Series: Divine Comedy #2
Having emerged from hell to see the stars, Virgil and Dante continue on through purgatory. There Dante witnesses the souls who delight in the punishments that purify them and allow them to see the face of God.
I have always been a little disappointed that most people only read Dante’s Inferno because I think the books increase in beauty as they go along. Furthermore, only reading the Inferno gives some readers the impression that Dante delights in gore and in sending people to hell. Maybe he does a little–Pope Boniface VIII sure receives no mercy from him–but Dante is also interested in divine justice, free will, charity, and the glory of God. It’s hard to receive a well-rounded understanding of Dante’s understanding of these concepts when readers are stuck feeling miffed that Dante is being oh-so-judgmental and damning them for things many readers wouldn’t even call a sin these days.
Reading Purgatorio can help reveal more about Dante’s beliefs, however, as it shows souls guilty of the same sins for which some are burning in hell–but the souls here are on their way to heaven. The difference? These souls repented before they died. The souls in hell knew they were committing a mortal sin and separating themselves from God, but they did not care. They, in Dante’s view, chose their own destiny. The souls in purgatory chose differently, allowing for what I think is the most beautiful moment in the trilogy–Manfred’s smile.
Manfred, you see, was an apparently utterly horrible person who killed a few family members during his lifetime as he sought to gain political power. Most people wouldn’t expect to see him on his way to heaven and possible a good many people wouldn’t want to see him going to heaven. But divine mercy knows no bounds and Manfred, who was excommunicated by the Church, tells Dante that “The church’s curse is not the final word,/ for Everlasting Love may still return,/ if hope reveals the slightest hint of green” (Purg. III.133-35). Talk about a powerful moment.
This moment also reveals another aspect that makes Dante so lively, so complicated, so perplexing, so alive. Even though I have met some readers who have cast Dante as a curmudgeonly and apparently stupid (I know, I know) follower of the Church who can’t think for himself but blindly follows whatever the Church says, Dante is actually always questioning his own faith. He’s grappling with the same problems readers are. If these sinners are so sympathetic, why are they in hell? If this guy was saved, why wasn’t the other guy? How can it be that my favorite poet ever, Virgil, is stuck in Limbo just because he has the misfortune to be born before Christ? Is any of this fair? I don’t understand. It’s true that Dante ultimately tends to confirm the wisdom of the Church, even if he doesn’t understand it and even if he doesn’t seem to like it, but he isn’t blindly content with it. And he’s confident enough to believe he can question his faith and that, if it’s true, it will stand up to the test.
So cast aside your preconceptions of who Dante is and what he wrote. The complexity, daring, beauty, and imagination of his work may surprise you.