Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 2 | Summary



The sun crosses the horizon, and Dante waxes lyrical about the beauty of the dawn. A flash of light from across the sea signals the approach of an angel, a sight that overpowers Dante. The angel is guiding a boat which contains departed souls bound for Mount Purgatory. Making landfall, the souls ask Virgil and Dante for directions, but Virgil admits he knows nothing of the geography of the realm.

Recognizing a friend—the musician Casella (died between 1282–1300)—among the boat's passengers, Dante moves to embrace him but is surprised to find that he grasps only air. Casella's shade confers with Dante about life back in Italy then sings a song to comfort the traveling poet. The other souls gather round to listen, but Cato ("that stern old man") urges the group to be on their way.


Dante's status as a living soul will be revisited in many of the cantos of Purgatory. Almost invariably, his shadow will be the telltale sign that distinguishes him as someone who has not yet died. Yet although he is a mere visitor, Dante is generally welcomed by the penitents with curiosity and courtesy. This points to one of the salient differences between Purgatory and Hell: Purgatory is a community, whereas the souls in Hell are cut off from God and from one another. Even when the damned are physically near one another, their sinful natures act as a terrible form of solitary confinement or often violence they continue to commit on others.

The penitents in Purgatory, in contrast, guide one another, lean on each other for support, and eagerly offer to share their stories with the living. However, the communal nature of Purgatory is best expressed in the ways the souls go about the actual work of purification. Rather than merely waiting for their suffering to be over, the souls actively seek to purify themselves, and they do so in ways which bring comfort and courage to one another. All the way up the mountain Dante will see penitents engaged in reciting psalms, singing hymns, and saying prayers together. This improvised liturgy (a "work of the people" in divine praise) marks Purgatory as a continuation of the works and the presence of the Church on earth.

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