Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 4 | Summary



Finding a narrow passage up from the base of the mountain, Dante and Virgil scramble their way to the top of a ledge. Dante looks out from his new perch and is troubled by the seemingly topsy-turvy arrangement of the stars in the sky. Virgil patiently explains the unfamiliar sight as a consequence of their position in the Southern Hemisphere, exactly opposite Jerusalem on the globe. He then offers an encouraging, otherworldly tidbit about the terrain of Mount Purgatory: as one ascends, the climb feels easier, even though the mountain remains steep.

As they look for a way up, the two men encounter a group of souls resting in the shade. These are the sinners who delayed repentance until the end of their lives. Dante recognizes his old acquaintance Belacqua among them and asks why he and the others are not climbing. They are forbidden from doing so, Belacqua explains: deathbed penitents must wait out the equivalent of another earthly life before beginning their ascent. Dante has barely stopped to listen when Virgil urges him upward.


The gradually lessening difficulty of the climb reflects Purgatory's status as a place of purification, not mere punishment. In multiple tiers of Purgatory the soul's past sins are reified—made more real and less abstract—as a type of physical burden: a heavy rock for pride, an invisible weight for avarice. Becoming free of this burden naturally lightens one's step. More importantly, in Dante's worldview, the soul naturally seeks out God as the highest good it can enjoy. Thus, when the will is not distorted by sinful habits, for Dante "up" is the natural direction for a soul to travel.

As Dante climbs one terrace after another, he will continue to endure moments of fear and discouragement, but the path itself will indeed seem easier as Virgil has predicted. Interestingly, this property applies to Dante even though he is not undergoing the lengthy, painful purification experienced by the souls around him. Almost like a magnet, God is drawing him upward, and the closer Dante gets, the stronger the attraction becomes.

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