The Divine Comedy Purgatorio, Dante - Essay

Dante Alighieri


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Purgatorio Dante

Italian poem.

The Purgatorio is the middle section of Dante's Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), uncontestedly one of the greatest and most celebrated poems ever written. In the Purgatorio, Dante, as the Pilgrim, makes a four-day journey. He begins this journey on Easter Sunday of the year 1300, to the island mountain of Purgatory, which is divided into three sections: the Antepurgatory, Purgatory Proper, and the Earthly Paradise. In the course of his own spiritual rehabilitation, Dante meets repentant shades (dead personages) cleansing their sins as they make their way to the peak of the mountain. At the summit, repentant sinners are forgiven and may proceed to Paradise. The characters Dante writes of in the Purgatorio are from both classical Roman and recent Italian history, as well as from contemporary Italy; thus, Dante makes strong political commentary an integral part of his poem. It is almost impossible to overestimate the influence of the Divina Commedia on European culture. So masterful is Dante's use of language in the poem that to this day some readers recall its imagery first, and the Bible's second.

Plot and Major Characters

The Purgatorio is comprised of thirty-three cantos which follow a rhyme scheme—created by Dante expressly for the Divina Commedia—called terza rima, in which the first and third eleven-syllable lines of verse rhyme, the second line rhymes with the first and third lines, and so on (in the pattern aba, bcb, cdc). Leaving the lowest circle of Hell, Dante travels to the shores of the island of Purgatory in a boat moved by the wings of an angel. Vergil, the great classical poet, accompanies Dante as his guide through Purgatory, although Dante is also at times led by Sordello (a Medieval troubadour), Statius (a Roman epic poet), and Beatrice (Dante's beloved). Dante learns that souls in Purgatory may have their terms of punishment reduced if their families pray for them. Dante is repeatedly told not to tarry, that no good can come of allowing himself to be overly distracted. He also is told that Purgatory is constructed so that at its bottom, travel is much more difficult; as one ascends the mountain, the going becomes progressively easier. In Antepurgatory, Dante meets the negligent, who were contemptuous of the church, and those who waited until the last hour or even the final moment to accept God. Passing through a gate, Dante and Vergil reach Purgatory Proper. They stop at the first ledge or cornice and see the souls of the proud bent close to the ground, carrying heavy stones to help purge them of their arrogance. Next, they meet those who were envious. They are dressed in coarse haircloth and their eyelids are sewn shut with thread spun from iron. On the next ledge are the wrathful, who had been guilty of anger. Next, they see the sins of sloth or indifference purged. Avarice is purged on the next ledge. Statius joins Dante and Vergil, his own soul cleansed of sin, and together on the sixth ledge they see the sin of gluttony purged. Lastly they see fire cleanse those who lusted. Vergil urges Dante to pass through a fire of terrific heat, but which does not burn, and then takes leave of him, for Dante cannot proceed to the Earthly Paradise without the grace of God. Matilda takes Dante to Beatrice, who assumes the role of guide, and tells Dante about the nature of the Earthly Paradise. Dante confesses to her that he had been lured by others after her death, and she prepares him for Paradise.

Major Themes

As Dante ascends Mount Purgatory, he meets in turn souls who have experienced the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Vergil explains that the first three sins occur when the natural instinct to love becomes perverted. Sloth represents the pursuit of good but without enough zeal. The last three sins are from loving too much and focusing that love on earthly things. Practicing control and balance is stressed throughout Purgatorio. Another theme that predominates is that one should remain focused on Paradise and not become too attached to earthly pursuits. Again and again Dante is admonished: lose no time, do not become distracted, do not become obsessed, don’t look back. There are also clear political messages in the Purgatorio. As John A. Scott writes, the poem's vital message is “that God has given humanity two luminaries to light up its dual path to salvation, the true way to happiness in this world (the Emperor) and the way to blessedness in the next life (the Pope).” Dante decries what has happened to Italy under the oppressive rule of tyrants.

