Characters Discussed

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The narrator

The narrator, the author’s alter ego, who leaves his wife and child to pursue knowledge of chemistry and alchemy. His scientific experiments leave him incapacitated, his hands bleeding. He enters a hospital, where he is surrounded by decay, disease, and death. A brilliant and high-principled man, he is tormented in his soul and body by a number of hidden and diabolical assailants. He sees himself attacked by worldly enemies and, increasingly, otherworldly ones, demons and satanic forces. His soul writhes in fear of shadowy assailants, planning unknown mischief against him. He is disgusted by the stenches, horrid noises, and rude, base people that beset him, and he is in torment as electrical emanations, foul air, and other poisons destroy his health and worry his sanity. He offers this narrative as an account of his trip through nothing less than a literal hell. Throughout the novel, there is no shred of irony, no hint of self-conception, not even the thought that others may find his torments ridiculous. He is utterly self-absorbed. He travels from one location to another to escape his torments, finally settling in Sweden, where he embraces Roman Catholicism and mysticism.


Christine, the narrator’s daughter, on whom he attempts to cast a spell. He later visits her, finding temporary consolation. She directs him on the path to a higher love.


Popoffsky, a former compatriot of the narrator who now wants to murder him. He is one of the narrator’s many tormentors.

The Characters

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In Inferno, the narrator is the only complex character. All the others are projected to the reader through his ego. On one level, he is a disturbed individual trying to maintain his sanity by seeking both rational and irrational answers for his sufferings. On another level, he becomes an archetypal scapegoat thrust into a cosmic drama. At first, he sets himself up as a Promethean rebel who is condemned to eternal punishment for revealing the secrets of the universe. Later, he envisions himself as Job, the innocent victim whom God has turned over to Satan in order to show the wicked that a just man must endure his suffering. Like Job, the narrator suffers from skin ulcers, endures poverty, is rejected by friends, and is surrounded by excrement. Also, he questions God but never receives a satisfactory answer to the meaning of human suffering. Then the narrator assumes the role of a mock Christ figure, suffering the stigmata of bleeding hands and bearing on his shoulders the sorrows of the world. Finally, the scapegoat hero becomes God’s fool—a laughingstock to teach humanity the vanity of worldly ambitions.

On his path through the inferno, the narrator encounters several false friends: Popoffsky, a former compatriot who now wants to murder him; a Danish painter who double-crosses him; a mysterious friend who wants him tried for witchcraft; a doctor who becomes his tormentor. All human relationships deteriorate, and the narrator must face his agonies alone. Women also play an important role in the narrator’s enlightenment. He often sees women as temptresses and defilers of his purity. Sensual women, such as prostitutes, constantly abuse him. Feminists are seen as maenads trying to ruin him and tear him to pieces. Only the mother figure offers him consolation. The nun in the St. Louis Hospital, his mother-in-law, and her sister show him love and teach him to bear his sufferings. His daughter, Christine, the pure virgin, becomes his Beatrice and directs him on the path to a higher love. Finally, it is the Virgin Mary, embodying both the qualities of purity and maternity, who becomes his protectress. Her presence recurs throughout the novel, as she is raised to the status of a goddess, more powerful even than the crucified Christ.


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Brandell, Gunnar. Strindberg in “Inferno,” 1974.

Johannesson, Eric. The Novels of August Strindberg, 1968.

Lagercrantz, Olof. August Strindberg, 1984.

Lamm, Martin. August Strindberg, 1971.

Meyer, Michael. Strindberg: A Biography, 1985.

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