In Brief

The Catholic doctrine of Purgatory comes up several times in Ulysses, in connection with the recently deceased Paddy Dignam and with the ghost in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Purgatory (Latin purgare = to cleanse) is a condition or place in the afterlife where those who will ultimately enter heaven, but whose souls are not yet sufficiently pure to do so, have their venial sins purged away by divinely devised tortures. The torment most often mentioned, fire, prompts one of Bloom's better witticisms of the day.

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The doctrine grew from very old roots. In addition to pagan texts describing sites of purification in the afterlife, Jews of the last few centuries BCE said prayers for their dead. Early Christians adapted these prayers to their mourning practices, justified by some biblical verses in 2 Maccabees (a book judged canonical by the Catholic and Orthodox churches): "And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection…. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins" (12:43, 46).

The idea that prayers (and money) might help loose sins was soon joined by the idea that fire could also be effective. Origen (ca. 185-ca. 253 AD) wrote that "If a man departs this life with lighter faults, he is condemned to fire which burns away the lighter materials" (Patrologia Graeca, 13.445). Augustine (354-430 AD) believed it possible that "some believers shall pass through a kind of purgatorial fire, and in proportion as they have loved with more or less devotion the goods that perish, be less or more quickly delivered from it" (Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, 69). Augustine distinguished this saving fire from the merely punitive fires of Hell.

The belief that people who were still burdened with sins would have to suffer for a time made them something like penitentiary inmates––doing time for the crime, enduring rehabilitative punishments, and hoping that good behavior and strong character witnesses might shorten their sentences. This conception became much stronger in the High Middle Ages when theologians began to think of Purgatory not merely as a condition but as a Third Place adjunct to Hell and Heaven. In his landmark study The Birth of Purgatory (1984), Jacques le Goff argued that this development happened in late 12th century Europe in response to the stories of people who had traveled to places like the Irish island mentioned in Cyclops, "S. Patrick's Purgatory," which boasted a cavelike entrance to Purgatory where pilgrims spent the night and experienced visions. In the early 14th century, Dante's Divine Comedy solidified the view that Purgatory is a place, one with benign penitentiary rules, rewards for prayerful supplications, and (in the last of its seven circles) a wall of purifying fire.

The Catholic church affirmed the doctrine of Purgatory at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274, but the Orthodox church declined to follow suit and 16th century Protestants found the doctrine a distasteful expansion of scriptural warrant. Hamlet, written with Protestant audiences (and censors) in mind, does not use the term Purgatory, but it clearly alludes to it. The ghost tells the prince that he is "Doomed for a certain term to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in days of nature / Are burnt and purged away” (1.5.10-13). Having died "With all my imperfections on my head" (79), he suffers afterlife punishments so terrifying that even a verbal account of his "prison-house" would "harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, / Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres, / Thy knotted and combined locks to part, / And each particular hair to stand [on] end" (14-19). The unspeakable tortures of Purgatory, plus the earthly ones caused by Claudius's poison (these are described in lurid detail), spur Hamlet to revenge.

Stephen Dedalus seems to be well aware of the play's use of purgatorial suffering to motivate revenge. His Shakespeare talk in Scylla and Charybdis, which is centered on the relationship of ghost and prince, connects the play's bloodiness to the terrors of the Third Place: "Nine lives are taken off for his father's one. Our Father who art in purgatory. Khaki Hamlets don't hesitate to shoot. The bloodboltered shambles in act five is a forecast of the concentration camp sung by Mr Swinburne."

In contrast to Shakespeare's suggestion that King Hamlet might have gone directly to heaven had he been able to confess his sins, Paddy Dignam's son thinks in Wandering Rocks that maybe confession has gotten his father into Purgatory: "That was Mr Dignam, my father. I hope he’s in purgatory now because he went to confession to Father Conroy on Saturday night." No doubt Dignam had plenty of sins to confess, but the fatalism of assuming that Purgatory is the best he could hope for feels distinctively Irish. The Catholic church of Joyce's youth drilled the message of human sinfulness and divine retribution into parishioners' heads with maniacal harshness, and the magical folk traditions of the country make ensnarement by the devil just as likely a possibility as suddenly waking up in paradise.

Standing at Dignam's grave in Hades, Bloom listens to the priest's prayer for his soul's deliverance and liltingly mocks the view that, but for the grace of God, human beings are destined for an eternity of infernal torture: "We are praying now for the repose of his soul. Hoping you're well and not in hell." (In Circe Dignam echoes the priest's language: "Pray for the repose of his soul.") Then Bloom thinks of the torture awaiting Dignam even if these prayers have their intended effect: "Nice change of air. Out of the fryingpan of life into the fire of purgatory." Probably only James Joyce would think of applying this proverbial expression to the Catholic business of saving souls, but his indoctrination in the view that the deceased can expect one kind of incineration or another makes it quite apt. Even for those who receive God's guarantee of eternal salvation, the church still has a world of pain to inflict.

John Hunt 2023