Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 3 | Summary

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Summary

Still on (or in) the moon, Dante encounters "many faces," shimmering and insubstantial. At first he thinks his eyes might be playing tricks on him—the faces seem to be present at some moments but vanish at others. Beatrice instructs him to trust his instinct and speak to the faces. The first "shadow" he addresses is that of Piccarda, a 13th-century noblewoman and a sister of Dante's childhood friend Forese Donati. The souls in this level of Heaven, Piccarda explains, are the inconstant: otherwise virtuous souls who betrayed a sacred vow. Once a nun, Piccarda was taken from her convent by force, violating her vow in the process.

Dante asks whether the souls in this lower sphere of Heaven are not frustrated or dissatisfied, knowing greater perfection and joy exist further up. No, answers Piccarda, everyone in Heaven is perfectly content with their lot regardless of rank: they "will / no more than what [they] have, nor thirst for more." Otherwise, she explains, this would not really be Paradise, since the souls would be opposing themselves to the will of God. Piccarda then gestures toward Constance, another woman who was forcibly deprived of the "pure, white hood" of religious sisterhood. This is Constance of Sicily (1154–98), who—according to Dante—left the convent "against her will" to become the Holy Roman empress. A new question forms in Dante's mind, and he turns toward Beatrice only to be momentarily blinded by her radiance.

Analysis

As is often the case with Dante, the physical appearance of the souls in the moon mirrors their spiritual state. This is a milder, more abstract form of the contrapasso, the punishment-fits-the-crime poetic justice dispensed in the Inferno and Purgatory. In those earlier cantiche, Dante assigned souls punishments or penances that concretely represented their sins. In Hell, for example, the wrathful are doomed to perpetually fight each other, while in Purgatory the gluttonous are deprived of food and drink. Although the souls in Paradise are not punished—it wouldn't be Heaven if they were—their virtues and shortcomings are still made visible in the planets they inhabit in the heavens.

Thus, the souls in the moon flicker and waver, reflecting their inconstancy during life. In addressing them Dante is never quite sure what he is seeing. The choice of the moon itself as the sphere of inconstancy is no coincidence either. Unlike the sun and the planets, the moon has a mottled appearance that is readily visible to the naked eye (see notes to Canto 2). Moreover, it changes markedly in appearance over the course of the month, albeit in regular cycles. For these reasons the moon was already proverbial in Dante's time as a symbol of changefulness and mobility in appearance. Unlike the sun it can be looked at but never really "known."

The moon, however, is also a classical symbol of virginity, associated with the Greek goddess Artemis and her Roman counterpart Diana. In the early days of Diana's cult, her priestesses were consecrated to a life of strict virginity, in imitation of their patroness. The moon, as Diana's emblem, is thus a doubly fitting emblem for the characters in this sphere, whose (broken) vows of chastity make them Christian counterparts to the priestesses of the moon. Dante further underscores the comparison by introducing the image of a "pure, white" veil.

These emblems of purity, in turn, establish a contrast between the inhabitants of this sphere and their counterparts in Hell. Piccarda, as the first of Dante's contemporaries to appear in Paradise, occupies a position parallel to that of Francesca da Rimini, the first contemporary Italian to appear in the Inferno. Yet Piccarda is in Heaven because she embraced a love of God, choosing the willing "captivity" of a convent and forsaking it only under duress. Francesca's story is nearly the opposite: she, as Dante depicts her, became a willing prisoner of her lust. Symmetries like these abound in the Divine Comedy as Dante revisits the same themes from the perspective of the damned, the penitent, and the blessed.
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