Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Inferno deals with humanity’s powerlessness in a world of torment, evil, disease, and death. Surrounded by criminals and sinners, forced to witness death and decay, confronted by excrement and filth, persecuted by diabolical machines, and driven to the brink of insanity, the narrator depicts a world of unremitting agony. Rebellion is futile, for it leads to pride and retribution. Those who pursue wealth and fame find that their goals inevitably become the instruments of their torture. Love turns to hate, friends become enemies, and virtues are transformed into vices.

Grappling with the age-old dilemma of Job, August Strindberg at times sees human suffering as a means of purification; occasionally, he also sees a direct connection between sin and suffering. He even holds that people can suffer for sins committed in another life. Intermingling Catholic and Protestant theology, Buddhist ideals, Swedenborgian mysticism, and occultist theory, Strindberg creates more paradoxes than explanations. He consoles those afflicted with mental anguish by telling them that they are God’s special people. Lurking behind Strindberg’s divinity, however, is a capricious and inexplicable God who can turn the proud into beggars, the wise into fools, and the prophets into charlatans, and who can ultimately reduce human existence to a joke.