Paradise Lost: Essay Q&A
1. How does Milton see Eve in the story of “man’s disobedience”?
Milton tried to ennoble Eve from the medieval concept of her as temptress and sole reason for the fall. He makes her Adam’s equal and partner, the honored “mother of mankind.” Adam addresses her as “Daughter of God and Man, accomplish’t Eve” (IV, 660). Satan calls her “Shee fair, divinely fair, fit Love for Gods” (IX, 389). The poet uses many goddess images for Eve, such as “Juno” (IV, 500) and “wood nymph”(IV, 386) “Proserpina” (IV, 396). The last is an important image, for it implies that the fall is a rape as in the Greek myth, and no fault of Eve’s.
Milton glorifies the harmony and love of Adam and Eve before the fall (IV, 321-735), with the animals playing innocently at their feet and the fruit dropping from the trees. “Imparadis’t in one another’s arms” (IV, 506) they engage in physical love, but it is not sinful.
Eve is the answer to Adam’s prayer for a mate, and she calls Adam “her other half.” Adam makes it clear to Raphael that he adores his wife, for she is his own flesh and soul (VIII, 499). The creation of Eve from Adam’s rib suggests they are the same being, soul mates (VIII, 450-499).
Although Eve falls first and talks Adam into disobeying (IX, 990-1011), God treats them as equally culpable, or Adam as slightly more so, since he knew what he was doing (X, 145). In the repentance scene, it is Eve who gains stature by softening Adam’s heart so they can pray for forgiveness (X, 914-1011). Milton emphasizes Eve’s importance as the cause of Satan’s defeat, for it is her “seed” (Christ) who will reverse the fall (X, 179-181).
And yet, for the last two centuries, women readers have been furious at Milton’s portrait of the first woman. Charlotte Bronte epitomizes the outcry with the passage in her novel, Shirley: “Milton’s Eve! Milton’s Eve! . . . He tried to see the first woman, but he could not. It was his cook he saw.”
Milton imagined the ideal woman as best he could, but it was in terms of the ideas of the day. For instance, Eve does not seem to approach God directly, but only through her husband: “Hee for God; shee for God in Him”(IV, 288-311). Though both Adam and Eve have Reason, she seems slightly deficient compared to Adam and is easy prey to Satan’s flattery and arguments (IX, .526-780).
Eve is a well-rounded character with noble traits, even though readers may wince at some lines and scenes, such as when she is pictured as the naked housewife serving a dinner of fruits to Adam and the angel (V, 303-349).
2. What is the meaning of the forbidden fruit?
The forbidden apple in some versions of the story represents sexual love, but in Milton’s version, Adam and Eve were already engaged in physical love that was not sinful. Once they “fell” their sex turned into lust (IX, 1013-1058), so in that sense, the apple is related to forbidden knowledge and pleasure because it is of a lower nature, disconnected from divine Reason.
We see the change in Eve as she tastes the fruit, becomes a slave to her senses and disconnects from God, whom she suddenly turns on, calling him “The Great Forbidder”(IX, 815). She no longer acts rationally; her state of mind is selfish and paranoid, like Satan’s (IX, 795-833).
Milton makes clear the forbidden fruit has to do with a certain way of being and knowing life. The apple causes discord, fear, and unhappiness because it means the person has chosen to use the lower faculties (will and senses) to gain experience of the changing nature of life, instead of being anchored in the higher faculties (“Right Reason”) to stay in the unity of life (“obedience to God”).
Satan argues that you can’t know life without the opposites, you can’t know good except by knowing evil (IV, 886-901). As usual, Satan twists his arguments. The only good he gets after the fall is the memory of goodness, because once Reason is lost, and one acts from the will and senses alone, one is lost in fear and delusion (IV, 37-113).
Eating the apple leads to death, both physical and spiritual, by shortening life and making one into a materialist, cut off from God. God forbids this fruit because that is not man’s true nature. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil does not lead humans to their greatest good. God says, “Happier had it suffic’d him to have known/ Good by itself, and Evil not at all” (XI, 88-9). The two trees are there because humans can go up or down the ladder of evolution, but God wanted them to have the fruit of the Tree of Life, immortality.
3. What is meant by ‘right reason’ and why is it so important?
Right Reason, the term used by Renaissance thinkers, meant more than intellect. It was the transcendental faculty in humans that connected them to God. Animals did not have this faculty. Angels had it in a greater degree, as Raphael tells Adam, explaining that Reason can elevate humans up to God in time( V, 469-504). When God created the earth, Man was “the Master work . . . endu’d / With sanctity of Reason . . . to correspond with Heav’n” (VII, 505-511). Right Reason allowed direct knowledge of the laws of nature and God. “God and Nature bid the same,” Abdiel says, explaining to Satan that to a rational person, following God is obeying the laws of one’s own life (VI, 176). Reason is the means of “obedience” to God before the fall. Afterwards, God gives as a replacement “My Umpire Conscience,” augmented by grace (III, 174-202).
