Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Symbols


Dante's Purgatory is a richly symbolic work, employing different people, places, and things as emblems of various aspects of the soul's journey to salvation. Many of these symbols are local to a specific passage in the text and are discussed in the Insights for that passage. The symbols described here are more general and recur or persist throughout the entire poem.

The Mountain

Mount Purgatory, the setting of the poem's major action, is itself one massive symbol. The act of climbing a mountain has features in common with Dante's idea of spiritual growth. First and foremost, climbing a mountain takes effort, especially if—like Dante in the poem—the climber is still flesh and blood, rather than a disembodied spirit. It can also require ingenuity when the route is not obvious, a problem Dante encounters several times throughout Purgatory. The moments in which Dante discovers a pass or trail are like the "a-ha" moments in one's moral development; they stand apart from the everyday effort of trying to be a good person. Climbing a mountain also allows one to see more and more of the surrounding landscape. Dante does not spend much time looking out at the view, but he does find himself approaching clearer "vistas" of thought as he ascends this divine landscape he alone is permitted to see.

Theologically, the mountain's height also distinguishes it from both Hell and Heaven in an interesting way. The living occupy the surface of the earth, so the souls in Dante's Hell are physically farther away from God than those still alive. The deeper one goes, the greater the separation. Heaven, in contrast, is a realm completely distinct from earth, and Dante must literally break out of Earth's atmosphere to reach it. Purgatory, as in all other respects, lies between the two. As a mountain, it is still physically attached to earth, but it points upward, not downward like the funnel-shaped cavern of Hell. The souls in Purgatory are, likewise, still "attached" to their past lives in various ways, but as they purify themselves, they rise above their earthly condition to approach God.

The alpine analogy, however, only goes so far. Mount Purgatory is no ordinary mountain, and the ways in which it differs from an earthly peak are themselves significant. For one thing Purgatory has no weather to speak of, and its weird terraced configuration is obviously not the work of nature. Both traits illustrate Purgatory's status as a "world apart" and point to God's role in creating and sustaining it. Moreover, climbing a mountain usually tires a person out, but as Virgil points out in Canto 4, this does not happen on Mount Purgatory. Instead, the climb gets easier as one ascends, because one is both less burdened by sin's stains and closer to God.

The Seven Ps

Just before Dante enters Purgatory proper, an angel takes the tip of a sharp sword and writes the letter P seven times on his forehead. The letter is generally agreed to stand for peccato (sin), written seven times to represent the capital sins.

More generally, the letters mark Dante as a sinner and, thus, as a symbolic participant in the penitential suffering of Purgatory. The key word here is symbolic: Dante does not actually suffer the intense and sometimes physically disfiguring punishments of each terrace. He sometimes gets a brief taste of what the actual penitents are going through, as when he is blinded by smoke on the third terrace or must walk through the fire of the seventh. Yet he never lingers long enough to really experience the full force of Purgatory's redemptive pains. Some of the souls Dante meets have been there for a millennium; his trip, in contrast, takes less than four days. Ultimately, Dante witnesses the penitents' suffering without becoming immersed in it. The Ps, though they may have hurt when first etched into his skin, are more of a spiritual itinerary than a record of sins absolved.

Another, less obvious role played by the Ps is the creation of a sense of continuity in the poem. Every time Dante ascends from one terrace to the next, a few things happen to indicate his progress. One of the Ps is erased, sometimes without Dante even really noticing, and a relevant passage from the Beatitudes is uttered by an angel. These repeated gestures provide a sort of narrative scaffolding on which Dante can build the rest of his visionary tale.

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