This is a continuation of my review for Dante’s Divine Comedy. To read the first part, Inferno, click here.
As Dante and Virgil escape from Hell, they enter a world that is better only by degrees. In Hell, the God-forsaken inhabitants suffer punishments in keeping with their earthly sins, with no hope of escape (unless you are Dante). In Purgatory, escape to Heaven is assured, but the sin-tinged punishments are still there.
Dante and Virgil first arrive in “ante-Purgatory,” a place for those who waited until their deathbeds to convert to Christianity. These souls will spend hundreds of years here, and then they will still need to sit a spell in Purgatory, possibly for hundreds of years more. Off in the distance, Heaven is visible as a mountain that reaches beyond sight. Those stuck in ante-Purgatory don’t even bother heading toward the mountain because, what’s the point?
As in Hell, Purgatory is arranged in sections, variously called “circles” or “terraces.” As the two poets ascend each level, they encounter souls who must perform penance based on their earthly sins. I don’t really understand this system, not being Catholic. Perhaps it’s that thing about payback and female dogs, but I digress.
The seven terraces in Purgatory exist to expunge the Heaven-bound from seven specific sins.
These might look familiar if you do them, or if you are familiar with “The Seven Deadly Sins,” a list of vices compiled by Pope Gregory I seven centuries before Dante wrote his masterpiece. Bad news for those believers who engage in multiple Deadly Sins: You must perform penance for each of those that apply.
Eventually, Dante makes it to a pre-Heaven boarding area after passing through a cleansing yet hot and painful fire. (“Into molten glass I would have cast me to refresh myself” is one of my favorite lines from the book.) At this point, Virgil departs, not being allowed in Heaven due to his pagan state. Instead, Beatrice, the love interest from Dante’s younger days, takes up Sherpa duty.
I found Purgatorio to be a little less compelling than Inferno. All the fascinating punishments of poetic justice are still there; those at the Gluttony level have to spend centuries without food or drink. The condemnations of Italian life, especially of those living in Florence, are there as well. Dante, the continual life of the party, meets even more people he knew and admired back on earth.
A lot of time is spent delving into various theological issues and popular discussions of the day: Are humans innately good? Do the prayers of those still alive reduce time spent in Purgatory? What is the nature of free will? Is nobility inborn or applied during one’s lifetime? These are all important discussions for Dante’s readers. But I just couldn’t get away from one nagging idea: That believers aren’t faring much better in Purgatory then those in Hell. At the very least, it seems like a poor bit of marketing for the Gospel, and from my Protestant point of view, possibly heretical.
The story and this review continue next time with a discussion of Paradise. If at all possible, find a way to reduce your stay in Purgatory so you can keep up with the commentary.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.