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Paradise Lost by John Milton - Barron's Booknotes
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Looking at Eve through twentieth-century eyes, we find it difficult to separate her character from our feelings of indignation about the role she is given. Certainly Milton was sexist; he could not be otherwise given his times and his religion. He has to tell a story that was itself sexist, because it is a myth with a social purpose.

Poor Eve suffers from Milton's time and place. She is the "weaker," she was made not directly in God's image but from part of Adam's body, she must worship God through Adam, not in her own right. She is beautiful, yet her beauty is her downfall when the serpent flatters her, and it is downgraded in value by both Adam and Michael.

When left to herself she acts in no way that could be faulted. But it is Eve's ear, not Adam's, into which Satan pours the bad dream. And the effects of it cause her to argue with Adam that she should go separately to work in the garden. (There is no evidence that she had ever suggested this before the dream.) And of course it is Eve who is tempted by the serpent.

Her behavior during the first exchange with the serpent can't be blamed. This is the first time she has ever heard another creature speak except for Adam and those angelic but long-winded visitors. She listens with natural curiosity, but when they get to the tree, she says they might have spared themselves the walk. There is no thought in her mind of doing anything forbidden.

What convinces her are Satan's arguments. They are based on reason, and reason is a deceiver in Milton's theology. Right reason is the following of God's law absolutely. False reason is man's own logic. To trust to logic is to put your powers ahead of God's-the fundamental error. We have to sympathize with Eve in trusting her own reason. She's only human.

Her reactions after the Fall make that very clear. She wants Adam to eat the fruit not for his own benefit but for a self-serving reason: if she dies, Adam will get another Eve. But she never says that to him. And she puts the blame squarely on him for allowing her to suffer temptation:

Being as I am, why didst not thou the head Command me absolutely not to go?

(IX, 1156-1157)

The quarrel is only too true to life.

Yet it is Eve who knows how to get out of the quarrel and on with the rest of their lives. She falls at Adam's feet, even though he has repulsed her first effort at reconciliation. Her submission wins him over. Like Adam, she has become sadder, wiser, and more mature after the Fall. She is very unhappy at being forced to leave Paradise. It's a bit like a corporate wife being told that she has to leave her home when her husband is transferred. But just like the wife, Eve realizes the truth of Michael's remark that her home is wherever her husband is.

When Michael prepares to tell Adam the future history of mankind, his descendants, he puts Eve to sleep with a drug. Yet when she wakes she knows all that has been said and is comforted by the thought that her "promised seed," the son of the Virgin Mary, the "second Eve," will redeem mankind. This symbolizes a different way of knowing-woman's intuition, direct instinctive knowledge rather than explanation and reasoning. It is another sign that "women are different."

Eve's last words refer to her consciousness of guilt for "my wilful crime." You might think Eve gets a bum rap. At least reflect that we no longer think that she represents the truth about women.


Sin and Death are not characters but allegorical figures. That means they do what their names say they do. Whenever you see them, try to translate what they are doing into its meaning. Sin was born from Lucifer's head at the moment of his rebellion; this means that Sin begins with rebellion against just authority. Death was born as a result of an incestuous relationship between Sin and Satan; the meaning of this should be obvious.

Sin and Death keep the gates of Hell. When Sin opens the gate, it can never be shut again (another moral for us all). The mother and son together build the road from Hell to earth, so that while they are causing trouble with all the creatures there, the devils from Hell can easily travel to earth-and the condemned souls from earth will easily slide down to Hell. One of the horrible figures who keep running in and out of Sin's womb, Discord, begins to make food for her incestuous father Death as soon as they all get to earth.

We still use allegorical figures today. Our best-known one is Liberty, the statue in New York harbor. All her features, especially the lamp she carries, are meant to symbolize the freedom offered by this country.

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Paradise Lost by John Milton - Barron's Booknotes

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