Dante’s Purgatory begins where his Inferno leaves off. Dante and Virgil have ascended out of Hell to the bottom of the Mountain of Purgatory.
Hell and Purgatory share some similarities. For example, Hell has nine circles, and Purgatory has nine terraces. There are also differences between the two places. For example, the sinners in Purgatory can be saved; the sinners in Hell cannot. Thus, while the tortures inflicted on sinners in Hell are punishments, the pains inflicted on sinners in Purgatory are purifications. The difference between the sinners condemned to Hell and those repenting in Purgatory is that the sinners in Hell acted on the seven deadly sins while the penitents were afflicted with the seven deadly sins, but did not act upon them.
The first two terraces are called Ante-Purgatory. On the first terrace, the excommunicate reside for 30 times the period of their contumacy. On the second terrace, those who were too preoccupied with worldly affairs to repent and those who did not receive last rites reside for the duration of their earthly lives before receiving salvation. During the discussion of these two terraces, the reader also learns that the penitents can only move about during the day when the sun is overhead. Thus, the sinners can only move toward salvation by the light of God.
Awaking from a dream, Dante finds himself at the gate of Purgatory. Leading toward the gate are three steps – one white, one black, and one red. The white step represents the purity which the penitents will attain after Purgatory; the black step represents the suffering that the penitents must endure to purify themselves; the red step represents Christ’s blood, the penitent’s salvation.
An Angel guards the gate of Purgatory, Peter’s Gate. The Angel, with the tip of his sword, writes the letter ‘P’ seven times on Dante’s forehead. ‘P’ is the first letter of the word peccatum, which means sin. As Dante progresses through Purgatory, the Angels that guard each terrace will erase one ‘P’ corresponding to the sin for which Dante has atoned.
On the first terrace above Ante-Purgatory, the proud atone for their sins. Sculptures of humility and pride adorn the terrace. The proud walk around the terrace with stones on their backs, forcing them to bow forward.
On the second terrace, the envious atone for their sins. Voices in the air tell stories of generous and envious people. The envious wear grey cloaks and their eyes are sown shut with wire.
On the third terrace, the wrathful atone for their sins. Visions of wrath and meekness appear to the penitents. The wrathful walk about in acrid smoke, impenetrable by sight. The smoke represents the heating effect that anger has on the body.
On the fourth terrace, the slothful atone for their sins. The slothful run around the terrace and recite examples of zeal.
On the fifth terrace, the covetous atone for their sins. The covetous lie face down on the ground and recite Psalm 119, which is a song that expresses a desire to follow God’s commands.
On the sixth terrace, the gluttonous atone for their sins. Voices in the trees give examples of temperance and gluttony. The gluttonous starve as they reach for fruit that withdraws ever farther away from them.
On the seventh terrace, the lustful atone for their sins. The lustful run through flames while calling out examples of chastity and lust.
Dante finally arrives at the summit of the Mountain of Purgatory. The summit is the Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden. Here Dante meets Matilda, who guides Dante to Beatrice. While Dante and Matilda are travelling together, they witness a procession of people, animals, and a chariot. The figures represent the biblical books and the four cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice.
Beatrice appears and scolds Dante for his past sins. Dante grieves over the loss of Virgil, who can no longer guide Dante because he is a pagan. Beatrice is Dante’s guide now.
Dante crosses the River Lethe, which erases the memories of Dante’s past sins from his mind. Then he drinks from the River Eunoe, which restores his good memories and purifies him for his ascent to Heaven.
The seven deadly sins are results of misapplications of love. The first three terraces are reserved for those who have a perverted love. The fourth terrace is reserved for those who have a deficient love. The last three terraces are reserved for those who have an excessive or disordered love.
Dante’s Purgatory aptly continues the narration of Dante’s spiritual journey, which began in the Inferno. It reinforces the way that the seven deadly sins lead to punishment and absence from God.
He goes seeking liberty, which is so dear, as he knows who for it renounces life.
O conscience, upright and stainless, how bitter sting to thee is a little fault!
It was now the hour that turns back the longing of seafarers and melts their hearts, the day they have bidden dear friends farewell, and pierces the new traveler with love if he hears in the distance the bell that seems to mourn the dying day.
How brief a blaze a woman’s love will yield
If not relit by frequent touch and sight.
O you proud Christians, wretched souls and small,
Who by the dim lights of your twisted minds
Believe you prosper even as you fall,
Can you not see that we are worms, each one
Born to become an angelic butterfly
That flies defenseless to the Judgement Throne?
My blood was so afire with envy that,
when I had seen a man becoming happy,
the lividness in me was plain to see.
Love kindled by virtue always kindles another, provided that its flame appear outwardly.
Less than a drop of blood remains in me that does not tremble.
From the most holy wave, regenerate,
E’en as new plants renew’d with foliage new,
Pure and made apt for mounting to the stars.