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Paradise | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Lower Heavens: Cantos 1–9

Paradise picks up where Purgatory left off. Standing at the top of Mount Purgatory, Dante and Beatrice ascend to the heavens, imagined as a series of celestial "spheres." The first three of these spheres, known as the lower heavens, contain souls who fell conspicuously short of perfection in one virtue or another. The sphere of the moon (the first heaven) contains the inconstant, those who went back on vows they had made to God. The second heaven, Mercury, is home to ambitious souls—those who, lacking a mature sense of justice, performed good deeds for selfish reasons. In the third heaven, the sphere of Venus, Dante meets souls whose unbridled sexual passions led them to sin. These souls acknowledge their past failings, but they do so cheerfully since they have been forgiven and admitted to Heaven's eternal joys.

The Planetary Heavens: Cantos 10–22

In the middle cantos of Paradise, Dante ascends through four further levels of Heaven, each devoted to a single cardinal virtue. In the sphere of the sun (the fourth heaven) he meets the souls of the wise (or prudent), including the saintly friars Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. The fifth heaven, the sphere of Mars, contains the souls of the courageous. Its inhabitants include notable warriors from biblical times up through the Middle Ages. Also present is Dante's great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, who warns the poet of his impending exile from Florence.

The sphere of Jupiter, the sixth heaven, is consecrated to the virtue of justice. Here Dante meets the souls of just rulers, who converge into the shape of an eagle's head and speak to him as a chorus. Dante is startled by the presence of some "pagan" (i.e., pre-Christian) figures, but these just go to show how mysterious the workings of divine justice can be. Finally, in the seventh heaven—Saturn—Dante encounters the contemplatives, who exemplify the virtue of temperance. His guide to this sphere is Peter Damian, an 11th-century monk notable for his efforts to reform the scandalized Church of his day.

The Higher Heavens: Cantos 22–29

Dante now progresses to the two uppermost layers of Heaven, known as the Fixed Stars and the Primum Mobile. The Fixed Stars (the eighth heaven) correspond to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (i.e., love), just as the planetary heavens each represented a cardinal virtue. Upon arrival Dante is questioned by three saints of the early Church, each of whom seeks to test his maturity in a specific theological virtue. Peter, traditionally described as Heaven's gatekeeper, questions Dante about the nature of faith. James then examines Dante in the virtue of hope—meaning, in a Christian context, hope for eternal union with God. Finally Dante is questioned about the virtue of love by John (Saint John the Evangelist).

Having "passed" these three examinations, Dante ascends to the Primum Mobile (Latin for "first moved"). This is the outer sphere that, in Dante's time, was thought to function as the "mainspring" of the cosmos, invisibly moving the planets and stars. Here Dante beholds the nine choirs of angels and comments on their role in creating and sustaining the physical universe.

The Empyrean: Cantos 30–33

Heaven, Dante now reminds the reader, is a state of being outside time and space—not a place in the actual sky, however exalted. In reaching the Empyrean, Dante steps outside the physical universe to behold the entire court of saints and angels gathered around the presence of God. The saints are arrayed in concentric rings that appear, to Dante, as the petals of a luminous white rose. In between the petals the angels throng like innumerable bees.

Having brought Dante thus far, Beatrice takes up her throne among the other blessed souls. She leaves him in the care of Bernard, a saint famed for his devotion to the Virgin Mary. Bernard points out Mary's exalted place among the saints; in the celestial court, she is enthroned directly above the divine presence. At last, after Bernard utters a prayer on Dante's behalf to Mary, Dante looks directly upon the presence of God. Enraptured beyond words, he ends the poem in contemplation of "love that moves the sun and other stars." The final line recalls both the first line of Paradise as well as the final lines of both Inferno and Purgatory so the entire Commedia has its circular unity.

Paradise Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Dante and Beatrice ascend from Earth to the heavens.

Rising Action

2 In the sphere of the moon, Dante meets the inconstant.

3 In the sphere of Mercury, Dante encounters ambitious souls.

4 In the sphere of Venus, passionate souls speak to Dante.

5 In the sphere of the sun, Dante visits friars and scholars.

6 In the sphere of Mars, Dante meets his ancestor Cacciaguida.

7 In the sphere of Jupiter, souls of just rulers greet Dante.

8 In the sphere of Saturn, Dante meets spiritual thinkers.

9 Among the Fixed Stars, saints examine Dante in virtue.

10 In the Primum Mobile, Dante sees the angelic choirs.

Climax

11 In the Empyrean, Dante leaves time and space behind.

Falling Action

12 Dante beholds the heavenly court in its true glory.

13 The court's inhabitants are pointed out to Dante.

14 Saint Bernard prays to the Virgin Mary on Dante's behalf.

Resolution

15 Dante gazes upon the presence of God.

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