Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 20 | Summary



Complying with Pope Adrian's request, Dante and Virgil continue along the terrace of the avaricious, picking their way over the penitents who lie on the trail. The sheer number of souls here leads Dante to utter an angry speech against the "wolf" of greed. One weeping soul, meanwhile, contemplates famous people who preferred noble poverty to corrupt riches, or who generously shared their wealth with others. He speaks of the Virgin Mary, who in this version of the story gives birth in a cave, and of Saint Nicholas, who helps a family in distress by dropping gold coins into their window.

Dante asks the name of this zealous soul, who turns out to be Hugh Capet (938-96), a famous 10th-century king of France. In recounting his own life story, Hugh emphasizes his own greed and ambition—for which he now is punished—as well as that of his successors. He predicts further political strife for France and Italy and dark times for the Church. Finally, Hugh explains the ritual invocations (of Mary, Saint Nicholas, etc.) which Dante heard earlier. In addition to those exemplars of poverty and generosity, he says, the penitents meditate on the cautionary examples of greedy figures, such as King Midas.

Just as Dante's interview with Hugh concludes, the whole mountain trembles, making the poet's blood run cold with fear. Voices sing "Gloria in excelsis Deo!" ("Glory to God in the highest"), leaving Dante to wonder what has happened.


If temptation in general is a Siren (see Canto 19), avarice is a "wolf" that devours countless souls. Dante's special hatred for greed and his desire to see it vanquished by God are likely a result of decades spent in Florentine politics. Having seen friends and cousins betray one another for wealth and power, Dante probably developed a distinct resentment for the "wolf" and her depredations. As an exile from Florence, he may have considered himself to be a victim of such greed. His speech against this sin is among the rawest and angriest passages in Purgatory. Moreover, the souls on this terrace seem to share Dante's sentiments, since they hate their sins with unusual bitterness.

Still, it's worth remembering that Dante puts the avaricious souls most of the way up the mountain—symbolically closer to God than those guilty of "lower" sins. In his view of morality it's better to betray someone out of greed than out of sheer malice or envy. The distinction may seem odd to a modern reader, but it follows from Dante's notion of sin as a failure of love. Betraying someone simply to hurt them shows a distorted, misdirected kind of love—namely the love of others' suffering. Committing the same crime to gain something good for oneself is, in Dante's book, more forgivable. As with the seemingly arbitrary placement of sinners in Canto 17, this categorization reflects Dante's values and judgments, not those of the Church as such.

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