying to retain some sense of dignity and legitimacy through its popes.
This is where the “Five Hundred and Ten and Five” comes in. While scholarship is still divided over whom this number refers to, a general consensus holds that it should be interpreted based on its Roman numerals: 500 = D, 10 = X, 5 = V. Turn this into a nifty anagram and you get DVX which can be glossed as DUX (because capital Latin V’s looked just like our U’s). So, how does this help us? Dux is the Latin word for “leader,” usually in a military capacity. So this mysterious dux swoops in and slays both the whore and the abusive giant. We’re not quite sure how to interpret this. Does this mean that this Latin superhero actually rids the world of the Church AND the French? Or does it mean it purges the Church and the French monarchy of corruption? And who could actually do that, short of Superman? Scholars have debated the identity of the dux and have come up with everybody from Henry VIII to Charlemagne to some random Italian named Cangrande della Scala to Jesus himself. We’re not about to resolve some 600+ years’ worth of scholarly debate, but at least you can look to this dux guy as some sort of savior. It’s up to you to debate whether or not that’s savior with a capital “s.”
Compared to Hell's constant darkness and fiery redness, all the light and colors and general beauty of Purgatory offer welcome relief. This imagery also reflects the goodness of God’s works. Many of the scenes in which light and color are at their most vibrant occur in descriptions either of the heavenly bodies or of natural scenes – both of which were necessarily missing from Hell because it’s underground. This of course points out a big difference between Purgatory and Hell; Purgatory is located on the surface of the earth and more closely resembles the natural human world than the infinite darkness and pain of Hell. Many of the most beautiful scenes are used as time-telling checkpoints (gleaned information from the sun and stars) or are accompanied with phrases suggesting that God is a sort of artist who designs these beautiful places for a useful purpose as well as for sheer delight. Where the work metaphors serve to illustrate the benefits of man’s labor, these lovely landscape scenes often point out God’s good works.
In general, light seems to represent spiritual enlightenment. The angels shine too brilliantly to be looked upon, suggesting that their state of grace far surpasses any mortal’s. Interestingly, sunlight somehow seems to determine man’s progress. Neither the penitents nor Dante can continue their journey up the mountain once the sun has set; they must take that time to rest. Something about darkness simply stops forward movement. It could be that man simply cannot see in the darkness and thus cannot tell where he is going. This line of thinking finds much support in the emphasis placed on the five senses in Purgatory. Penitents are constantly being bombarded by images of repentance, hymns heard on the wind, and even the rough texture of their various punishments. It makes sense, though, because how else is man supposed to enjoy God’s works if not through his senses?
Dante’s journey through Purgatory is constantly described as a ship cutting through water. Yes, it’s easy to say that this is just a vessel of voyage. Ship = journey. What’s so great about that? Well, first of all, this is a journey on several different layers. Yes, there is the physical component of moving from Hell to Purgatory and up the mountain. Not that any of that trip is seabound. Remember, though, that the penitent souls arrive on a “boat so light, so quick that nowhere did the water swallow it,” piloted by a “helmsman sent from Heaven.” So the reference to ships could be an acknowledgment that Dante, like the souls shuttled in on a boat, is here as a penitent.
Occurrences of the ship metaphor also seem to signal the intellectual progress Dante is making on his spiritual journey. Indeed, mentions of the ships or boats seem to crop up during particularly important lessons – like when Dante is hunched over, sharing the penitence of the Prideful; in his dream of the Siren where Virgil teaches him to be cautious of ill-directed love; during Statius’ conversion to Christianity; and after the trembling of the mountain for Statius’ purgation.
Finally, we ask, why a ship? Why not a chariot? Or a ride on horseback? Or even – as we got in Inferno – a pilgrimage on foot? Remember the opening ship metaphor at the very beginning of Purgatorio? Let’s refresh your memory:
To course across more kindly waters now
my talent’s little vessel lifts her sails,
leaving behind herself a sea so cruel;
and what I sing will be that of the second kingdom,
in which the human soul is cleansed of sin,
becoming worthy of ascent to Heaven. (Purg. I, 1-6)
Here the ship quite obviously represents Dante’s self-proclaimed “talent” for poetry. Whom does that remind you of? Another major mythological figure with a ship? Ulysses (or Odysseus) from the Inferno who dropped all his other duties in favor of sailing the world to experience what no man had experienced before.
