Divine Comedy: Purgatorio

Is Man but a Worm?: Animal Imagery and the Role of Discipline in Dante's 'Purgatorio' College

One of the more prominent themes in Dante’s Commedia is his repeated use of animal symbolism to either signify a certain vice or virtue or to draw a comparison between a particular animal and humanity. This symbolism is used especially throughout Dante’s Purgatorio to compare the struggles of sinners with the discipline of animals. One commentator of Dante’s Purgatorio, Robert Hollander, writes that “Dante compares [the envious] to the sewn-up eyes of sparrowhawks, captured in their maturity and temporarily blinded in this manner so that they remain docile in the presence of their handlers” in response to the description of the punishment of the envious (Hollander: Purgatorio XIII.67-72). This leads to the question: is it right that Dante should use bestial methods of discipline in order to cleanse the souls in Purgatory? If man is less than a worm, does it not make sense to treat him as such in disciplining him? Through a discussion on the appropriate types of animal comparisons, a distinction between corporeal and spiritual discipline, and a discourse on the type of discipline necessary, it will be shown that this bestial discipline which Dante employs, specifically as seen in Canto XIII, is inappropriate.

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