Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Course Hero, "Purgatory Study Guide," January 18, 2018, accessed August 20, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Purgatory/.

Purgatory | Plot Summary

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Summary

Cantos 1–9: Arrival and Ante-Purgatory

Having completed his frightening tour of Hell, Dante's pilgrimage continues as he travels through the earth's center and emerges on the surface of a large landmass. The continent is surrounded by a shoreline and has a broad, grassy plain leading to the interior, but its most distinctive feature is a huge mountain with terraced cliffs. This is Mount Purgatory, and ascending it will constitute the next leg of Dante's journey. His guide through Inferno, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, continues to accompany him, having exceptionally been granted permission (by the poet Dante) to leave limbo to do so. Virgil is condemned to limbo because he lived before the time of Christ. However, as a pagan of virtue he need not enter Hell. When they reach the summit, Virgil will leave Dante in the care of Beatrice, Dante's beloved, who is now among the blessed in Heaven.

Before Dante can enter Purgatory, however, he must navigate a series of lower levels traditionally called the Ante (before)-Purgatory. These are the waiting areas for souls not yet ready to begin purging themselves of sin. One region of Ante-Purgatory is devoted to those who were excommunicated from the Church and failed to make amends. Another holds those who put off repentance until late in life, and a third is allocated to those who died unbaptized, but sought God at the last moment. A lush valley—the so-called vale of princes—contains kings, royals, and noblemen who neglected their spiritual duties during life. All these groups of souls, like the penitents higher up on the mountain, describe Purgatory as a bittersweet place: they are saddened by their separation from God but heartened by the knowledge that they will eventually reach paradise.

As he traverses the Ante-Purgatory, Dante recognizes and converses with many real-life figures whose souls are waiting to begin their climb. This inclusion of these historical personages, begun in the Inferno, will continue throughout Purgatory. Many of the figures are surprised to find Dante, a still-living human being, wandering through a place whose other inhabitants are already dead. After several such conversations, Dante and Virgil reach a gate guarded by an angel, who inscribes the letter "P" (for peccato, Italian meaning "sin") seven times on Dante's brow.

Cantos 10–26: Mount Purgatory

Once Dante and his guide enter the gate, they are in Purgatory proper: a series of seven terraces, each created for the purgation of a different capital sin. Unlike Dante's vision of Hell, in which each sinner suffers eternally in a single place and manner, the penitent souls in Purgatory spend time on multiple terraces of the mountain. A soul ascends from a terrace of its own free will once the corresponding sin has been purged. It then proceeds to the next terrace up, eventually reaching the top of the mountain where paradise awaits. As Dante follows their progress, he witnesses the souls' punishments but does not share in them. At each level an angel erases one of the Ps from his brow, symbolically wiping away the stain or punishment because of that type of sin.

The first three terraces treat sins which Virgil describes as "misdirected love": pride, envy, and wrath. The prideful, who occupy the lowest level, are made to carry heavy stones. They walk along a road paved with carvings that show legendary examples of pride and humility. The envious are blinded by having their eyelids sewn shut with iron wire, and their garments are the coarse hair shirts worn by medieval penitents. On the third terrace the angry are enveloped in a thick smoke, making it impossible for them to see. Dante remarks briefly on the appropriateness of these punishments, but his remarks are not as mean-spirited and vindictive as they were in the Inferno.

The fourth and middle terrace is devoted to sloth (i.e., laziness), which Virgil diagnoses as a kind of "insufficient love." Those who were slothful in life now race about energetically, proclaiming aloud the benefits of being zealous and lively in one's faith. They never stop to rest but are driven forward as if lashed by an unseen whip.

Terraces five through seven house the sinners who, according to Virgil's explanation, loved earthly goods excessively. The avaricious (i.e., greedy) lie flat with their faces to the ground, to symbolize their love of material things. Next are the gluttonous, who are tormented by hunger and thirst; the sight of their emaciated bodies fills Dante with pity. On the last and highest terrace, the lustful are purified by flames. Passing through the curtain of fire on this level, Dante completes his tour of Purgatory, and the last P on his brow disappears.

Cantos 27–33: The Earthly Paradise

The last seven cantos describe a region intermediate between the punishments of Purgatory and the joys of Heaven: the Earthly Paradise, also known as the Garden of Eden. Dante is awestruck by the garden's beauty and learns of its divine origins from the lady Matelda. In the Earthly Paradise, he discovers, there are two streams, known as Lethe and Eunoe. Drinking from the first of these brings forgetfulness of one's sins, while drinking from the other allows a soul to remember its good deeds more clearly. Both will be part of Dante's preparation for his visit to Heaven.

Before leaving the mountaintop Dante is witness to two elaborate visions. In the first a procession representing virtues, divine gifts, and the books of the Bible escorts a chariot symbolizing the Church. At the center of the procession is a gryphon, a mythological beast that is half-lion and half-eagle. This "twyform" nature marks the gryphon as a symbol of Christ, who is regarded as both human and divine in traditional Catholic thought. When the procession halts, Dante comes face to face with Beatrice, his lost love. She chides him for his sinfulness and urges him to confess his faults. He does so but faints from sheer emotion. He is then partly submerged in the waters of Lethe, which he imbibes.

The second vision concerns the Tree of Knowledge, of which Adam and Eve once sinfully ate. The gryphon fastens the chariot (i.e., the Church) to the tree, which suddenly bursts forth in leaves and flowers. Then, the majority of the procession departs, leaving Beatrice and a few companions in charge of the chariot and tree. Before Dante's eyes the tree is attacked by an eagle, which then strikes the chariot. Other creatures also approach and attack the chariot, which is damaged but not destroyed. At last, the chariot becomes a monster, which is untied and led off into the woods by a menacing giant.

Troubled and confused by this vision, Dante is consoled by Beatrice, who promises the Church will survive its present troubles. She then asks Dante to write down what he has seen and heard in the Earthly Paradise. Once he has sworn to do so, Dante drinks of Eunoe, the stream of remembrance. This final action leaves him purified and ready for his coming sojourn in Paradise, the last of the three major parts of the poem.

Purgatory Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Dante and Virgil emerge from their journey through Hell.

Rising Action

2 Dante encounters the souls in Ante-Purgatory.

3 Dante enters the gate and begins to climb Mount Purgatory.

4 As Dante ascends, Virgil explains the nature of each sin.

5 The travelers encounter the Roman poet Statius.

6 At the summit Dante and Virgil enter the Earthly Paradise.

Climax

7 Beatrice greets Dante and urges him to confess his sins.

Falling Action

8 Swooning with guilt, Dante is carried to the river Lethe.

Resolution

9 Dante prepares for Heaven by drinking of the river Eunoe.

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