Study Guide

Purgatorio Suffering

By Dante Alighieri


[Virgil to Dante]: …“This mountain’s of such sort
that climbing it is hardest at the start;
but as we rise, the slope grows less unkind.
Therefore, when this slope seems to you so gentle
that climbing farther up will be as restful
as traveling downstream by boat, you will
be where this pathway ends, and there you can
expect to put your weariness to rest.” (Purg. IV, 88-95)

The closer a soul is to the bottom of the mountain, the harder it is to motivate himself to climb upwards, partly because the path is so steep. As he purges himself of his sins, though, his suffering eases and he actually feels lighter as he climbs higher. The higher he climbs, the easier the path becomes, so that his virtue increases along with his willingness to suffer as he climbs.

[Belacqua]: …“O brother, what’s the use of climbing?
God’s angel, he who guards the gate, would not
let me pass through to meet my punishment.
Outside that gate the skies must circle round
as many times as they did when I lived –
since I delayed good sighs until the end –
unless, before then, I am helped by prayer
that rises from a heart that lives in grace;
what use are other prayers – ignored by Heaven?” (Purg. IV, 127-135)

Belacqua, stuck in ante-Purgatory and simply lounging around, is frustrated in his attempts to climb the mountain because he has not fulfilled his waiting time (of thirty times one’s lifespan) yet. Ironically, he suffers merely by sitting around. Even more ironically, he wants to begin his real suffering by climbing up the mountain. So Belacqua – like the rest of the penitents – suffers from something not inherently painful (waiting); essentially he suffers from not suffering enough.

…But I would
not have you, reader, be deflected from
your good resolve by hearing from me now
how God would have us pay the debt we owe.
Don’t dwell upon the form of punishment:
consider what comes after that; at worst
it cannot last beyond the final Judgment. (Purg. X, 105-111)

Despite the intense suffering of the penitents as they take on the punishments on each terrace, they should not despair and give into pain – Dante says – because, unlike the sinners in Hell, these souls are guaranteed admittance into Heaven. While they’re suffering, they should “consider what comes after,” not “dwell upon the form of punishment.” In other words, they should keep their eye on the prize to motivate themselves.

Beseeching, thus, good penitence for us
and for themselves, those shades moved on beneath
their weights, like those we sometimes bear in dreams –
each in his own degree of suffering
but all, exhausted, circling the first terrace,
purging themselves of this world’s scoriae. (Purg. XI, 25-30)

Dante’s point here is that a penitent soul's punishment is exactly tailored to fit his vices, just like the sinners’ punishments in Hell. God assigns each soul “his own degree of suffering” in accordance with Divine Justice. So the suffering that each soul undergoes is fair and is no more than he deserves. Of course, Purgatory is built on this idea of Divine Justice. In the first terrace, this justice means that each soul drags around a different amount of weight on its back, but each individual is appropriately bent over so that his eyes face the ground in a gesture of humility – a fitting punishment for excessive pride.

[Omberto Aldobrandeschi]: “And were I not impeded by the stone
that, since it has subdued my haughty neck,
compels my eyes to look below, then I
should look at this man who is still alive
and nameless, to see if I recognize
him – and to move his pity for my burden.
I was Italian, son of a great Tuscan:
my father was Guiglielmo Aldobrandesco;
I do not know if you have heard his name.
The ancient blood and splendid deeds of my
forefathers made me so presumptuous
that, without thinking on our common mother,
I scorned all men past measure, and that scorn
brought me my death – the Sienese know how,
as does each child in Campagnatico.
I am Omberto; and my arrogance
has not harmed me alone, for it has drawn
all of kin into calamity.
Until God has been satisfied, I bear
this burden here among the dead because
I did not bear this load among the living.” (Purg. XI, 52-72)

Here, Omberto emphasizes the just nature of his suffering. In the last line, he says, “I bear / this burden here among the dead because / I did not bear this load among the living.” This is the exact nature of punishment here in Purgatory; one repents for what one has done wrong in life and then works to correct it in the afterlife. Omberto suffers for his “scorn” and “arrogance” that he thought befitted him as a nobleman in life. One of the consequences of being proud is shown here, in the first few lines: Omberto cannot lift his head to look at Dante because his punishing weights keep his face firmly fixed downward. Thus, he is so shamed that he cannot even bring himself to the same level as a normal standing man.

