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As we continue to move through the motions of life we are hit with moments of pain, moments of enjoyment, and moments of fear, and in those few moments it is our instinct to react, whether it be with tears, silence, or even a cry for help. Our emotional state becomes consumed by what happens around us and whether or not we have previously been exposed to such experiences. In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri gives us a wide view into what it would be like to experience something completely out of the ordinary; something one might find frightening to experience. While traveling through each level of Hell he shows us a common pattern or rather occurrence within each of them- his emotional state of mind towards what he sees. This pattern gives us insight into the human journey itself; the ups and downs and overall finding the light at the end of the tunnel. His feelings represent the sorts of emotional turmoil a mind can go through once it has seen so much. His emotions in the book travel along somewhat of a bumpy road and little by little parts of his character are revealed, while allegorically parts of us are as well. By constantly showing us his feelings Dante allows us to see what it takes to realize God’s grace and initially the constant ups and downs it took him to get there.
Dante first finds himself trapped in a dark forest in need of help due to the three obstacles preventing him from reaching the top of a hill. In order to help Dante, Virgil -a well known poet- is sent to lead him safely in the correct path towards the light or rather away from the dark forest but first they must travel through Hell. Before entering the gates of Hell, Dante is nervous and while looking around he feels pity for the opportunists. Despite the severity of the sinners who have yet to be mentioned in the future, he feels a sense of compassion for them and their eternal punishment. Eventually Dante realizes the extremities of the journey he is about to take and soon becomes weightless when “all [his] shattered senses [leave] [him]” and ultimately passes out- “blind, like one whom sleep comes over in a swoon”- from the fear and anxiety that comes with entering the terrifying unknown (III,32-33). However, when he is awakened by thunder as he and Virgil reach Limbo he experiences a completely different set of feelings. Since Limbo looks nothing like what someone would expect Hell to resemble, Dante finds himself amazed by how beautiful it looks. While only getting to see a small taste of what Hell is like, we are able to see Dante’s reactions nonetheless but as he and Virgil continue on we will begin to see a pattern among the way he feels as they pass through each level.
Once Dante and Virgil reach the circle of the lustful, Dante begins to feel sympathetic towards these souls as he once did before with the opportunists. Dante feels a sense of connection in his own life within this circle because of his love for Beatrice. Once he hears the tragic story of Francesca and Paolo he is “swept by pity and confusion” yet again as “[he] felt [his] senses reel away and faint with anguish” (V,72, 137-138). In the book Dante continuously makes connections in some ways to his own life’s journey outside of Hell in order to better show the impact that his journey through Hell makes on his overall character. As Dante and Virgil continue through upper Hell passing the hoarders and the wasters, they reach the realm of the wrathful in circle five. While in this circle we are able to see Dante’s own side of wrath when he becomes immediately angry after seeing Filippo Argenti. Dante then, without pity, watches him get torn apart by the demons. Once he begins to uncover more people he recognizes in Hell, we are able to see different sides of him. After each circle he continues to grow less sympathetic and instead more hateful the deeper they travel through Hell.
However, just as in any situation there is always the chance of fear even after a moment of confidence or victory. When Dante realizes that Virgil has failed to get them across the river he becomes fearful. With a tough combination of finding out Virgil’s trials ending without success as well as suddenly seeing three flying harpies, Dante’s face “paled to a mask of cowardice” sitting there frightened and helpless until Virgil could finally carry him through to the next circle (IX,1). As Dante continues to experience new things he becomes shaken with shock and fear. In some ways he gains that sense of hatred and his words become brutal but even so, he always manages to return to his compassionate side in which he feels compassion towards the souls and overall fears what has yet to be discovered ahead just as we fear in our own lives.
Once Dante and Virgil get closer to reaching lower Hell and wander in the presence of the heretics, he continues to sympathize with the sinners. He also begins to feel guilty because a man he meets along the way named Calvacante believes his son to be dead because of Dante’s miscommunication. Later on as they are wandering through the woods of suicide Dante begins to hear cries coming from the trees. Virgil insists that Dante ask one of the trees how he got there but he explains that “such compassion chokes [his] heart” overall making it difficult for him to speak to the man (XIII,84). Dante once again begins showing sympathy towards the souls especially when they are torn apart or bothered by the harpies as they yell loudly in pain. As he and Virgil move deeper and deeper into Hell, he begins to become more emotional and ultimately in need of Virgil’s assistance. When they enter the fourth ditch in Malebolge, Dante is unable to recognize the punishment until he looks closer and realizes the distortion of their heads and the tears in their eyes. Dante begins to weep and tries justifying himself by explaining to the reader- “ask yourself how I could check my tears” (XX,20-21). He begins to realize the true grief and embarrassment to ourselves an each other that comes with being eternally damned in Hell. He explains to us that “near at hand [he] saw the image of [our] humanity distorted so that the tears that burst from their eyes ran down the cleft of their buttocks” as a form of eternal mockery for the souls (XX,20-24). After consistently expressing his sympathy towards the souls he is scolded by Virgil and is told that he must not question the justice of God’s Law. However, instead of questioning God’s Law, he is more likely questioning his own heart as well as that of the rest of humankind.
Through Dante’s extensive journey in Hell he explores many of his own emotions and ultimately embarks on a journey within himself as well. Periodically throughout the book we are able to see Dante’s level of compassion -towards the souls- which continue on in an up and down sort of way. His constant imbalance of emotions and sympathy towards the souls allows us to better understand that even though in the book, as well as in real life we are presented with danger along with temptation and wrath towards others, we still possess the ability to feel a sense of compassion towards others. In the end when Virgil and Dante climb the bottom of Lucifer’s leg in order to reach earth again, Dante sees the light and ultimately reaches an understanding of his own heart while at the same time, understanding the journey it took to get him through the dark forest.
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