Study Guide

Purgatorio Themes

  • Time: Haste, Change

    In Purgatory, everyone rushes about. Dante is warned by his teachers to hurry. The penitent souls rush towards the top of the mountain in their keenness for the gates of Heaven. This awareness and worry over time contrasts sharply with the never-ending tediousness of Hell found in Dante's Inferno.

    Like the human world, Purgatory operates on a normal time scale. This means that things change here, which – if you think about it – is the whole point of Purgatory. Men repent for their sins on earth. They work to improve themselves and make themselves morally better in God’s eyes. The passage of time allows these changes to happen.

    Questions About Time: Haste, Change

    1. How does time operate differently in Purgatorio than in Inferno?
    2. Why is everyone in Purgatory in such a hurry?
    3. What does it mean that one cannot travel during the night? What, then, might the sun represent?

    Chew on This

    The concept of time in each of the three realms (Hell, Purgatory, Heaven) dictates whether or not an individual can change his character in that place. While one cannot change in Hell, where damnation is eternal, he can change in Purgatory, where time runs as it does in the mortal world.

  • Love

    The concept of love Dante presents in the Purgatorio has a theological bent. Love ultimately comes from God, who is Infinite Love and instills it in each of his creatures. However, being a loving God, He allows each man free will by dividing up man's loves (desires) into natural and mental; the natural inherently loves the ultimate good (God), while the mental love can desire whatever attracts it (usually beautiful things) and must be trained to desire only worthy things.

    All of the sins punished in Purgatory are forms of perverted love or love expressed in improper measure. Perhaps the most shocking idea, though, is that love motivates all human action.

    Questions About Love

    1. According to Virgil, where does love originate? Where does man get it?
    2. What are the two different kinds of love man possesses? Why is one kind inherently superior to the other? In what ways can the inferior of love go wrong?
    3. Given what we now know about love, how can we reinterpret the inscription on the Hellgate from Dante's Inferno, which it claims Hell was made from the “Primal Love”? Does Purgatory also reflect this type of structure, built from love?
    4. How does God show his infinite compassion? What does He require from sinners before forgiving them?

    Chew on This

    Given Virgil’s definition of mental love, prayer is perhaps the most selfless – and therefore superior – kind of mental love, one in which a soul prays for another, whom he may or may not know, out of the pure goodness of his heart.

    In Purgatorio, Dante’s image of Beatrice conflates the concepts of mortal and divine love and it is clear that, as a mortal, he still has trouble differentiating the two.

  • Education

    Purgatory is essentially a grand school where individuals learn to improve their minds and souls. Education in this sense equates to purification. The lessons of Purgatory operate through tough love, but also teach by example. As Dante travels though the seven terraces of Purgatory, which correlate to the seven deadly sins, he becomes more and more pure until he's finally ready to ascend to Heaven. A certain amount of learning takes place through repetition, as each terrace of Mount Purgatory requires the penitents to recite examples of punished sin and counterexamples of its corresponding virtue. Dante’s education, however, has an extra level. He eventually realizes that man can only learn so much from reason and must, at some point, surrender to faith in order to accept what he cannot explain.

    Questions About Education

    1. Does Purgatory teach its penitents only through punishment? Does it use any other methods does it use to reinforce its lessons, perhaps in a more positive manner?
    2. How does Dante learn from his teachers – namely Virgil, Statius, and Beatrice? What do they all encourage him to do in order to learn?
    3. What is the role of language in learning and purification?
    4. What does Dante learn about human reason? What must a good man have in addition to reason to count as a good Christian?
    5. What happens to men who try to understand how or why God created the universe? What does this imply about the difference between human knowledge and divine knowledge?

    Chew on This

    Although Purgatory teaches its lessons through punishment, it also reinforces them with more positive methods – namely idolization of exemplary role models and repetition of didactic hymns.

    In the latter stages of Dante’s journey through Purgatory, Statius and Beatrice replace Virgil as his guide because Virgil – a symbol of human reason – lacks faith in God and is thus no longer fit to mentor Dante.

