Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 1 | Summary

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Summary

Dante begins Purgatory by likening his mind to a ship in search of "better waves" after escaping the "gulf" of Hell. In this book, he announces, he will describe "that second realm / where some human spirits purge themselves from stain" in preparation for the eternal joy of Heaven. When he finishes his subterranean climb and reaches the surface of the earth, day is just dawning. The stars in the sky reveal Dante is in the Southern Hemisphere—exactly opposite the entrance to Hell as described in the Inferno.

Dante and his guide Virgil are accosted by the spirit of Cato the Younger, a Roman politician and orator famed for his defiance of Julius Caesar. Cato questions the two about their presence in Purgatory, since Virgil's soul is assigned to Limbo (a "suburb" of Hell) and Dante is not yet dead. Their quest, Virgil explains, is authorized by the heavenly Beatrice, who sought Virgil out and asked him to lead Dante through the afterlife. Cato orders Virgil to prepare Dante by binding his waist with a reed and washing him clean of the filth of Hell.

Analysis

In invoking a Muse at the beginning of Purgatory, Dante is partaking in a longstanding tradition of epic poetry. Homer, author of the great Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, called on the Muses—goddesses of art and literature—at the beginning of each poem. Virgil himself, who now accompanies Dante, followed the same practice in his Aeneid, and later poets, including John Milton (author of Paradise Lost) would continue it long after Dante's time. The invocation not only establishes Dante as an epic poet, but prepares the reader for the fusion of classical and Biblical imagery throughout Purgatory.

Cato the Younger, as translator Robin Kirkpatrick and others have pointed out, is an odd choice to serve as the head of the Purgatory "welcome committee." For one thing he is a non-Christian and therefore would seem to belong with Virgil in Limbo, the painless region of Hell set aside for nonbelievers. Another, more conspicuous problem is Cato's death by suicide, which he chose rather than surrender to the forces of his enemy Julius Caesar. Traditionally, Catholic theology held suicide to be among the greatest of mortal sins, and Dante followed suit by giving those who died by suicide their own special place in Hell. He now makes a remarkable exception for Cato, whose suicide he excuses and even valorizes as proof of the senator's incorruptible nature.

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