Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Going to Hell: Exploring the Infernal in Western Literature

ENGL 429.640
instructor(s):

In both the classical and the Christian tradition, literary texts have invited
readers to journey into the underworld, and more fascinated than frightened, we
have been eager for the trip. This says something about our collective taste
since even pagan depictions of Hades can be sad and terrifying. Christian
descriptions, based on a belief in the certainty and justice of eternal
torment, are very deliberately designed to leave us “scared straight.” Despite
their disparate theological contexts, the Hells of pagan and Christian authors
have a great deal in common as well as obvious differences. We will begin the
course by descending into Homer’s and Virgil’s Hades in passages from the
Odyssey and the Aeneid. We will journey through Dante’s Inferno, and be thrown
along with Satan and his legions onto the burning lake of Milton’s Hell in
Paradise Lost. Throughout these different trips into the abyss, we will be
asking questions about the design, architecture, features and creatures of each
particular Hell, trying to divine their purpose in each narrative, and placing
them within their respective contexts—Greek, Roman, Catholic, and Protestant.