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Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Poignancy and paradox

Eve in Paradise Lost is vain vulnerable and evidently intellectually inferior to Adam. However, Sandra M Gilbert argues that, though Milton portrays her as a weak character, he also puts her on a par with Satan in her refusal to accept hierarchy and because of her ability to move the plot of Paradise Lost forward.

Although John Milton declares that Paradise Lost will primarily examine ‘Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste / Brought Death into the World’ (Book 1, ll. 1–3), he explores these matters through a narrative that focusses on two paradigmatic rebels: Satan, the once-brilliant angel who falls through his explicit refusal to accept the hierarchy of Heaven; and Eve, the supposedly submissive ‘Mother of Mankind’ (Book 1, l. 36) who implicitly refuses to accept the hierarchy of Eden. There are, of course, other key characters in the unfolding tale – God the thunderer and his gentler Son who sacrifices himself for humanity; Sin and her son Death who together will make humanity their prey; God’s angelic messengers; and even Adam, the first and presumably noblest of men – but Satan and his victim (or perhaps his double) Eve are the actors who move the plot forward at every point.

William Strang's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1896

William Strang's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1896

In this etching Eve is being tempted by Satan, who takes the form of a serpent.

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Extraordinarily, the 12 books of Paradise Lost expand on just a few verses of the Old Testament: first, those explaining God’s formation of man, his creation of the garden in which stood the forbidden ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’ and his birthing of woman from man’s rib, then those dealing with the ‘subtil’ serpent’s temptation of Eve. Around these passages Milton develops the drama of discord between Heaven and Hell that shapes his epic of disobedience. The complexity with which he imbues both Satan and Eve is nowhere to be found in Genesis, where we are simply told that, after the serpent’s false assurances,

The woman saw that the tree was good for food ... and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. (3.6)

From St Augustine to Emilia Lanier, writers throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had meditated on Eve’s role in ‘Man’s First Disobedience’. But it was Milton who – even while emphasising her special culpability – gave her character special depth, including paradoxical power and exceptional poignancy.

Holkham Bible Picture Book

Holkham Bible Picture Book

This medieval image (1325–40) shows the story of the Fall as it is described in Genesis: Eve talking to the snake, Adam eating the apple and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Seeds of disobedience: Milton’s early descriptions of Eve

From the start, however, the poet emphasises the hierarchical distinction between Adam and Eve, the primordial pair. As Satan, journeying to Eden bent on revenge against God, first views them, Adam and Eve are:

Not equal, as their sex not equal seem’d;
For contemplation hee and valour form’d,
For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him;
His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d
Absolute rule ... (Book 4, ll. 294–99)

… while Eve, with hair ‘Dishhevell’d ... in wanton ringlets’ (Book 4, l. 304), appears an image of ‘coy submission, modest pride’ (Book 4, l. 308). With her lower status, dishevelled hair and wanton ringlets, the reader is prepared by the poet, quite early on, to imagine Eve as a potential problem, despite the blissfulness with which ‘hand in hand they pass’d, the lovliest pair / That ever since in love’s embraces met’ (Book 4, ll. 319–20).

Within a few pages, as we learn more about the ‘Mother of Mankind’ (Book 5, l. 388), she becomes even more problematic. In an apparently loving dialogue with Adam, Eve relates her memory of her birth from his rib: after she awakened she went to look at herself in a ‘clear / Smooth lake’ (Book 4, ll. 456–7) and was entranced by her own image, much like a female version of the mythical Greek Narcissus. When an airy voice warns her that ‘What there thou seest fair Creature is thyself ... but follow me, / And I will bring thee’ (Book 4, l. 466–68) to him ‘whose image thou art’ (Book 4, l. 470), she spies Adam and runs away, having thought him ‘less fair ... Than that smooth wat’ry image’ (Book 4, ll. 476–78) of herself. In fact, Adam has to remonstrate with her that she is ‘His flesh, his bone’ (Book 4, l. 481). Only after she surrenders herself to him, does she accept that beauty like hers is ‘excell’d by manly grace / And wisdom, which alone is truly fair’ (Book 4, ll. 488–89). Acknowledging that Adam is both her ‘Author’ and ‘Disposer’ (Book 4, l. 633), she proclaims that ‘God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more / Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise’ (Book 4, ll. 635–36).

