Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 23 | Summary



As Dante marvels at the unusual tree before him, Virgil chides him for wasting time and insists on resuming their journey. He has hardly finished speaking when the words "Labia mea, Domine" ("[Open] my lips, Lord") are heard. This, Virgil explains, is the terrace of the gluttonous, those who overindulged in the pleasures of food and drink. He is swiftly proven right as a group of penitent souls, shriveled up with hunger and thirst, gather round the travelers. Seeing these emaciated figures, Dante is reminded of the worst stories of siege and starvation he has ever heard.

He soon recognizes the voice, but not the face, of one of these suffering souls: Forese Donati (c. 1260–before 1296), his friend and remote cousin by marriage. Forese insists on the justness of his suffering and his willingness to submit himself to the punishment. He also laments, at length, the moral decline of Florence, whose inhabitants he predicts will soon suffer a great calamity. When asked, Dante explains the nature of his voyage to Purgatory and introduces Virgil and Statius as his traveling companions.


This is the second time Virgil has referred to sin as a "knot" to be undone. The image is an apt one given Dante's theology of sin and redemption: a knot that is easy to create may nonetheless be difficult to untie. These souls have—sometimes through mere neglect—allowed themselves to lapse into sinful habits, which they must now expend effort and attention to "untie." As elsewhere in Purgatory (Canto 13, for instance), the punishment has a thematic resemblance to the sin, a pattern known as contrapasso (counterpoint). Those who ate and drank with abandon in life must now go without these comforts, possibly for centuries at a time.

Superficially, this pattern of retribution may seem to resemble Dante's vision of Hell, where contrapasso is evident in every circle. Donati, however, explains the suffering of Purgatory as necessary and purposeful, refining the souls of the penitents and making them fit for Heaven. He even deems the suffering a kind of solace, since every groan, sigh, and hunger pang brings the penitents closer to God. In Purgatory as in Hell, the "tunnel" of suffering may be dark and grim, but this time there is a light at the end.

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