Doctrine as Tapestry in Dante’s “Purgatorio”

Reading through Dante’s Inferno was a hard task for me for a number of reasons. But one of the biggest roadblocks that hindered enjoying the work more was a sort of theological snobbery. I couldn’t help looking at Dante’s description of hell and noting how awful it was from a doctrinal/biblical standpoint. Who would really think hell to be organized in such a way or that punishments would be doled out as they were?

As I began Purgatorio, the next installment of Dante’s Divine Comedy, I figured to have much the same hindrances. They were there, but I began to realize a little bit more what Dante was doing.

While I believe in heaven and hell, I can’t say the same for purgatory (I don’t see any biblical proof of its existence). My unfamiliarity of it (and representations of it) probably worked in my favor, as I found myself enjoying the 2nd book more. It picks up immediately after the events of Inferno, and finds Dante and Virgil by a great sea with a mountain looming nearby. This mountain is what souls in purgatory must climb in order to reach heaven. The mountain has various levels for various penitents, such as the proud who are loaded with heavy stones and wander a terrace engraved with portraits of humility. In some cases, it doesn’t seem all that different from hell, just more hope of seeing heaven.

Dante and his guide climb the mountain, eventually reaching the peak where Dante finds a green garden and a great hope to see heaven. In fact, this idea of hope for something better seems incumbent in Purgatorio, and as Dante came into the presence of his beloved Beatrice, I began to appreciate more of what he was doing with his epic work.

I think many Christian writers feel that when they write, they need to be doctrinal, explain a doctrine in a monologue or some such device. Dante takes a different approach. In his work, doctrine isn’t simply a fact existing outside the narrative, it’s the tapestry, or backdrop, in which the narrative takes place. The Divine Comedy wasn’t meant to be a treatise on hell, purgatory, and heaven, it was meant to tell Dante’s spiritual journey. Those doctrines simply serve as the scenery for that road.

Seeing this in Purgatorio (and even moreso in the final book) helped me appreciate the tale better. Yes, I still found his doctrine somewhat off-putting, but I could appreciate the fiction he wrote. Maybe there’s something to this idea of doctrine working as a springboard for a story as opposed to simply being stated. Maybe that’s a wrong way to go about this. At any rate, noting this use helped broaden my appreciation for this classic.

I’d like to hear other thoughts on this. Do you think Dante’s approach a good one?

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