John Martin's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1827

John Martin's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1827

This engraving by the Romantic artist John Martin shows Eve becoming entranced by her own reflection.

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But Milton makes it even clearer that Eve is Adam’s intellectual inferior. As Adam declares, God ‘on her bestow’d’ (Book 8, l. 537):

Too much of Ornament, in outward show
Elaborate, of inward less exact,
For well I understand in the prime end
Of Nature her th’inferior, in the mind
And inward Faculties. (Book 8, ll. 538–42)

In this way, Eve is more vulnerable than Adam to the schemes of Satan. One night, ‘Squat like a toad’ (Book 4, l. 798), the fallen angel crouches by her ear and inspires her with a prophetic dream in which she flies, witchlike, through the sky and desirously views the forbidden tree, ‘with fruit surcharg’d’ (Book 5, l. 58).

William Blake's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1808

William Blake's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1808

William Blake made three sets of stunning watercolours to illustrate Milton’s poem. In this one, Satan crouches ‘like a toad’ near Eve, while Adam sleeps beside her. The angels Ithuriel and Zephon hover in the sky above.

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Usage terms Photograph © [2018] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A perfect hostess?

Still, though the seeds of disobedience have been planted in Eve almost from the moment when she was shaped from Adam’s rib, she continues for a while to preside over Eden like the good housewife she was meant to be.

William Strang's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1896

William Strang's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1896

In Strang’s etching of the creation of Eve she seems darkly seductive.

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As the war between Heaven and Hell intensifies, the angel Raphael is sent by God to warn the human couple of Satan’s ongoing threats. To welcome him, Eve ‘turns, on hospitable thoughts intent’ (Book 5, l. 322) and performs the role of a perfect domestic hostess. She prepares a paradisiacal feast, choosing fruits ‘of all kinds’ (Book 5, l. 341), and from ‘many a berry, and from sweet kernels prest / She tempers dulcet creams’ (Book 5, ll. 346–47). As the Father of Mankind and his spiritual guest enjoy their repast, ‘at table Eve / Minister’d naked, and thir flowing cups / With pleasant liquors crown’d’ (Book 5, ll. 443–45).

William Blake's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1808

William Blake's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1808

Eve acts the perfect hostess for the Archangel Raphael.

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Usage terms Photograph © [2018] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Book 9: The serpent’s temptation and Eve’s rebellious search for independence

Such bliss, as God points out to his Son, is not fated to last.

Satan, the high-ranking angel once known as Lucifer, Son of the Morning, is enraged by his own secondariness to God’s Son and models rebellion to his followers and, ultimately, to Eve. The ninth book of Paradise Lost presents the pivotal moment when Milton’s narrative metamorphoses from its initial plan to discuss ‘Man’s First Disobedience’, to an analysis of woman’s first disobedience. Here Satan creeps again into Eden and resolves to disguise himself as a serpent. But what a serpent! Gloriously phallic, the diabolic creature appears not ‘Prone on the ground, as since’,

… but on his rear,
Circular base of rising folds, that tow’rd
Fold above fold a surging Maze, his Head
Crested aloft / … / pleasing was his shape,
And lovely. (Book 9, ll. 497–504)

After gaining her attention, he speaks with Machiavellian eloquence to Eve, his intended prey.

First illustrated edition of Paradise Lost, 1688

First illustrated edition of Paradise Lost, 1688

In John Baptist Medina’s illustration for Book 9, Satan appears both as a serpent and as a devilish creature with batlike wings.

