What role does Beatrice play in the poem? Does her sex and her identity as a woman whom Dante knew personally contribute to or detract from her role?
Beatrice effectively picks up from where Virgil left off. As a pagan, Virgil is unable to enter Paradise, but as a Christian, Beatrice can. Virgil can only lead Dante up to the gates of Paradise, but Beatrice can lead him beyond. Beatrice first summoned Virgil to act as Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory, but in Paradise, she will take on that role.
Beatrice is a symbol of divine love—a love that provides the pilgrim Dante with the spiritual illumination that he's been seeking throughout his epic journey. Not only that, but she's also a symbol of divine grace, which, according to orthodox Christian teaching, is essential to man's salvation.
The author Dante met Beatrice briefly when she was just a young girl. From that day on, she acted as his muse, as an inspiration in writings such as Vita Nuova and, of course, The Divine Comedy . In her beauty, goodness, and purity, he saw a glimpse of the heavenly world. And once the pilgrim Dante finally reaches heaven, he sees Beatrice...
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Consider the role of Catholicism in The Divine Comedy as it relates to Beatrice and the Virgin Mary. Their role as women is key. Not only is Virgil prohibited from entering Heaven in Dante's understanding of Christian life because he is not a member of the Catholic Church, he more fully inhabits the role of "explainer" rather than "heavenly guide." Beatrice, as a woman, also prefigures the Virgin Mary, who in Catholicism not only functions as a sinless model of Christian life, but also the woman who brought forth God into the human realm. In the same way, Beatrice helps to bring Dante into the world of Paradise. Note that both Virgil and Dante ask her for assistance and guidance, and that Mary is never mentioned directly by name. Associating the qualities of Mary (redemption, purity, etc) with Beatrice allowed Dante to "personalize" them without projecting them directly on the Virgin. In this way, Dante assigns specific roles of redemption and guidance to women. The "birthing" both women share enable them to fulfill this role in ways that male characters cannot.
Mary and Beatrice are often paired throughout The Divine Comedy, which easily allows the reader to view them in the same light. For example, in Canto II, we see that the agent of the Virgin Mary, St. Lucia, asked Beatrice to guide Dante out of the "Dark Woods." The three women are grouped again when Virgil encourages him to look to them for hope, also in Canto II:"You have three blessed women who now look upon you With care from the heart of the high court of heaven And my words of truth as a promise of good."