John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost was first published in 1667. Originally written as 10 books, Milton reworked it as 12, following the model of Virgil’s Aeneid. In the work, Milton explores the creation of humankind by God, the temptation in Eden, Satan’s ambition and fall and the concept of sin. He faces two major difficulties in the story. Having created Satan as a dynamic and not unattractive villain, he has to find a way of debasing him. And he has to reconcile Adam’s free will with the idea of predestination, seen as God’s foreknowledge of future events. He does this by proposing that humankind has free will, but that God, having set the framework of creation in motion, does not control events, but is aware of the outcome in advance.
How did the Romantic poets view Paradise Lost?
The Romantic interpretation of Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost stems from William Blake’s statement that Milton was ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in A Defence of Poetry that ‘nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost’.
How does Paradise Lost relate to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?
The relationship between Frankenstein and Paradise Lost is complex. On the one hand, Frankenstein is like Milton’s Satan in his arrogant challenge against the power of God. But he is also, like God, the creator of a being intended to be greater than other creatures. Frankenstein does ‘play’ God, just as the monster does in judging and punishing Frankenstein. Then again, the monster, expelled from human society, is like Satan, falling from light into darkness – ‘the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil’, he says at the end of the novel.
The circumstances of the monster and Frankenstein echo many other aspects of the book: being expelled or refused access to Paradise, having or not having a partner, having or not having the chance of redemption.
Percy Shelley gave Mary Shelley a copy of Paradise Lost on 6 June 1815. The epigram on the title page of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein is from Paradise Lost. Milton is thought to have visited Villa Diodati, a place on the banks of Lake Geneva where Mary Shelley first conceived the idea for Frankenstein.
There are many references to Paradise Lost in Frankenstein. Frankenstein for example recognises that ‘like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell’. Like Satan, the monster makes his extraordinary journey through the worst of landscapes. His resolution to commit acts of aggression against people around him echoes Satan’s ‘Evil, be thou my Good’. Like Satan attacking God through Adam, and Adam through his mate, the monster attacks Frankenstein through a decreasing circle of the latter’s family and friends, finally coming to Elizabeth. But the whole book is a critique of Milton’s mission, to ‘justify the ways of God to men’, as Frankenstein takes on the ‘ways of God’ by attempting to create the ideal man.
- Article by:
- Sharon Ruston
- Technology and science, The novel 1780–1832
Professor Sharon Ruston surveys the scientific background to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, considering contemporary investigations into resuscitation, galvanism and the possibility of states between life and death.