Doesn’t that sound just a teensy bit like what Dante is doing? Going beyond the bounds of human endeavor to test the waters of godly realms: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. If you really think some other poor soul has actually taken this journey before, let’s revisit that glaring line in Inferno Canto I, where Dante is said to have endured “the pass / that never has let any man survive.” Well, that makes him special, doesn’t it?
In addition, Dante’s archaic style in these opening lines, complete with the invocation to the Muses and the famous phrase from epic bards, “I sing,” sounds an awful lot like the opening lines of the Odyssey, in which Ulysses/Odysseus plays the starring role.
However, this is where Dante differs from Ulysses. Instead of transgressing human boundaries at the expense of his other duties, it becomes clear in the final cantos of Purgatorio that Dante’s duty is to experience these otherworldly realms and bring word of them back to earth. Thus, whereas Ulysses sinned by overreaching his bounds, Dante’s superhuman labor is ordained by God; it’s even necessary for the salvation of his soul.
Both Dante’s and Marco Lombardo’s conceptions of the soul often come packaged with loads of child imagery. Let’s talk about the soul first. Marco Lombardo describes the human soul as:
like a child who weeps and laughs in sport;
that soul is simple, unaware; but since
a joyful Maker gave it motion, it
turns willingly to things that bring delight.
At first it savors trivial goods; these would
beguile the soul, and it runs after them,
unless there’s guide or rein to rule its love. (Purg. XVI, 86-93)
Apparently, the soul’s childishness comes from the fact that it is “simple, unaware,” and, most of all, innocent. The reason it “savors trivial goods” is that it doesn’t know any better. It sees pretty things and is attracted to them, whether or not they’re morally good.
Another important aspect of the childlike soul is its joy. It “laughs in sport” and “turns willingly to things that bring delight.” The child’s natural happiness is attributed to its “joyful Maker.” The message is that God is essentially one who takes pleasure in His creations and loves delightful things, thus passing on these qualities to man.
The downside to all this innocence and joy is that the poor soul is just a little dull; it is not quick to learn to distinguish between things that are physically delightful (like a pretty flame or sweetmeats) and things that are morally beneficial (like prayer). Being naïve, it must learn to recognize such things. That’s why the soul – just like a child – needs a “guide or rein to rule its love,” so that it doesn’t get burnt by the beguiling fire or get a cavity from eating too many sweets.
All right, now for Dante. What does it mean when Dante is associated with child imagery? Well, he is a soul – just one that’s still wrapped up in a body. So there are times when the child imagery refers to Dante’s naïveté; he’s a mere human still learning about the virtuous life. Sometimes, though, this imagery takes on a distinctly more negative spin:
As children, when ashamed, will stand, their eyes
upon the ground – they listen, silently,
acknowledging their fault repentantly –
so did I stand…(Purg. XXXI, 64-67)
When Beatrice accuses Dante of certain sins, he hangs his head like an ashamed child. He knows he’s wrong because he “silently acknowledge[s] his fault,” but he sulks over it. Like children, in order to learn a lesson, human souls need to be openly accused of their sins and then forced to confess. This shows their immaturity, their unwillingness to admit to their faults, and a need for an authority figure to spur them (sometimes harshly) into action. Of course, all of this is designed for the good of the child-soul. It will result in a rapid spiritual maturation.
We’re close to Heaven, so what do you think of when you see wings? Angels? Good call. Lots of the wing imagery occurs around appearances of the angels. The wings signify the angels’ superhuman status. They can fly! We humans have nothing to rival that.
Indeed, wing imagery is often used to counter foot imagery. Get it? Walking versus flying? How does that work? Well, remember that when each of Dante’s P’s is removed from his forehead, his feet suddenly get lighter and he feels as if he can fly up to the next terrace? The wings – imaginary as they are – signify a lightening of one’s load and a resurgence of eagerness to climb faster to get to the top of Mount Purgatory.
At the most basic level, wings represent the ability to get closer to God. And this is exactly how they function for Dante. When each of the P’s on Dante's forehead is erased, the ‘eraser’ is an angel’s wing. The brushing away of the letter means an easier and faster ascent to God. Whether physically or metaphorically, they speed up Dante’s ascent and whisk him up to God faster than his mortal feet, weighed down by the burden of sin, ever could.
