Major Themes: Dante, Virgil and Beatrice

In this section we shall examine the three most prominent figures in the Purgatorio: Dante, Virgil and Beatrice.  


There are numerous indications in the Purgatorio that Dante is himself on a penitential journey. He is most clearly aware that he is proud: he says in Canto XIII that he most fears the torment on the Terrace of Pride (133-8). A further indication is the fact that, in progressing through Purgatory-proper, Dante has the Ps removed from his forehead - implying that, as he moves through Purgatory, he is being cleansed. The clearest indication of Dante-personaggio’s state comes in the Earthly Paradise. Here, Dante must make a confession.

A further side to the figure of Dante in the Purgatorio is his emerging status as a prophetic voice. Two moments in particular point to this:

  • Dante-poeta’s description of the feathered animals in the procession in the Earthly Paradise, in which he compares Biblical accounts and finds one inadequate. (XXIX, 97-105). 
  • Beatrice’s instruction to Dante to return to the world and write down what he has seen. (XXXII, 103-5).

We can recall how, in the opening line of the Inferno – ‘nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’ - Dante seemed to be drawing a link between his experience, and that of all of humanity. In some ways, Dante is all of us. But his identity as Dante continues to be important throughout the Purgatorio. He is clearly not just an abstract figure devoid of identity - after all, it is in this cantica that his name is mentioned (XXX, 55).

When you consider the figure of Dante in the Purgatorio you need to ask yourself how it is that he can combine these roles - as penitent sinner, as prophet, as ‘Everyman’. At any particular moment in the text, you can ask yourself: which role he is playing. Might he be playing more than one role?  

Virgil in the Purgatorio

Why Virgil? That question needed to be asked in relation to the Inferno, where Dante’s choice of the Roman poet as Dante’s guide - above any Christian figure, and above other, more obvious pagan thinkers such as Aristotle - was surprising enough. But to maintain Virgil as Dante’s guide through Purgatory is even more startling. It was unheard of in vision literature for a guide through the realms of the saved to be an unsaved pagan, who had lived before Christ.

One idea which used to be commonplace in Dante criticism was that Virgil was a symbol of human reason (in this he contrasted with Beatrice, who symbolised faith). This idea rested largely on a passage in Purgatorio XVIII, where Virgil is about to explain how human beings are deserving of praise or blame. He says he will explain as much as reason will allow him to; Beatrice will explain the rest, as she is in the realm of faith:  

‘Quanto ragion qui vede,/dirti poss’io; da indi in là t’aspetta/pur a Beatrice, ch’è opra di  fede’ [ ‘I can, as far as reason sees, respond./Beyond that, faith’s required’…/ ‘and you must therefore wait for Beatrice.’(46-8).

The simple identification of Virgil with reason and Beatrice with faith has long been discredited in Dante scholarship, and for some very good reasons, including the following:  

  • Especially in the Paradiso, Beatrice expounds complicated theological and philosophical arguments which place heavy demands on ‘reason’.
  • Virgil and Beatrice are both depicted as real human beings, rather than just symbols of concepts like reason or faith (think of Virgil’s first words to Dante in Inferno, where he states that he was a man, and when and where he lived).
  • Virgil remains Dante’s guide all the way through Purgatory; yet we know that reason alone is not enough to gain access to Purgatory. If Virgil is simply a symbol of reason, then he is a wholly unsuitable guide in this realm.
  • Virgil knows a lot about Christian doctrine, for one supposedly representative of reason alone.

Virgil must be more, then, than a symbol of reason. There are three major affinities between Dante and Virgil, which help explain why Virgil is Dante’s guide. These are:

  • Virgil’s status as a poet
  • his supposed prophecy of the coming of Christ in the Fourth Eclogue
  • his political views, as expressed in the Aeneid.  

Beatrice in the Purgatorio

When we first come across Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise, we might well be surprised. The Vita Nuova had given very little indication of her personality (beyond her intrinsic goodness); above all, Dante wrote poems in praise of her virtue, rather than poems in which she speaks. But Beatrice’s first words to Dante-personaggio are not in any way comforting.

One way of seeing Beatrice is as being similar to Christ. (In the Vita Nuova, there were a number of references which associated her with Christ.) The Bible stated that Christ would come at the end of time to judge humanity; Beatrice appears to be judging Dante-personaggio. But strictly speaking she is not Christ: she emphasises her identity as Beatrice in the most emphatic terms, saying ‘“Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice”’ [‘“Look. I am, truly, I am Beatrice.”’(XXX, 73). Rather like the penitent souls in Purgatory, who assimilate themselves to Christ whilst still retaining their identity, Beatrice is playing a Christ-like role which enables her to remain, emphatically, herself.  

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame