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Paradise Lost by John Milton - Barron's Booknotes
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The characterization of Paradise Lost is peculiar. Only two characters, Adam and Eve, are people. Even they are different from us because they have not been born in the conventional way and neither is a member of a family. We don't see them in relation to other people because there aren't any.

All the other characters are immortal and have powers beyond our human understanding. But to describe them Milton must use human terms. That works to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others.


Is Satan the hero or the villain of Paradise Lost? That's the question that has intrigued readers since the poem first appeared. It's too easy to say that Milton intended him for a villain but he turned out a hero. More probably Satan gets the benefit of the fact that Milton has to use human terms to describe him. It is easier-sad to say-to make absolute evil understandable than to do the same for absolute good.

Satan is an endlessly intriguing character. You will not be able to make up your mind about him even after you've read the poem and written essays on him. You will find yourself using him to characterize people you know about: "He's a bit like Satan in Paradise Lost-unbelievably talented but throwing it all away because he won't accept authority." Such people are fascinating and attractive, but they're infuriating when they waste it all for what they think is freedom.

All the main characters in Paradise Lost are concerned with freedom. Those who understand true freedom know that it consists of obeying God's will without question. (Abdiel is the best example-look at the discussion of his character further on.) Those who do not understand it think freedom means being free from someone else's will and following your own. Satan is chief among them. He is so offended by God's announcement of the Son's equality with him that he wants to be free of what he calls "tyranny."

Satan's essential characteristic is deception. He deceives himself, he deceives others. To trick the angel of the sun, Uriel, he changes shape to become a polite young cherub eager to see God's creation. When he approaches Adam and Eve, he changes into whatever animal will get him close to them. He becomes a toad to squat by Eve's ear and give her a nightmare. And of course he deceives Eve in the shape of a serpent.

His seduction of Eve is a masterpiece of persuasion. He knows exactly which buttons to push-her vulnerability to flattery, her desire for power, her susceptibility to a logical argument. Milton tells us that he summons up all the orator's art for this final push: his speech is certainly a textbook model. To his talents as leader and inventor, we can add the deception and polish of a Madison Avenue advertising man.

When we last see Satan he has become the serpent whose shape he borrowed to seduce Eve. There is little sense that he understands the punishment he will eventually receive. He thinks he has won.

I am to bruise his heel; His seed, when is not set, shall bruise my head: A world who would not purchase with a bruise, Or much more grievous pain?

(X, 498-501)

Has Satan won his fight against God? Or is it just not in his character to understand his defeat?


Beelzebub, whose name during the Middle Ages meant simply "devil," is Satan's second-in-command. He behaves like a foil for Satan, allowing his leader to demonstrate his best qualities. Beelzebub is quite content with his reflected glory.


Belial appears twice in Paradise Lost, once when he advises the angels not to fight again and a second time during the War in Heaven when he makes bad puns with Satan about the cannon.


Moloch is the archetype of mindless force. He fought against Gabriel and was split in two, but since he is immortal he soon recovered. In the debate in Pandemonium he quite unreasonably counsels open war, without much sense of how victory can be attained in view of the recent devastating defeat. Where Belial is all charm and acquiescence, Moloch is blind and pointless defiance.

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Paradise Lost by John Milton - Barron's Booknotes

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