Those souls – it seemed – were cloaked in coarse haircloth;
another’s shoulder served each shade as prop,
and all of them were bolstered by the rocks:
so do the blind who have to beg appear
on pardon days to plead for what they need,
each bending his head back and toward the other,
that all who watch feel – quickly – pity’s touch
not only through the words that would entreat
but through the sight, which can – no less – beseech.
And just as, to the blind, no sun appears,
so to the shades – of whom I now speak – here,
the light of heaven would not give itself;
for iron wire pierces and sews up
the lids of all those shades, as untamed hawks
are handled, lest, too restless, they fly off. (Purg. XIII, 58-70)

For allowing their eyes to wander to others’ possessions in life, the Envious are forced into blindness in the afterlife. Their eyes are sewn shut by “iron wires” so that they need to lean on each other for support. As a result of their blindness, the Envious cannot see the greatest gift of all – the light of Heaven – until they purge themselves of their vice.

Guido del Duca]: “My blood was so afire with envy that,
when I had seen a man becoming happy,
the lividness in me was plain to see.
From what I’ve sown, this is the straw I reap:
o humankind, why do you set your hearts
there where our sharing cannot have a part?” (Purg. XIV, 82-87)

Guido admits that the vice of envy includes more than just jealously wanting someone else’s belongings; it also includes wishing ill on that other person simply because he has something that the envious one lacks. Guido’s “lividness” here is a testament to the rage he felt against the person whom he envied. But, again, he justifies his punishment: “From what I’ve sown, this is the straw I reap.” Of course, “straw” is not very valuable, so Guido suggests that what he sewed in life was not something to be envied.

Following them, the others [the Slothful] cried: “Quick, quick,
lest time be lost through insufficient love;
where urge for good is keen, grace finds new green.” (Purg. XVIII, 103-105)

The Slothful are punished by an immoderate sense of haste; they feel the urge to rush everywhere. This obviously has physical ramifications, wearing down their bodies and feet, but also not allowing their minds to reflect or relax. However, the sense of justice pervades here – as with all the penitents – because “where urge for good is keen," “grace finds new green.” They realize that their suffering now will result in a rebirth (“new green”) of their grace, after which they’ll be permitted to enter Heaven.

[Pope Adrian V]: “Until that point I was a squalid soul,
from God divided, wholly avaricious;
now, as you see, I’m punished here for that.
What avarice enacts is here declared
in the purgation of converted souls;
the mountain has no punishment more bitter.
Just as we did not lift our eyes on high
but set our sight on earthly things instead,
so justice here impels our eyes toward earth.
As avarice annulled in us the love
of any other good, and thus we lost
our chance for righteous works, so justice here
fetters our hands and feet and holds us captive;
and for as long as it may please our just
Lord, here we’ll be outstretched and motionless.” (Purg. XIX, 112-126)

Because the Avaricious have twisted their natural desires towards material goods and have spent their whole lives pursuing wealth, their ability to reach out and grab things is restricted in Purgatory. As Pope Adrian V explains, “justice here fetters our hands and feet and holds us captive,” leaving the sinners “motionless.” Because in life the Avaricious never turned their eyes upward towards God in desire, here they are punished by being forced to look downwards – just as they did on earth. But, like the others, Pope Adrian recognizes the justice of his situation, even naming “justice” as the force that punishes him.

Each shade had dark and hollow eyes; their faces
were pale and so emaciated that
their taut skin took its shape from bones beneath.
I don’t believe that even Erysichthon
had been so dried, down to his very hide,
by hunger, when his fast made him fear most.
Thinking, I told myself: “I see the people
who lost Jerusalem, when Mary plunged
her beak into her son.” The orbits of
their eyes seemed like a ring that’s lost its gems;
and he who, in the face of man, would read
OMO would here have recognized the M.
Who – if he knew not how – would have believed
that longing born from odor of a tree,
odor of water, could reduce souls so? (Purg. XXIII, 22-36)

For their unrestrained hunger on earth, the Gluttonous suffer starvation in Purgatory. This is so intense that their bodies show utter emaciation: “their taut skin took its shape from bones beneath.” In other words, their bodies are skeletal, so skinny that the OMO formation of the face (the two eyes flanking the “M” of the cheekbone-to-nose structure) is dominated by the M. This means that there is absolutely no fat on their cheeks and that their eyes have shrunken into the face.

