Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Themes



Suffering, in Dante's Purgatory, is a major part of purgation. The punishments, however, are not torture racks designed to wring sins out of a passively suffering soul. Instead, the penitents in Purgatory take an active role in their own redemption by praying and singing hymns, often in a group setting. They also recite, for their own benefit and one another's, examples of the virtues to which they aspire and the vices they wish to shun. The souls on the terrace of wrath, for example, inspire one another with stories of famous people who showed leniency when anger would have been the natural response (Canto 15). They also remind each other of the horrible results when anger goes unchecked (Canto 14). This emphasis on the individual soul's active participation is one of the things that sets Dante's vision apart from other medieval versions of Purgatory.

In fact, it is the individual soul, and not God, who judges the appropriate length of its stay in Purgatory. Statius explains as much in Canto 21, where he describes the completion of his own penance after many centuries: "The will alone gives proof of purity / when, wholly free to change its sacred place, / it aids and sweeps the soul up, willing well."

Purgatory, Statius confirms, is not a place set up for God to purify the souls in some mechanical way. Instead, Purgatory is a realm set aside for the souls to purify themselves through both physical suffering and active contemplation of their sins. The souls in Purgatory take this purifying activity very seriously, and they go at it with great zeal. A prime example is the penance of Pope Adrian V (Canto 19), who, after chatting with Dante for a little while, asks to be left alone to continue his prayers. Oppressed by a supernatural weight and grieving over his own sinfulness, this pope no doubt sees a conversation with Dante as welcome relief from the heavy task before him. Nonetheless, he dismisses the poet, knowing his penance cannot continue without his voluntary and conscious participation.

Seeing and Unseeing

Images of sight and blindness are used throughout Purgatory to represent Dante's receptiveness to divine truth. As a sinful mortal Dante frequently fails to recognize the angelic messengers God sends to guide and encourage him on his journey. He sees them, but not as winged humans familiar from Western representative art. Instead, they appear to him as glowing blurs over the ocean (Canto 2) or as sunbeams streaking across the sky (Canto 15). In the latter case he reacts with fear and aversion, complaining to Virgil of the excessive brightness: "'My gentle father, what is this?' I said. / 'I can't protect my eyes from it enough. / It moves, it seems, towards us all the time.'"

Virgil, the model of sobriety and clear-headedness, immediately recognizes the bright light as an angel and cautions Dante not to be afraid. By the time he reaches Heaven, Dante will be much more habituated to perceiving these luminous beings.

If vision stands for the ability to perceive and understand God's truth, blindness—vision's absence—naturally comes to symbolize the opposite. Purgatory twice invokes physical blindness as a way of showcasing the sinners' refusal or inability to recognize what is right. On the second terrace, where the envious are punished, the penitents have their eyes quite literally sewn shut. This practice outwardly signals their blindness, during life, to the merits of others. Similarly, the wrathful—unable to see through their own emotional impulses—are shrouded in a noxious smoke which may or may not be hallucinogenic! (Dante, as noted below, has a tendency to "see things" even when the sky is clear, so the smoke's role is difficult to assess.)

Visions—spectacles that Dante beholds in a dreamlike state—play a major role in Purgatory as well. Dante has three such encounters in his trek up Mount Purgatory, and each seems deliberately orchestrated for the poet's benefit. In the first (Canto 9) Dante dreams of being seized and carried up by a golden eagle; his sleeping body is, meanwhile, carried partway up the mountain to hasten his progress. Then in Canto 19 Dante has a vision of an old hag who becomes a Siren (a dangerous Greek mythological creature who lured sailors to their deaths with beautiful song) and who turns out to be an object lesson in recognizing and resisting temptation.

By themselves, these might be dismissed as Dante's mind playing tricks on him, but the setting is wrong for such a deception. Purgatory, Dante repeatedly reminds the reader, is God's territory, so any apparent deceitfulness must have a higher purpose of some kind. With this in mind, it's easier to understand Dante's description of his other mountainside visions (Cantos 15 and 17) as "not-false error." The visions, this famously evocative phrase suggests, do not accurately reflect what is before Dante's eyes, nor are they meant to. Their purpose is to gesture toward deeper truths inherent in the Divine.


In both the Inferno and Purgatory, punishments are fitted to the crime. The damned souls in the Inferno offer the most memorable and gruesome examples: false prophets, for instance, have their heads twisted around so that they look behind them—and not ahead, as they pretended to do in life. The schismatics, those who sowed division among religious believers or discord among families, are themselves literally cut into pieces. This notion of divine punishment physically or metaphorically resembling the sin is called contrapasso, an Italian word meaning roughly "retribution" or counterpoint.

In Purgatory, too, a kind of contrapasso prevails but in a milder and less vicious manner than in Hell. Each of the seven capital sins has its distinct punishment, and a sense of poetic justice is evident in each. The proud are physically weighed down, forcing them to adopt a humble posture rather than strutting about arrogantly. Envy and wrath, sins that might be said to "blind" a person, are punished via the loss of eyesight. The envious, who in life were blind to the goodness of others' achievements, have their eyelids sewn shut. The wrathful, whose judgment was clouded by their passions, walk about in a dense and acrid smoke. The pattern continues on higher terraces: the gluttonous are tormented by hunger, the lustful burn in flames that represent their passion.

Some of the punishments in Dante's Purgatory are, no doubt, on par with the Inferno in terms of their frightfulness. The gluttonous, especially, are described in terms designed to move the reader to a mixture of sympathy and disgust. The contrapasso of Purgatory is, however, different from that of Hell in at least two ways. One is the transitory and purposeful nature of the punishment: the penitents are not suffering endlessly. Instead, they are undergoing a form of spiritual cleansing that will bring them closer to God. By reminding themselves (and, incidentally, Dante) of this fact, they make their punishment a little more bearable for the moment.

The other major difference is Dante's attitude toward the suffering souls. In theInfernohe delights, somewhat cruelly, in the often-violent workings of divine justice. "Serves you right," he often seems to say as he watches sinners being stewed in pitch, broiled by hellfire, or buried in eternal ice. This sort of gloating is virtually absent fromPurgatory, where Dante is generally much more compassionate to the souls he meets—perhaps because he expects to share their fate. The aforementioned gluttons, for instance, move Dante to such a degree of pity that he nearly questions the fairness of their punishment.

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