The seven P’s carved onto Dante’s forehead represent seven instances of “peccatum,” the Italian word for “sin” or “wound.” That they’re engraved on Dante’s brow at the entrance of Purgatory makes it pretty clear that they’re an allegory for the journey through each of Purgatory’s seven terraces. Once Dante has cleared a terrace and purged his soul of the corresponding sin, one P will be erased, easing his passage up into the next terrace. Once his forehead is completely devoid of all the scarlet letters (they’re in blood, remember?), his soul is correspondingly free of sin. Then he is ready for ascent into Heaven.
The three steps at the foot of the gate to Purgatory proper are an allegory for the Sacrament of Penance. They represent recognition of and contrition for one’s sins. The first stage in the Sacrament is contrition of the heart, represented by a step polished a brilliant “white…so clear that [Dante] was mirrored there.” The mirroring reflects to the soul the nature of its sin so that it can feel shame. The second stage is confession of the lips, symbolized by a step whose “rough-textured,” cracked and “crumbling” appearance corresponds to the emotional turmoil a soul should feel upon confession, as if broken by the sins the person has committed. The third and final stage is satisfaction by works, represented by a “flaming red” step whose color is compared to spurting “blood.” This symbolizes the sweat and blood the penitent should shed in laboring to redeem himself, and recalls the blood Jesus shed on the cross when he made the ultimate sacrifice for mankind. It is appropriate that these steps rise just outside Purgatory proper, for the penitents must recognize their guilt and shame before embarking on the “works” hinted at by the final step. Their labors in Purgatory proper will complete their penance.
The guardian angel who stands before the gate to Purgatory holds a sword. Traditionally the sword is the sign of a judge; here, it indicates the ability of this angel to pass judgment on the worthiness of the soul in question to enter Purgatory. The angel also holds two keys. The silver key, which “needs much art and skill before it will unlock,” represents the complex art of judging and passing sentence on a sinner. Indeed, the name of the keys reflects this importance; they are the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
It's pretty obvious that Purgatorio has first person narration. Dante says “I” all the time. In fact, it’s a very “me, me!” kind of text. Here, perhaps even more than in the Inferno, we’re hit over the head with the idea that this journey is all happening for Dante’s education.
However, the author-Dante and character-Dante division (identified in Inferno) still applies. Author-Dante influences the text by providing characters with knowledge they shouldn’t possess—yet. In other words, author-Dante has already lived through all these events and is therefore able to “foresee” events that haven’t happened in character-Dante’s time. This is why he’s able to give the penitents “foresight,” which he attributes to their non-mortal state.
All these confusing time issues aside, there is one interesting passage in which Dante is not explicitly the narrator. Canto XIV begins with a conversation between Guido del Duca and Rineri da Calboli. It looks for a moment as if the point of view has shifted to third person omniscient because Dante is nowhere to be seen. However, after several lines of dialogue, we find that Dante-character is watching them. That's the only reason why we don’t have a quick blip of third person omniscient in here.
Dante is at a major crossroads in his life. He is lost in a dark wood, allegory for deeply sunk into sin, and desperately in need of help. The three animals—the lion, leopard, and she-wolf—blocking his way to the sunlit hill represent Dante's unworthiness to reach Heaven just yet.
Virgil steps in and wins Dante's trust. He tells Dante that he has been sent by Beatrice, Dante's childhood flame, and ultimately by the Virgin Mary herself, who sees Dante's deep trouble and his need for a long, hard, educational journey through the Divine Realms, starting with Hell.
In the passage through Hell, Dante struggles past frightening guardians and is almost torn apart by demons. In less scary moments of respite, Dante meets some old friends or sinners he sympathizes with, like Francesca, Brunetto Latini, and Ulysses. Through Virgil's stern lessons, Dante goes from sentimentalist to condemner and begins commiserating with Divine Justice.
In Purgatory, there are no monsters or thrilling escapes, but there are temptations—like Sordello's music, the siren in Dante's dream, and the forbidden fruit on the terrace of the Gluttonous. Dante recognizes his sin of pride and begins humbling himself by self-imposing the punishment of the Prideful. Upon meeting Statius, Dante knows him to be a masterful mentor and begins subjecting himself to his authority, instead of Virgil's.