The faculty of Reason was not only the organ of communication with the divine realm but the organ of discrimination and balance, as well. The unfallen angels for instance, recognize Satan’s false arguments easily, and they can see by the passions on his face that his Reason is gone(IV, 114-132).
Without Reason there could be no true love, Adam tells Eve (IX, 239-241). Without Reason people would act as animals, which is indeed what happens after the fall when this faculty all but disappears. Adam and Eve quarrel and lose their nobility. History is bloody, says Michael to Adam, because men live by passion alone. Without Reason, there is no Liberty (XII, 82-101), for when humans do not choose Reason, then God allows the tyrant.
4. Why must Adam’s progeny suffer for his sin?
Adam asks this question after the fall, questioning God’s justice (X, 822-833). It is the biblical principle that the sins of the father are visited on the children. This principle makes sense in many ways. For instance, a parent who is ill or deficient in some way may pass on a defective gene. A criminal is more likely to have come from a criminal home. Can sin be inherited?
Milton shows that Adam’s sin is not merely symbolic or moral or psychological. It has a physical dimension as well. God warned that the consequence of sin is death—not immediate death, but impaired life, suffering, and a short life. The poet shows the external world and the internal world reflect each other, and he means this literally.
When Adam and Eve eat the apple (use their lower faculties), they don’t drop dead as they expect, but consequences are felt. Their perception changes, they feel fear, anger and despair. They act out of survival and calculation. They lose their memory of the good (X, 111-118).
The Fall affects all of nature. Time enters with its changes and decay; the seasons become extreme; the war of the elements begins; the earth tips on its axis; the animals become violent; getting food is difficult; childbirth is painful. The children born of Adam and Eve will know only this world, no other (X, 650-719). The inheritance of Eden with its promised immortality is gone. Original sin—a sort of handicap—is passed on.
Occasionally, in the long train of human history, as Michael shows Adam, there is the “one just man,” like Noah or Moses, who remains virtuous. It is because of these few that God continues creation and sends His son to renew his covenant with man, so humans may once again attain immortality. At the end of time, both heaven and earth will be renewed, but until then, the fall has to play itself out, according to the law of cause and effect. Adam and Eve choose to plunge into material life, a fall that is “fortunate,” but only in the long run.
5. What is Milton’s worldview?
Milton was a radical Protestant, a Puritan who wanted to reform church and government . He was a great scholar, using parts of the Bible, classical literature, and other Christian poets, as well as his own imagination, in his poem. He was indebted to Du Bartas, Tasso, Ovid, Homer, Virgil, Dante and Spenser. The drama of the Greeks and Shakespeare gave him models for characterization and dialogue.
Much of his world in Paradise Lost is so familiar, one may not be aware of the radical additions he made to the story. For instance, Milton disliked the doctrine of the trinity and makes Christ created by God as his Son, therefore, not equal to the Father, an Arian heresy (V, 600-615).
Milton did not believe, like most theologians, that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. He shows God (through the agency of Christ) shaping creation from the warring atoms of Chaos (VII,163-173) Milton puts the earth in the middle of the cosmos, as it was in medieval theory, but he had met Galileo, knew the theory of the sun in the center, and uses several references to telescopes in the poem. Raphael, however, warns Adam not to get sidetracked from faith by competing intellectual theories (VIII, 119-178).
“Spiritual materialism” is a term used to describe Milton’s philosophy of monism. That is, he did not believe there were two forces at work, such as good and evil, spiritual and material. There is only one unified and divine source of everything, a continuum of life proceeding from God down to material creation, everything good in its right use.
For instance, before the fall, Adam and Eve enjoy physical life, such as sleeping, eating, and making love. They enjoy their senses, because the senses are not divorced from Reason. The angel Raphael explains that even angels are able to eat food and make love, although their senses are more refined (V, 404-443).
In the war in heaven, the angels wound each other, and Satan explodes things with gunpowder (VI, 510-598). Milton was criticized for his fleshy angels and material heaven, but he believed in the literal truth of the Bible and did not want to make the scenes merely metaphoric or symbolic. It is Satan who is the great dualist, and the Tree of Good and Evil, the tree of polarization. The Tree of Life is a path of unity.
What would have been recognizable to all readers in Milton’s time was the medieval Great Chain of Being, explained by Raphael to Adam (V, 468-504). This was another image of the unity of God with His creation, everything laid out in orderly layers of creation, from the lowest to the highest, in its place, according to its ability to reflect divine Reason. God was at the top, with the angels next, humans next with their ability to climb up or down the chain, then animals, vegetation, and inanimate nature.