  • Art and Culture

    Dante, the author of Purgatorio, is keen to show that his writing has a legitimate social use. So his depictions of art – poetry, music, painting, and sculpture – all function as a means either of turning individuals (such as penitent souls in Purgatory) away from vice or moving them to praise God. From Dante’s perspective, the most important social use of art is to celebrate Christianity. However, the narrative also outlines a very personal aspect of art for Dante: he puts himself in a genealogy of poets, heralding himself not only as the foremost poet of the current (in the early 1300s) dolce stil novo style, but also as more than just a lyric poet. Placing himself in the company of great epic poets like Virgil and Statius, Dante also establishes himself as a master of the epic genre.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Check out the instances in which painting, sculpture, music, or poetry pop up in the text. What message do these pieces of art all convey?
    2. How is the function of art different on earth than in Purgatory? Consider the episode with Casella in Canto II.
    3. What is Dante’s opinion of the poets Guinizzelli or Arnaut Daniel? What about Guittone? Based on this, what of poetic style does Dante consider himself a foremost advocate?
    4. Why do both Virgil and Statius serve as Dante’s guides? What might it mean that Dante places himself in the company of such renowned epic poets?

    Chew on This

    In Purgatorio, there are many references to nature as an artist. This points back to God as the ultimate creator and craftsman.

    Although Cato scolds Casella for using art in a sinful way, art has its place and its function in Purgatory – namely, to convey a Christian message to all souls.

  • Politics

    Dante’s view of politics is essentially a negative one. The sorry state of politics is to be blamed on the passage of time, the infective nature of sin, and man’s misguided exercise of free will. As Purgatorio goes on, Dante’s political perspective becomes clear. Dante sees individuals as susceptible to selfishness; societies need a just ruler and laws to guide them towards virtue. However, Dante’s hope for an ideal emperor who might restore a beneficial balance between church and state seems to die halfway through Purgatorio. The second half of the text discusses politics not in terms of practice, but in terms of theory and philosophy. An important aspect of Dante’s theory is his emphasis on the importance of the individual and his soul.

    Questions About Politics

    1. On the individual level, who is responsible for the rampant corruption in politics? Is it any one individual? Or is it the bad choices of many individuals? Can Heaven be blamed?
    2. What two forces are the most important for keeping politics operating in a pure manner? What has happened to compromise their power? What does Dante claim is the solution?
    3. How does Dante’s attitude toward politics change as the narrative continues? When does he seem most hopeful about the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire? When does he seem most skeptical?
    4. What do Beatrice’s prophecies foresee for European politics?

    Chew on This

    By asserting that a just emperor is the cure for the maladies of the Empire, Dante claims that the secular arm of the state is more crucial for political purity than the Church.

    When Beatrice charges Dante to accurately record his narrative “to profit the world which lives badly,” she asserts that it is neither the Church’s nor the state’s responsibility to see to the good of its citizenry; rather, the burden of living virtuously should fall to the individual himself.

  • Suffering

    The punishment of souls in Purgatory is different from that of those in Hell because these individuals actually have hope of a better existence. With their sweat and blood, they strive to be worthy of Heaven, while those in Hell wallow in their misery, with no hope of redemption. Penitent souls suffer in Purgatory as a way of cleansing themselves in preparation for going to Heaven.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. How do the punishments in Purgatory differ from those in Hell?
    2. How does this difference relate to Hell’s and Purgatory’s divergent concepts of time?
    3. How do the souls in Purgatory react toward their punishments? Do they only feel suffering and pain?
    4. Does the notion of contrapasso, or punishment matched to the crime committed, still hold true in Purgatory’s punishments?

    Chew on This

    Although souls in Purgatory have hope of redemption, their punishments work in inherently the same way as in Hell because they still follow the rule of contrapasso.

    The punishments in Purgatory differ fundamentally from Hell’s punishments because the penitents, unlike the sinners, take a certain amount of delight in their punishment, despite the pain.

  • Faith

    Human reason has been Dante’s primary guide through Hell (in Inferno) and Purgatory (in Purgatorio). However, reason is not sufficient to get him to Heaven; he must have trust and faith in Christ as the Savior and in God. One of the most prevalent examples of faith is prayer – a selfless plea to God that He let only blessings fall on the object of the prayer. But for Dante, faith must be solidified even further. Hence the appearance of his new Christian guide, Statius, as a replacement for the pagan Virgil.

    Questions About Faith

    1. What does faith mean in the Divine Comedy? What does man often try to substitute for faith, thereby making entry into Heaven more difficult?
    2. Discuss faith in terms of Virgil and Statius. How is it an ironic point for Virgil?
    3. Do you think Statius is really more faithful than Virgil?