Critical Reception

The most frequent criticism of the Purgatorio is that it suffers by comparison to the Inferno. Unquestionably, its action seems much more subdued after the excitement of witnessing the horrors of Hell; Vergil states that the wailing sounds of Hell are replaced with sighs in Purgatory. Some critics take exception to the common verdict that the Inferno is superior and insist that the Purgatorio must be judged on its own merits. As is the case for the other parts of the Divina Commedia notes and explanations are essential for a fuller understanding of Purgatorio; it is a complex work packed with obscure references. Expending a staggering amount of effort over the course of centuries of study, scholars have explicated the poem admirably. Some modern scholars urge that rather than concerning themselves with allusions, investigations should now focus on Dante's motives and decisions in writing the poem. Another area of concern for scholars is with the matter of finding the most reliable texts. There are well over five hundred manuscripts of the Divina Commedia but none are in Dante's hand or, indeed, taken directly from the original. Corruption in the text occurred from the time of Dante's death, possibly even while the poet was alive. His masterwork continues to engage the lay reader and the expert alike. More than one scholar has remarked that to fully absorb even current Dante studies is an impossible task due to sheer volume.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) 1865-67

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Eliot Norton) 1892

The Purgatorio (translated by John Ciardi) 1961

The Divine Comedy (translated by Charles S. Singleton) 1970

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Purgatorio (translated by Allen Mandelbaum) 1981

Dante's Purgatory (translated by Mark Musa) 1981

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (translated by Robert M. Durling) 1996

The Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Heaven (translated by Peter Dale) 1997

John S. Carroll (essay date 1906)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Prisoners of Hope: An Exposition of Dante's Purgatorio, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906, pp. xvii-xxvii.

[In the following essay, Carroll explains why Dante's markedly atypical conception of Purgatory, including locating it on a mountain instead of underground, was essential to the symbolism used in the Purgatorio.]

Protestant readers, unable to accept a threefold division of the world to come, may be excused if they approach the Purgatorio with the feeling that its chief ethical interest and value must be confined to members of Dante's own Church. Fortunately it is not necessary for our present purpose to entangle ourselves...

(The entire section is 3339 words.)

William Warren Vernon (essay date 1907)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Preliminary Chapter” in Readings on the Purgatorio of Dante, Vol. I, Methuen & Co., 1907, pp. xxvii-xxxviii.

[In the following essay, Vernon discusses the three divisions of Purgatory (Ante-Purgatory, Purgatory Proper, and The Terrestrial Paradise), the time occupied in passing through Purgatory, and the date Dante created the work.]



The Mountain of Purgatory, as described by Dante, is an immense truncated cone, rising out of the midst of the sea in the centre of the Southern Hemisphere, which, according to the Ptolemaic system of Cosmography, consisted, with the exception...

(The entire section is 2932 words.)

Francis Fergusson (essay date 1953)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Metaphor of the Journey” in Dante's Drama of the Mind: A Modern Reading of the “Purgatorio,” Princeton University Press, 1953, pp. 3-13.

[In the following essay, Fergusson makes use of Dante's explanations to his benefactor, Can Grande della Scala, in discussing the importance of differentiating between Dante the author and Dante the Pilgrim.]

For the first line of the first canto of the Divine Comedy Dante wrote:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
(In the middle of the journey of our life)

There everything starts: in the middle of human life considered as a journey. There Dante was so lost...

(The entire section is 3926 words.)

Glauco Cambon (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Purgatorio, Canto V: The Modulations of Solicitude,” Books Abroad 39, May, 1965, pp. 69-73.

[In the following essay, Cambon discusses the function of the humorous elements in Canto V, a canto he describes as “a ceremony enacting the progression of solicitude.”]

It is not true of many another Canto, as it certainly is of Purg. V, that its thematic structure recapitulates the movement of the whole Divine Comedy. It does this by looking back to the earth of the living and eventually re-echoing the infernal world, while at its climax foreshadowing Paradise; indeed a Paradisal anticipation can be overheard in the Canto even before the...

(The entire section is 3351 words.)

Colin G. Hardie (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Note on Purgatorio IX, 16-18,” Books Abroad, Vol. 39, 1965, pp. 74-80.

[In the following essay, Hardie discusses the importance of variant wording concerning dreams in Canto IX, thereby illustrating the type of problems which stem from the corruption of Dante's text.]

e che la mente nostra peregrina
          più da la carne e men dai pensier presa,
                    a le sue vision quasi è divina.

These lines form part of Dante's introduction to the first of the three dreams on the Mount of Purgatory, which take place just before dawn and are therefore true dreams, on the principle borrowed from Horace, Satires 1. X. 32...

(The entire section is 4968 words.)

Bernard Stambler (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Three Dreams,” Books Abroad, Vol. 39, May, 1965, pp. 81-93.

[In the following essay, Stambler analyzes and interprets the three dream sequences in Purgatorio, discussing their function, roots in myth, sexual allusions, and implications.]