And he [Forese] to me: “From the eternal counsel,
the water and the tree you left behind
receive the power that makes me waste away.
All of these souls who, grieving, sing because
their appetite was gluttonous, in thirst
and hunger here resanctify themselves.
The fragrance of the fruit and of the water
that’s sprayed through that green tree kindles in us
craving for food and drink; and not once only,
as we go round this space, our pain’s renewed –
I speak of pain but I should speak of solace,
for we are guided to those trees by that
same longing that had guided Christ when He
had come to free us through the blood He shed
and, in His joyousness, called out: ‘Eli.’ (Purg. XXIIII, 61-75)

As usual, a penitent representative of his vice (Forese for gluttony) describes the just nature of his punishment. Forese, however, is one of the first to speak of his suffering in glowing terms: “I speak of pain but I should speak of solace.” Interestingly, Forese finds “solace” or comfort in his suffering. This means that the Gluttonous (and, as we’ll soon see, the Lustful) are so close to purging themselves entirely that they’ve learned to take a small amount of pleasure in their overwhelming pain.

Then, from the heart of that great conflagration,
I heard “Summae Deus clementiae
sung – and was not less keen to turn my eyes;
and I saw spirits walking in the flames,
so that I looked at them and at my steps,
sharing the time I had to look at each…
Then they returned to singing, and they praised
aloud those wives and husbands who were chaste,
as virtue and as matrimony mandate.
This is – I think – the way these spirits act
as long as they are burned by fire: this is
the care and this the nourishment with which
one has to heal the final wound of all. (Purg. XXV, 121-139)

The “final wound of all” is the last and least serious vice: Lust. The Lustful are punished by “walking in flames.” Of all the punishments described so far, this one – to readers – may seem the most immediately painful. However, the Lustful show no signs of pain; indeed, they are singing as they burn. Furthermore, Dante describes this burning as “care” and “nourishment,” not agony or excruciating pain.

Then certain of them [the Lustful] came as close to me
as they were able to while, cautiously,
they never left the boundaries of their burning. (Purg. XXVI, 13-15)

Interestingly, the Lustful – who you might think would want to jump out of the fire at any given moment – do not take the excuse of greeting Dante as an opportunity to step out of the flames. Indeed, they seem to enjoy their punishment; it is the non-burning places they seem to fear, because they “cautiously / …never left the boundaries of their burning.”

But Virgil had deprived us of himself,
Virgil, the gentlest father, Virgil, he
to whom I gave my self for my salvation;
and even all our ancient mother lost
was not enough to keep my cheeks, though washed
with dew, from darkening again with tears.
“Dante, though Virgil’s leaving you, do not
yet weep, do not weep yet; you’ll need your tears
for what another sword must yet inflict.” (Purg. XXX, 49-57)

The penitents are not the only ones who suffer in Purgatory. Dante, a living being simply visiting the place, seems to take on the punishments as well. (Remember how he bends over with the Prideful in the first terrace?) Here, he is introduced to a different kind of suffering: the loss of a friend. Virgil, who has faithfully guided Dante through the horrors of Hell and the lessons of Purgatory, suddenly disappears. As a pagan, Virgil is no longer useful to the purged Dante and so he disappears, bringing “tears” to Dante’s eyes. Dante must suffer something the penitents have experienced long before: the loss of loved ones. But, as Dante is warned, this isn’t the worst of what is to come; he is destined for even greater pain from “another sword.”

[Beatrice]: “He [Dante] fell so far there were no other means
to lead him to salvation, except this:
to let him see the people who were lost.
For this I visited the gateway of
the dead; to him who guided him above
my prayers were offered even as I wept.
The deep design of God would have been broken
if Lethe had been crossed and he had drunk
such waters but had not discharged the debt
of penitence that’s paid when tears are shed.” (Purg. XXX, 136-145)

Beatrice, in mercilessly describing Dante’s faults, reinforces the concept that sinners must suffer. It is a “debt of penitence” that they owe to God for their bad behavior. Like all the penitents, Dante must earn his purging drink at the rive Lethe through sweat, blood, and tears. He must suffer before being allowed entry into Heaven.