Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498
In Inferno , the psychologically disturbed narrator sets forth on a journey through an earthly hell and emerges purified of his sins. Leaving his wife and child liberates him but also fills him with guilt. Living alone in Paris, he rejects love in order to pursue knowledge and with the...
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In Inferno, the psychologically disturbed narrator sets forth on a journey through an earthly hell and emerges purified of his sins. Leaving his wife and child liberates him but also fills him with guilt. Living alone in Paris, he rejects love in order to pursue knowledge and with the aid of signs and portents discovers carbon in the element sulfur. At the same time, the narrator, believing that his life is being controlled by an unknown power, withdraws from the world of loose living, only to be whipped by prostitutes and harassed by ruffians, who punish him for his sins. When his scientific experiments leave his hands bleeding and incapacitated, he enters the St. Louis Hospital, where he is surrounded by decay, disease, and death. Once there, however, his relationship with a motherly nun revives him and teaches him to bear his sufferings.
Although he receives financial aid for a time, his suffering increases. After dabbling in black magic by trying to cast a spell on his child, he finds himself plagued by three Scandinavian women playing three separate pianos in the rooms next to him. Fleeing to the Hotel Orfila, the narrator continues his grandiose experiments, trying to produce gold from lead. Incidents which he perceives as strange omens continue to plague him, as he discovers a man who looks like his wife, letters displaying his wife’s maiden name, and an envelope addressed to a Dr. Bitter.
Undergoing a series of mystical experiences, the narrator sees his life as a purgatory in which he is threatened by his enemy Popoffsky, betrayed by his friend the Danish painter, and persecuted by the Devil, who turns over his glass, flicks soot on him, and leaves him in a world of excrement and filth. Doubting the efficacy of his scientific experiments and choked by noxious gases, he opens his window and sees the North Star beckoning him northward.
Fleeing from one location to another only increases his torments. He feels electric shocks running through his body, sees infernal machines being built above his room, and prepares himself for death by reading Psalms. Even in the wholesome atmosphere of his friend’s family at Dieppe, the demoniac spirits continue to persecute him. Seeking refuge with a doctor increases the intensity of his sufferings and leaves him convinced that he is living in Hell. Only when visiting his daughter and mother-in-law does he find temporary consolation, although he continues to look out on a world filled with disease and evil. Eventually, he feels vultures trying to tear out his heart and he vainly cries out to God.
Finally, he settles in Sweden, believing that his torments have purified him. Embracing Roman Catholicism and Swedenborgian mysticism, he accepts a life of repentance and seeks refuge in a Belgian monastery. In the end, he holds up his life as a warning to those who think that they can shape their own destiny in an earthly hell which is controlled by an “Invisible Hand.”