Upon arrival in the Earthly Paradise, Virgil disappears, much to Dante's distress. After Dante has lost his beloved mentor, Beatrice promptly begins to accuse him of horrible sins; sadly, her accusations are true. In her intimidating inquisitor mode, Beatrice asks Dante a series of questions about his morality after her death. Dante, humiliated, answers them in a scathing confession. Later, Beatrice entrusts him with his poetic mission.
The rest of this section, from Dante's purgation in the river Lethe to the journey through Paradiso, does not really fit into the conventional "Arrival and Frustration" stage because Dante doesn't directly go from his frustration to the final ordeals. There is a respite in between in which he has a fairly easy time of it in Paradiso, just absorbing information from Beatrice as he goes along.
Dante undergoes a three-part oral examination by three of Christ's Apostles, St. Peter, St. James, and St. John. They test him on his theological knowledge of faith, hope, and charity. Each one makes sure that Dante knows the definition of the Theological Virtue in question, where it comes from, and that Dante has possession of it. Beatrice shows her support by helping Dante in the second test, so that he does not seem too proud.
St. John's examination is most nerve-wracking because Dante loses his sight, does the test blind, and is scolded frequently for not giving answers that are adequately specific. However, he passes all three exams and is rewarded by a blessing from each saint and approval to continue to the highest level of Heaven.
There are many parts to this reward. Dante gets to see how the angels do their work, he has his vision perfected and sees the Celestial Rose as it really is, he gets a tour of the Rose, a direct blessing from the Virgin Mary, and finally the worthiness to lay eyes on God himself.
The ramifications are mind-boggling. Not only does Dante pretty much get a guaranteed pass into heaven after his death, but he also knows what lies in store for him and a knowledge of the Divine Realms which he conveys in his superb poetry. To top it all off, he could potentially save others through his work. Talk about a legacy.
Dante needs help in a bad way because he is lost in a dark wood, symbolizing his corrupt moral state. As we learn later in the Comedy, Beatrice—the love of Dante's life—has died and this is part of the reason he is plunged into despair.
He has sunk so deep into sin that he has attracted the attention of the Virgin Mary herself, whose compassion leads her to try to save Dante. We know this is the initial situation because Dante is in the darkest part of his life. In Hell, Dante learns to harden his heart to the suffering souls and learns to condemn them for the sinners they are.
Having survived Hell, Dante comes face to face with his first real conflict: he has committed the sin of pride. Remember all his holier-than-thou rhetoric against Florence and her sinners in Inferno? That comes partly from his pride.
So, Dante suffers with the Prideful on the First Terrace, pulling his own symbolic share of weight. Though he doesn't purge his soul of pride, he recognizes the sin in himself and the need to address it. For the rest of his purgatorial journey, Dante remembers his sin and constantly makes tortured references to it.
Dante has learned to trust Virgil, so when he disappears Dante feels as if he has lost a father. As readers, we know that pagan Virgil cannot possibly set foot in the holy Earthly Paradise, the former Garden of Eden.
To further complicate things, Beatrice has little mercy for Dante, quickly putting him through an emotionally harrowing confession in preparation for his dunking in the Lethe. Her accusations are all the more painful because they prove that Dante swerved from the true course even after witnessing the goodness of Beatrice. Dante is properly ashamed. As readers, we fear for Dante here, unsure whether he is worthy enough to continue on his journey.
After undergoing Beatrice's terrifying inquisition, Dante is deemed worthy to continue with his journey. Before heading to the river Lethe, Beatrice conveys God's message to Dante that his mission will be to observe all the happenings from this point forward, record them as accurately as he can, and bring this confessional back to Earth in the form of a poem.
We recognize this as the climax because all of Dante's suffering and learning is given a direction and reason. That Beatrice, his love, bestows it means even more to him because it brings his personal and spiritual life into harmony.
Having passed into the heavens, Dante goes along happily, learning theology until he confronts another test—much like the confession Beatrice put him through. Here, though, the stakes are much higher.
These questions on Biblical theory test whether or not Dante is worthy of entering the Empyrean, where all the blessed souls reside. The three saints question Dante on his knowledge of the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity.
