Updated by Mary Bowen on January 19, 2020
I was once told that if someone produced an analysis of Dante’s The Divine Comedy which failed to attribute the motive of the whole to love of God, then the analizer failed in his understanding.
Because of its wonderful complexity, the poem can be understood on many levels, as long as each points to God. On its grandest scale, the story presents a view of the final destiny of the whole universe and the human race: to return to God and acknowledge Him as the source of all existence, knowledge and love. Pilgrimage defines the action which directly reveals the epic nature of The Divine Comedy.
Men are always trying to achieve a goal, whether by waging a battle, embarking on a journey or undertaking a great labor. The Divine Comedy covers all three of these drives. The reader and the poet experience war against self and sin.
They embark on a journey destined to reveal the consequences of sinful as well as holy lives. Together they strive in the labor of overcoming human vices in order to become perfected. These actions may occur in the physical or the spiritual life, and in this epic poem, both pilgrimages run parallel.
The word pilgrimage has a three-fold definition. It is a journey to a shrine, a search of moral or spiritual significance, or a metaphorical journey of someone's beliefs. The point of Dante Alighieri's physical pilgrimage is to pass through hell and purgatory in preparation for the entrance into heaven. The difficult pilgrimage to paradise is beset with hellish dangers and challenged by purgatorial fires, through which all men must pass if they want to experience true happiness.
In order to understand and better reject the total emptiness of sin, the pilgrim must set foot into the Inferno. The path weaves through evil so that sin may be exposed for the nothing it is. This exposure prompts a human being to turn from sin in search of redemption.
In the circles of hell, the pilgrim sees souls tortured by raging storms, others lying beneath a blanket of snow and some that forever combat with each other. Further down the terraces the slothful gurgle in a swamp while the wrathful fight like sharks in the mud. In the lower levels of hell, charity is extinct. The center of hell is a frozen pool. This is so because it is the farthest thing from the warmth of God’s love.
The poet expects his audience to be revolted by sin and to take pleasure in God’s justice, the remedy. Turning from a world of ignorance and hate, enveloped in the night, the soul of man, which naturally longs for the light of truth and goodness, flies in search of its Creator. The soul is willing at last to leave behind the real horrors of evil so as to be healed by divine and restorative beauty.
Everyone to some degree undergoes spiritually what the poet and pilgrim underwent physically and literally in the action of his great poem. Human beings often find themselves lost and wandering into bad habits.
If their situation awakens fear in them, they experience a longing to escape. It is at such times that man needs a true friend and guide to stand by him. This guide is needed to illustrate what evils and horrors have come about by man’s behavior, and also to direct him out of the maze of evil and back into the freedom of goodness.
Perhaps the greatest truth that Dante has to teach concerning his human journey is that no man can accomplish it alone. Leading a man through hell, raising him through purgatory to heaven proves that the greatest theme of The Divine Comedy is charity. In the poem we see that man’s salvation is not a private affair, but a catholic, universal concern. The best way to understand the miracle of God’s charity which inflames human souls is to respond love with love.
The Inferno serves as a dreadful warning and an awe-filled account of God’s justice. In contrast, the Purgatorio presents encouragement and its lyrics are filled with hope in God’s mercy. After witnessing God’s justice to sinners, the poet brings the pilgrim of this life out of the darkness into the open, under the hopeful stars of purgatory. The sense of light and splendor in contrast to the darkness of hell, signifies that everything is immersed in Divine Love.
In Purgatorio, God’s justice is satisfied as the souls experience weighty punishments. Some sins exposed in the climb up Mount Purgatory spring from the rejoicing in another’s misfortunes. The slothful terrace contains souls who desired true good, but not ardently. The upper terraces are reserved for souls whose love for created goods distracted them from seeking the pure love of God.
Restoration of a soul’s goodness by purgation communicates God’s mercy through which He prepares the soul for His ultimate gift, the Beatific Vision.
Rather than drink in the horrors of hell, one should turn his attention to Dante’s image of purgatory. The analogy between the slow, upward progress to perfection in the poem is an image of life on earth. Purgatorio is not only a satisfying story but serves as guide for one’s spiritual development.
Purgatory is a metaphor for a soul who has lost its Baptismal innocence. Baptism cleanses one from original sin, but often in the course life some sin creeps in and delays man from his goal. Yet when the soul moves in repentance it acknowledges its sin and enters by the door of confession into a life of purification. After such a life of death to self and resurrection to God, a soul is prepared to pass the final trial of physical death and be joined to the source of its eternal life --- God in heaven.
Whereas God’s justice was operative in hell, His mercy was operative in purgatory. In paradise His justice is perfectly fulfilled, and His mercy is bestowed in superabundance.
In the heights of Paradiso, Dante proves himself an able philosopher and theologian as well as a poet. He discourses knowledgeably and at length about the divine Object of his love. Before he was simple and ignorant, now he converses with saints on lofty topics. In the spheres of heaven, Dante understands the meaning of man’s free will and the weight of vows. He then exhausts the definitions of the theological virtues.
Climbing the ladder of love, Dante is at last raised to a point where all human powers, even those of poetic composition, fail. In hell, a human poet was sufficient to describe the evils that humans bring on themselves. In purgatory, the same poet could picture the human struggle to grow perfectly in accord with God’s will.
When Dante arrives in heaven and attempts to describe the splendor of God and the light of perfect Love, he falls into enamored silence. He hopes that, having led his readers to this point in the great pilgrimage of human life, they too will be ready to be caught up into the direct contemplation of God, which is beyond all human poetry and yet is the inspiration and fulfillment of it. Love alone can explain the greatest poem of the Western world.
When it came time to write The Divine Comedy book summary, I had a hard time deciding what to focus on. There were so many themes that I wanted to talk about. I decided to make my summary focusing on the pilgramage theme.
Have you read The Divine Comedy? Would you like to write a summary on a theme for us to post on our website? Some of the themes I considered were:
We would love to hear from you and read your interpretation of this great epic poem!
Share your interpretation of this great epic poem!
Mary Bowen is a founding member of industriousfamily.com. Not only is she our resident artist but she is also a choir director, GAPS dessert guru, Angora lover, and director at Industrious Family Films. Always cheerful and optimistic, Mary loves sharing her gifts with others. She has walked the Chartes pilgrimages twice and hopes to go as often as is realistic. Her first movie, Outlaws of Ravenhurst premiered in 2018.
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