The three dreams of Dante's Pilgrim in Purgatory constitute a mode of exposition or narration different from anything else in the poem. The dreams are markedly set off from the rest of the poem by the kind of experience they express as well as by the breaks in consciousness that introduce them, interrupting the normal flow of the Pilgrim's progress. And yet these dream-episodes, more than any other slices of...

(The entire section is 9083 words.)

Aldo S. Bernardo (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Flesh, Spirit, and Rebirth at the Center of Dante's Comedy,Symposium, Vol. XIX, No. 4, Winter, 1965, pp. 335-51.

[In the following essay, Bernardo explores the theme of rebirth in Dante's work, positing that it entails purification of both body and soul.]


In defining the basic originality of Dante's Comedy, Auerbach states: “What radically distinguishes the Comedy from all other visions of the other world is that in it the unity of man's earthly personality is preserved and fixed. … The earthly world is encompassed in the other world of the Comedy; true, its historical order and form are...

(The entire section is 7650 words.)

Susan Baker (essay date 1966)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Analogy of a Poem: Dante's Dream,” Sewanee Review, Vol. 74, No. 2, April-June, 1966, pp. 438-49.

[In the following essay, Baker explores how Dante sought to represent pure beauty through images that function allegorically.]

We should perhaps begin our reading of the Divine Comedy by keeping in mind Aristotle's dictum that poetry is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history because it tends to express the universal rather than the particular. By the universal, the philosopher meant “how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act according to the law of probability or necessity and it is this universality at which poetry...

(The entire section is 3783 words.)

Helmut Hatzfeld (essay date 1952)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Art of Dante's Purgatorio,” American Critical Essays on The Divine Comedy, edited by Robert J. Clements, New York University Press, 1967, pp. 64-88.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1952, Hatzfeld contends that Dante's esthetic choices are easier to understand when his style is viewed as one of magic realism.]

Il mito non è favola,
ma … 
“storia vera.”
Not merely a story told,
but a reality lived.
                    b. malinowski


The considerable amount of critical literature on Dante's Divine Comedy contains very few...

(The entire section is 9071 words.)

Etienne Gilson (essay date 1967)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dante's Notion of a Shade: Purgatorio XXV,” Mediaeval Studies, Vol. 29, 1967, pp. 124-42.

[In the following essay, Gilson explores the nature and origin of the shades—the characters in Hell, Purgatory, and the lower circles of Paradise—and the motivation behind Dante's efforts to scientifically justify them.]

The art of Dante is so imperious and compelling that, as with Michael Angelo's and Beethoven's, when its spell has taken hold of us, the artist can make us believe what he pleases. I know from personal experience that one can read the Divine Comedy for many years without wondering about the nature and origin of the beings called by...

(The entire section is 9712 words.)

Richard Koffler (essay date 1968)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Last Wound: Purgatorio, XXVI,” Italian Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 45, Summer, 1968, pp. 27-43.

[In the following essay, Koffler contends that critics who decry a lack of drama in the Purgatorio are mistaken. Koffler states that the action is simply of a different type than that found in the Inferno, and that Dante thereby demonstrates in his own poem the art of renunciation.]

Dante's last meeting with fellow poets in the twenty-sixth canto of the Purgatorio—that canticle which seems almost to suggest, at times, that poets belong in Purgatory as sinners belong in Hell and saints in Heaven—has long struck critics as a drama...

(The entire section is 4888 words.)

John G. Demaray (essay date 1969)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pilgrim Text Models for Dante's Purgatorio,” Studies in Philology, Vol. LXVI, No. 1, January, 1969, pp. 1-24.

[In the following essay, Demaray demonstrates how, in the Purgatorio, Dante drew from tales of actual Holy Land pilgrimages.]

The theological virtue of hope, so Beatrice declares before St. James, enabled Dante Alighieri to make the journey from Egypt to Jerusalem to see the Church Militant (Par. XXV, 52-7).1

A long and perhaps wearisome familiarity with Dante's epistle to Can Grande della Scala has taught us the kind of multifold interpretation that the author of the Commedia intended be...

(The entire section is 10011 words.)

E. D. Blodgett (essay date 1970)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dante's Purgatorio as Elegy” in The Rarer Action: Essays in Honor of Francis Fergusson, edited by Alan Cheuse and Richard Koffler, Rutgers University Press, 1970, pp. 161-78.