Dante has proven himself worthy! He ascends into the Ninth Heaven of the Primum Mobile and eventually into the highest realm of Heaven, Empyrean itself. His observation of the two hosts—the angels and the blessed souls—is interrupted when he finds that Beatrice has disappeared.
As readers, we say "Whew! He's made it!" and it seems as though everything is happily winding down for Dante, but suddenly when something as unexpected happens as Beatrice disappearance, we're left scratching our heads and wondering what will happen next.
Beatrice's disappearance echoes Virgil's disappearance in Purgatorio XXX, and is the ultimate test of Dante's faith: he loses his love yet again. But not really; she's up with the blessed and smiles down on him. She even joins in the sung prayer to Mary on Dante's behalf.
St. Bernard's purpose quickly becomes clear. Nobody can see God without going through Mary first. As Mary's devotee, he prays to her on Dante's behalf. When Dante is granted the gift of seeing God, the implication is that he is blinded by the burst of light that ensues. We cannot see what follows.
Ante-Purgatory: Dante and Virgil arrive on the shores of Purgatory. They meet Cato; at his command, Dante is outfitted with a new rush belt. As he makes his way through the four spurs of ante-Purgatory, Dante meets and speaks to such figures as Manfred, Belacqua, Buonconte da Montefeltro, Sordello, Nino Visconti, and a bunch of 13th Century kings.
He rants against Italy’s political corruption and sees angels driving off a serpent in the Valley of the Rulers. He dreams of an eagle. At the gate of Purgatory, Dante walks the three steps representing the Sacrament of Penance and has seven Ps inscribed on his forehead by the guardian angel.
Purgatory Proper: Dante and Virgil traverse the seven terraces of Purgatory, meeting groups of punished penitents, seeing and hearing examples of punished vice as well as counterexamples of corresponding virtues. At the end of each terrace, an angel removes a P from Dante’s forehead and welcomes him onto the new terrace.
Significant events include Dante’s taking-on of the position of the Prideful; his discussion with Marco Lombardo about free will; Virgil’s discourse on love; Dante’s dream of the Siren; the meeting with Statius and the story of his conversion; the conversation with the poets Forese Donati, Bonagiunta da Lucca, and Guinizzelli; Statius’ explanation of the aery body of souls; the passage through fire; and Dante’s dream about Leah and Rachel.
Earthly Paradise: Dante meets Matilda, who explains the origin of the Earthly Paradise to him. At the banks of the river Lethe, Dante sees an extraordinary procession. At the end of it, he meets Beatrice. Virgil disappears, much to Dante’s distress. Beatrice accuses Dante of his sins. Dante is shamed and confesses, then swoons.
While he’s unconscious, Matilda immerses him in the Lethe. After he wakes up, Beatrice goes into long and complex prophecies about the Church. They come to the Tree of Divine Justice. Beatrice charges Dante with the task of writing about his experiences here with truth. The chariot transforms into a monster, then a whore who sleeps with a giant. Beatrice prophecies God’s vengeance against the whore and her giant. Matilda immerses Dante in the river Eunoe, and Dante is readied for ascent into Paradise.
Plato (Purg. IV, 1-12)
Virgil, The Aeneid (Purg. XXI, 97)
Dante Alighieri, La Vita Nuova (Purg. XXIV, 51)
Beatrice Portinari (Purg. XXX, 73) - throughout
Virgin Mary (Purg. X, 50) – throughout
Leah (Purg. XXVII, 100)
Rachel (Purg. XXVII, 104)
Virgil (Purg. I, 61) – throughout
Cato of Utica (Purg. I, 73-84)
Marcia (Purg. I, 79-90)
Casella (Purg. II, 91)
Manfred (Purg. III, 107-132)
Buonconte da Montefeltro (Purg. V, 88)
Sordello (Purg. VI, 74)
Justinian (Purg. VI, 88)
Albert I of Austria (Purg. VI, 97)
Oderisi of Gubbio (Purg. XI, 79-80)
Marco Lombardo (Purg. XVI, 46)
Pope Adrian V (Purg. XIX, 99)
Hugh Capet (Purg. XX, 49)
Statius (Purg. XXI, 91)
Forese Donati (Purg. XXIII, 48)
Bonagiunta da Lucca (Purg. XXIV, 20-21)
Guittone del Viva (Purg. XXIV, 56)
Guido Guinizzelli (Purg. XXVI, 92)