Purgatorio

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Purgatorio

Perhaps the best place to begin a consideration of Purgatorio is not its beginning but its middle. In cantos 16-18, the central three of this the central canticle, we learn about love and free will, perhaps the two principles most important to an understanding of the whole of the Comedy. Because our modern novelistic tradition of structure has led us to expect our plots to be arranged climactically, we tend to find this kind of geometric construction artificial and surprising, even though the practice was fairly common in medieval literature. Dante had himself already experimented with this kind of structure in La Vita Nuova. La Chanson of Roland, to cite another well-known example, seems by our standards to drag on surprisingly beyond the hero's death; the plot has been carefully arranged, however, so that this event of central importance occurs at the very center of the poem.

The first of these three central cantos of Purgatorio, canto 16, deals with the problem of human freedom. To Dante's question of whether the world's evil is imposed by stellar influence, Marco Lombardo, one of the souls in Purgatory, responds that through right reason people can control the impulses that admittedly do originate in the stars. An individual's fate is not, therefore, determined by uncontrollable impersonal forces. Rather, the world has turned to evil through poor leadership. Souls are born as lovers of pleasure, and they will continue to cling to childish self-indulgence unless laws and leaders curb this selfishness and guide them to a higher love. People, however, see their leaders, most notably Boniface VIII, scoffing at the law and indulging themselves, and so they behave similarly.

In canto 17, Virgil asserts that all act...

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...poken of as a sexual affair.

In the very last canto of Purgatorio, Dante's purification is complete. He is absolved of sin, freed from vice, and in Lethe is washed clean of the memory of former sinfulness. When Beatrice mentions his former estrangement and Dante claims to have no recollection of ever having been estranged from her, Beatrice triumphantly concludes that his amnesia is proof positive that in following his former philosophical school of thought Dante was indeed sinful (Purg. 33. 85-102.). If it had not been sinful, it would not have been forgotten in the waters of Lethe. The final step is to drink from the waters of Eunoë, thereby intensifying the memory of former virtuous acts. At this point, Dante concludes the Purgatorio: "I came forth from the holy waves, renovated even as new trees renewed with new foliage, pure and ready to rise to the stars."
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