[In the following essay, Blodgett contends that two types of elegy are present in the Purgatorio, a work that mourns the loss of Vergil and the inadequacies he represents.]

Forse in Parnaso … 

Purgatory is where no one stays forever. Its fire, unlike the fire of Hell, is temporary. It is a fire that makes its joyful victims acutely aware of transience and suspension between different temporal conditions. This is one of the reasons why the figure of a...

(The entire section is 6097 words.)

R. E. Kaske (essay date 1974)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dante's Purgatorio XXXII and XXXIII: A Survey of Christian History,” University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 3, Spring, 1974, pp. 193-214.

[In the following essay, Kaske interprets the images found in Cantos XXXII and XXXIII as the “figurative celebration of the beginning of Christianity.”]

I suppose it is no great news that during the past few decades, scholarship and criticism in the immense field of medieval literature have been moving with unusual speed. Within this general awakening, it is worth asking what has been the effect, if any, on interpretation of Dante's Commedia. Surely no one can accuse past Dante scholars of a...

(The entire section is 10054 words.)

Christie K. Fengler and William A. Stephany (essay date 1977)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Visual Arts: A Basis for Dante's Imagery in Purgatory and Paradise,” Michigan Academician, Vol. X, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 127-41.

[In the following essay, Fengler and Stephany demonstrate Dante's knowledge of art as evidenced in Canto X of Purgatorio, and furnish examples of the type of art that he may have observed and been inspired by.]

The observation that the visual arts inspired certain sections of Dante's Divine Comedy has frequently been made. Therefore an understanding of the type of art which Dante would have seen aids the reader in understanding Dante's imagery. When the poet borrows ideas from the visual arts, he...

(The entire section is 5159 words.)

James I. Wimsatt (essay date 1977)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beatrice as a Figure for Mary,” Traditio, Vol. XXXIII, 1977, pp. 402-14.

[In the following essay, Wimsatt furnishes evidence found in Purgatorio that demonstrates that Dante depicted Beatrice as an analogue for, or surrogate of, the Virgin Mary.]

The identification of ‘Christ figures’ in medieval literature has no doubt been overdone. Yet it can hardly be denied that we do find there characters who present meaningful analogues to Christ, for along with a good number of probable analogues, the parallels in some cases are explicit; for example, Galahad in the Queste del Saint Graal and Thomas Malory's Grail story.1 So too in...

(The entire section is 7309 words.)

Philip R. Berk (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shadows on the Mount of Purgatory,” Dante Studies, Vol. XCVII, 1979: pp. 47-63.

[In the following essay, Berk explains the significance of the Pilgrim's shadow, and examines Dante's poetic techniques in utilizing the shadow motif.]

The question of precedence is a difficult matter to establish or settle, but it may be that Dante, in the repeated dramatic use of the pilgrim's cast shadow in the Purgatorio, was the first artist of magnitude in painting as well as in literature to represent the phenomenon of cast shadows since antiquity. Art historians appear to be in disagreement about dating the first cast shadows in the pictorial arts. Erwin Panofsky...

(The entire section is 5591 words.)

John A. Scott (essay date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poem's Center (Purgatorio XII-XVIII)” in Dante's Political Purgatory, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996, pp. 144-57.

[In the following essay, Scott emphasizes the elements of Cantos XII to XVII that show Dante's political hopes and beliefs, particularly the idea that both political and spiritual spheres can harmoniously coexist on earth.]

Pride is at the root of all sin (Eccles. 10. 15), and the Pilgrim will soon declare how heavily this sin weighs down his soul (Purg. XIII. 136-38). Once more, the number three is in evidence, when Dante encounters Omberto Aldobrandeschi, Oderisi da Gubbio, and Provenzano Salvani in Canto XI. The...

(The entire section is 8343 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Brownlee, Kevin. “Dante and Narcissus (Purg. XXX, 76-99).” Dante Studies XCVI (1978): 201-06.

Interprets Canto XXX as a reversal of the story of Narcissus, with the Pilgrim turning away from his own reflection with shame.

Cambon, Glauco. “The Purgatorial Smile: A Footnote on Dante's Humor.” Yearbook of Italian Studies 4 (1980): 105–15.

Asserts that Dante uses humor in the Purgatorio not just for comic relief, but also to show humor as a part of the “process of self-liberation.”

Doré, Gustave. The Doré Illustrations for Dante's “Divine Comedy.” New York: Dover Publications, 1976,...

(The entire section is 580 words.)