Dante 2021 Lecture series | Hell on Earth in Dante and Margaret Atwood – School of Languages and Cultures Dante 2021 Lecture series | Hell on Earth in Dante and Margaret Atwood – School of Languages and Cultures

Dante 2021 Lecture series | Hell on Earth in Dante and Margaret Atwood

The Department of Italian Studies presents

Dante 2021 Lecture series

Hell on Earth in Dante and Margaret Atwood
Emma Barlow, University of Technology Sydney

Much of Margaret Atwood’s extensive corpus of fiction has been scoured for Dantean references and echoes, and in works such as Life Before Man (1979) and Oryx and Crake (2003) these resonances have been found to be abundant indeed. Naturally the dystopian landscape of The Handmaid’s Tale has also drawn occasional comparisons with Dante’s Inferno. The Inferno, when read independently of the second and third cantiche that form the complete Commedia, necessarily skews towards the catastrophic, though the reappearance of Dante and Virgil in the world above at the end of Inferno 34 does provide some small comfort. Likewise, Atwood’s 1985 novel presents a glimpse at the horrors experienced primarily by the women of Gilead, and ends in an uncertain future for Offred, the ‘handmaid’ of the title.

With the 2019 publication of the sequel Gilead novel The Testaments, however, Atwood not only completes the original unfinished tale, but also fills in gaps in perspective of which neither reader nor narrator were aware, mirroring the way in which Dante’s Inferno cannot be fully understood if not as a component of the Commedia, for pilgrim and public alike. Thus in reading The Handmaid’s Tale as a descent into Hell on Earth, it is subsequently possible to view The Testaments as a successive ascent to ‘una vera città’ (Purg. 13.95), and thus to reimagine the two novels as one complete story of hope. This talk will explore the coincidental reception of Dante in Atwood’s Gilead novels, analysing the interpretations of testimony and collective narrative, the role of memory, and the presence of the problematic female reader in these temporally and culturally distinct works. It will also open new avenues to discuss attitudes towards reception studies more generally, and the ways in which innovative methodologies in this field can lead to productive and intriguing new understandings of old texts. 

About the speaker

Emma Louise Barlow is a Lecturer in Italian studies at the University of Technology Sydney for 2021, and teaches on a wide variety of topics related to Italian language, literature and culture. In 2020 she received her PhD in Italian Studies from the University of Sydney. Her thesis, titled ‘Liminal Geographies of Suicide in Dante’sCommedia’, examined the intersection of narratives of self-destruction and the notion of the in-between in the works of Dante and of the later medieval and early modern Italian literary tradition. She has a BA (Langs) (Hons) also from the University of Sydney and a Master of Studies in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. She has recently published an article on the emotional language of Inferno 13 and co-authored a chapter on alternative and inclusive pedagogies in the Harry Potter series with Alice Loda (UTS). Her research interests include medieval and early modern Italian literature, the history of emotions, palaeography and codicology, the history of the book, digital humanities, and language pedagogy. 

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For more information, contact: Associate Professor Francesco Borghesi – francesco.borghesi@sydney.edu.au


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Aug 25 2021


4:00 PM - 5:30 PM


Online (Zoom)


Italian Studies

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