While the Inferno doesn’t have an antagonist in the usual sense, one of the most potent threats to Dante’s spiritual growth is Hell itself, which threatens him physically, waylays him, and, most seriously, jeopardizes his faith. Hell presents very real bodily dangers to Dante. Cerberus, the three-headed dog, lunges at Dante and may have eaten him if not for Virgil’s intervention; the monster Geryon, with a tail like a scorpion, is only prevented from stinging Dante to death because Virgil seats himself where he can “guard [Dante] from the venom[ous] tail”; and demons chase Dante and Virgil hoping to “overtake and snatch” them, waylaying them from their journey.
Yet these physical dangers pale in comparison to Hell’s efforts to undermine Dante’s spiritual growth, which the Inferno paints as the more serious threat. One of the most dangerous moments for Dante occurs as he reaches the City of Dis, at the boundary between upper and lower hell. There, demons refuse to grant Dante passage and Medusa herself comes out to “turn [Dante] to stone.” While there is obvious physical danger here, the greater danger is spiritual: if Dante were to see Medusa, “there would be no returning up above,” suggesting that the threatened transformation to stone represents despair, or a total loss of faith and hope. Such a loss would fully cut Dante off from further grace, and he would never leave Hell. Hell thus works against Dante in jeopardizing his already-weak faith and seeking to divert him from his passage back toward God.