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As Dante gradually progresses downward through the Inferno, his sensitivity to sin begins to wane; growing less and less intense until he totally hardens his heart to sin when he reaches Cocytus (the frozen lake mirrors his frozen heart). During the first few Circles of Hell, however, Dante allows his emotions free reign, causing him excess grief, and in some cases, physical torment. During these first crucial moments in Hell, Dante suddenly realizes the weight of the journey that lies before him-he realizes exactly what it means to "go through Hell"; he realizes that Hell is not just a place where suffering occurs. Hell was not made for suffering. Hell is suffering; the idea and the place are one in the same. Acknowledging this fact, it becomes impossible for Dante to describe his environment without also describing the emotions he feels while in it. Even the slightest mention of an environmental characteristic reveals Dante's inner feelings and reaction to his current location in Hell. Conversely, a mention of Dante's emotions will correspond directly to either one or several environmental traits that ultimately form the physical barriers he encounters on his journey. This close tie causes each barrier Dante encounters to bring with it equal amounts of physical and emotional strain. Hell's environment is inseparable from the suffering contained in it, and in order for Dante to get the "full Hell experience" he must be tried equally on both fronts, as the mental anguish of Hell is just as important as the physical embodiment of that anguish (the punishment).
The first barrier Dante encounters is the river Acheron. When he reaches the river, Dante feels overwhelmed by what he has just seen in the Vestibule, he becomes shaken with fear of what is to come, causing him to faint. While it is widely accepted that these are the facts and no deeper analysis is necessary, I will take this opportunity to prove my concept of environmental analysis to give a better understanding of the idea, and to-hopefully-bring to forth new insight in relation to Dante's reaction to his situation. Just moments before his swoon, Dante notes the crowd of damned souls, teeth chattering in terror, standing nearby awaiting passage into Hell, and explains that they continue on their path because "Divine Justiceâ€¦spurs them soâ€¦they yearn for what they fear" (III.122-123). Dante places himself among the damned most likely because he too feels damned to a fate he no longer wants, but is-in his mindset-doomed to experience. Though he does not wish to be on the very cusp of Hell, he has no choice in the matter. Therefore, it is not outrageous to propose that Dante's intimate knowledge of the damned souls' inner thoughts and emotions came from experiencing them first-hand. Shortly after these facts about Dante's inner emotional state are revealed (note how quickly the physical world begins to react once Dante's mental state is revealed), Hell "[shakes]â€¦violently," striking terror into Dante's heart (III.128). Or does it? The answer is both yes and no; while the tremor is certainly terrifying, the tremor is used to physically display Dante's inner terror, and add to his suffering (which had up until this point, been only in his head). After the tremor, jets of flame shoot up from the "tear-soaked ground," and while these tears may not have belonged to Dante (though many probably did), it is clear that they represent the strong emotional battle being fought on those shores both by Dante and the damned; a battle that Hell easily wins (III.130). The combination of the monstrous quake and Dante's already stressed emotional state reaches its climax when it "[shatters Dante's] senses," causing him to faint (III.132).
Just as the damned are driven towards eternal suffering, Dante is willed on through Hell by Divine Love; he crosses the Acheron against his will, drawn ever closer to that which he fears the most.
This first ordeal sets an interesting precedent for us, and further supports the theory that whenever possible, balance is sought between the physical and emotional torment of Hell; when Dante is emotionally weak, Hell responds with a physically strong barrier, and when Dante is physically strong, Hell seeks to weaken his emotions. As with any rule there are, of course, exceptions. The only exception to this one, however, occurs in Limbo where Hell does not seek to torment, merely to teach.
After his "[stumble] into darkness," on the beach of Acheron, Dante is awakened by a "clap of thunder," that brings him out of the darkness of his mind, and into the darkness of Limbo (III.134, IV.1). While this transition does not initially sound beneficial or optimistic, its implications are huge. While unconscious, Dante is unable to continue his journey. Because of this obvious impediment, it would seem that Dante's unconscious state becomes the next barrier he must face.
Before we can understand how Dante overcomes the barrier, we must look at the factors that caused it. From prior analysis we know that Dante felt 1) damned to a fate he did not want, and 2) overwhelmed by Hell to the point of collapse. Because Dante's mind was really only focused on how much he did not want to be in Hell, his mind subconsciously "removed" itself from Hell, trapping Dante inside his own mind (a state of "Limbo" if I may be permitted to use the term). It was his mind that did not want to continue, and it is his mind that continues to hold him in the dark. While it may seem that Dante's consciousness is the issue, what really matters is Dante's mindset. Without the proper mindset (and because of the intellectual division of Limbo), it would not matter if Dante was asleep or awake, he would be in the darkness of Limbo either way (I point this out to reveal a pattern of ambiguity, and to again support the desire for "balance"). As Dante makes his way through the darkness of Limbo it is also important to note that the darkness represents the ignorance of the sinners who did not know God, and Dante's initial second thoughts about his journey. While he walks with Virgil towards the Citadel (Human Reason, or a better mindset), Dante notices that "sounds of sighing," are emitted by practically every inhabitant of Limbo (IV.26). These "sighs" show that the citizens of Limbo have given up hope, and they are slowly accepting their fate. Because his environment is filled with slow, gradual acceptance, it only stands to reason that Dante is experiencing something similar to this in his own mind (which is also arguably Limbo) as he grows closer and closer to the Light of Human Reason.
Once he reaches the Citadel, Dante is able to easily cross the brook that serves as the physical barrier between the ignorant, and "those who wish to know". By physically crossing this small and un-daunting barrier, Dante affirms that he has now achieved a proper mindset, and that not only does he accept his fate, but he wishes to find the good in his journey through Hell and turn the experience into a positive. With this barrier overcome and a new goal in mind, Dante and Virgil set off for Circle 2.
A large problem Dante experiences during his time in Hell is the pity he feels for those who have sinned. This excess pity hinders Dante's ability to appreciate his journey and simply causes him undue hardship.
During his time in Circle 2, Dante's emotions get the best of him again, resulting in yet another one of his "swoons". While walking through Circle 2, Dante feels "swept by pity and confusion," at both the punishment, and the punished (V.72). He takes these two dominant emotions and scatters them throughout the Circle; the swirling winds representing confusion and the self-pitying inhabitants really serve to pump Circle 2 full of bad sentiments and high-pitched whining. While Dante has adjusted to a more positive mind-frame, he is still human, and he still feels pity for those who suffer (especially when they are in mass quantities). Compound that fact with the fact that this is technically only the second punishment he has seen in Hell, everyone's story is a melodrama, etc. and it only makes sense that once he got around to Paolo and Francesca, Paolo's "[piteous]," weeping pushed him over the edge. That being said, by this time in the Comedy, Dante has "swooned" twice-both times overwhelming pity was involved. Each of Dante's swoons marks a transition in his thought process; the first changes his mindset so he can better cope with Hell, the second helps him better cope with sin. Once he begins to harden his heart to sin, it becomes harder and harder to associate Dante's emotions with his environment (with the exception of Cocytus). When this occurs, Dante is able to "outsmart" the system, keep himself in control, and show us all how to go through Hell with grace, poise, and a chip on the shoulder.