    Chew on This

    From Statius’ explanation of the birth of the human soul, one could argue that acquiring faith over human reason is the most important message in Purgatorio.

    Because Statius has been converted to Christianity by Virgil’s poetry, Virgil should not be condemned to Hell.

  • Fate and Free Will

    In Purgatorio, the famous tension between fate and free will is explained in terms of love. According to Purgatorio, there are two kinds of love: natural and mental. Natural love is one’s innate attraction to God (whether or not one is conscious of it) and it is fated; man cannot do anything about it, so he is not judged based on his natural love. Instead, his virtue and vice come with his mental love. This love operates by free will. It can target any object of desire. Heaven’s laws, however, require that an individual cannot love unworthy objects (material goods, money) over God, and cannot love anything in improper measure (too much or too little). So if a person exercises free will to err on either side, he can be punished with eternal damnation.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. How are fate and free will explained in terms of love? What kind of love is preordained? Which operates under the principle of free will?
    2. How does Heaven activate an individual’s fate? What does it “set into motion” within each man? How is this different from simply dictating what each man’s life is going to be like?
    3. Consider Virgil and Beatrice’s explanations of Dante’s destiny. How is his journey through the Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise a result of both fate and Dante’s own choices?
    4. How does Dante see his own future prospects?

    Chew on This

    If heaven only “set[s] your appetites in motion,” it does not dictate your destiny. Fate is not an integral part of an individual’s life; the exercise of free will is much more important.

    As seen with Dante, fate determines where one’s soul will end up (in Hell or Heaven); fate is thus the key driving force in an individual’s life and there is little one can do to resist it.

  • Pride

    As the first vice punished in Purgatory, pride is the most serious of the forgivable sins. As punishment for pride, penitents have to carry such heavy weights that their heads are bent down, rendering them unable to challenge anyone with their defiant eyes. Unfortunately, Dante suffers from this perilous pride. Dante’s artistic ego soars, especially when he establishes himself as heir to the masters of the genre of epic poetry genre, especially Virgil and Statius, and as the foremost practitioner of the dolce stil novo style.

    Questions About Pride

    1. Where in the text does Dante’s arrogance show itself most clearly? In what context does he show his pride?
    2. Does Dante know what his greatest fault is? Does he attempt to atone for it?
    3. Does Dante’s lesson in humility stay with him throughout Purgatorio? Do we know for sure?
    4. To what kinds of people or creatures does Dante often compare proud people (including himself)? What does this say about possessors of pride?

    Chew on This

    Dante’s frequent comparisons of proud persons (in both Inferno and Purgatorio) to children point to pride as a defining characteristic of a spiritually immature individual.

    Despite Dante’s professed humility, which he flaunts on the first terrace, much of his behavior in the rest of Purgatory suggests that he has not truly purged himself of his pride.

  • Language and Communication

    In Purgatorio, virtuous language adheres to truth. However, Dante has also added courtesy here. When meeting a penitent for the first time, Virgil urges Dante to address him politely. There is also pressure for one’s language to reflect one’s beliefs. Many speeches come forth in song and praise the Lord for His compassion. Finally, towards the end of the narrative, the restriction of truth is applied to Dante’s craft, poetry. Whereas Inferno casts doubts upon the truthfulness of poetry, in Purgatorio Beatrice charges Dante with writing only the truth in his poetry.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What concepts about language from Inferno hold true in Purgatorio? Is vice still characterized by a person's language or by something else?
    2. How can language in Purgatorio help initiate change in the other realms (the mortal world and Purgatory)?
    3. In Canto XXXIII, what does Beatrice charge Dante to do with his art? How does this resolve a conflict that arises over the truth of poetry in Inferno?
    4. Why is there so much less emphasis on Dante’s Tuscan accent in Purgatorio than in Inferno? What does it say about people’s concerns in Purgatory?

    Chew on This

    In Purgatorio, the truth of one’s words – a theme underscored in the Inferno – becomes even more important, because Beatrice, a heavenly creature, charges Dante’s craft with it.

    Unlike in the scenes of the sinners’ recognition of Dante in the Inferno, little emphasis is placed on Dante’s peculiar Tuscan accent in Purgatorio; this reflects a distinct change in the penitents’ concerns as opposed to the sinners’. The penitents are more concerned about the future (entering God’s true city where men are united) than the past (the earthly life where men’s allegiances are divided by nationality and social rank).