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How, though, has Eve happened to encounter him? As Milton shows us, not by chance, but through her own rebellious search for independence. Early in Book 9, as the couple prepare to tend the Garden, she suggests to her husband that they should ‘divide our labours, thou where choice / Leads thee ... while I ... find what to redress till Noon’ (Book 9, ll. 214–19). After all, she notes, when they work side-by-side, they waste too much time in loving discourse. Adam worries that harm will ‘Befall thee sever’d from me’ (Book 9, l. 252), for they must be on guard against a ‘malicious Foe / Envying our happiness’ (Book 9, ll. 253–54). The wife, he declares,

... where danger or dishonour lurks,
Safest and seemliest by her Husband stays,
Who guards her, or with her the worst endures. (Book 9, ll. 267–69)

But Eve disagrees, protesting that if she and her husband are forced ‘to dwell / In narrow circuit strai’n’d by a Foe... How are we happy, still in fear of harm?’ (Book 9, ll. 322–26). What kind of bliss can there be in Eden, she seems to be wondering, if she has so little freedom? Her urge to separate herself from Adam, if only briefly, is curiously reminiscent of the way in which she had run away from him after she was first created to be his spouse and ‘second Self’, and already prefigures doom.

Reason, resentment and rebellion: Eve’s fall

Inevitably, as Eve journeys through the Garden on her own, Satan discovers her ‘Veil’d in a cloud of Fragrance’ (Book 9, l. 425) and begins his fatal seduction by praising her ‘Celestial Beauty’ (Book 9, l. 540). Astonished and not a little flattered, she wonders at his command of human speech: ‘What may this mean? Language of Man pronounc’t / By Tongue of Brute, and human sense exprest?’ (Book 9, ll. 553–54). Now Satan embarks on his great temptation speech, which is almost like an operatic aria in praise of a certain ‘goodly Tree’ (Book 9, l. 576) that he doesn’t name. Once he had eaten of it, he tells his naive listener, he experienced ‘Strange alteration’ (Book 9, l. 599), including ‘Reason in my inward Powers, and Speech’ (Book 9, l. 600). The ‘unwary’ (Book 9, l. 614) Eve expresses an interest in seeing this amazing tree, and, of course, serpentine Satan leads her directly there. When she remonstrates that this tree bears the forbidden fruit, he embarks on another operatic aria praising its beneficence, to which she listens in all innocence. Beginning ‘O Sacred, Wise, and Wisdom-giving Plant, / Mother of Science, Now I feel thy Power / Within me clear’ (Book 9, ll. 679–81), he argues duplicitously that once she eats of this fruit she will be ‘as Gods, / Knowing both Good and Evil as they know’ (Book 9, ll. 708–09). His words ‘Into her heart too easy entrance won’ (Book 9, l. 734), since she is more susceptible to such wiles than Adam.

John Martin's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1827

John Martin's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1827

Eve plucks and eats the forbidden fruit.

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Or, alternatively, is Eve more ambitious, rebellious and disobedient than Adam? Milton leaves this question open. As Eve, reasoning (perhaps sophistically) with herself, notes that though the eating of the fruit supposedly brings death, ‘How dies the Serpent? Hee hath eat’n and lives, / And knows and speaks, and reasons and discerns, / Irrational till then’ (Book 9, ll. 764–66). In her soul she now appears as resentful, as Satan was before her. ‘For us alone / Was death invented? Or to us denied / This intellectual food, for beasts reserv’d?’ (Book 9, ll. 766–68). Satan has won the game, and Eve, in five succinct lines, determines to change the world:

... her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat;
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost. (Book 9, ll. 780–84)

Now, though she has been ‘eating Death’ (Book 9, l. 792), she enters into a state of intoxication. ‘[J]ocund and boon’ (Book 9, l. 793), she outlines an idolatrous plan to worship the Tree daily, then considers whether or not to share what she believes is her new divinity with her husband. Musing with an arrogance that parallels Satan’s, she utters words that confirm her sinfulness, as she fantasises that she might,

…keeps the odds of Knowledge in my power
Without Copartner... so to add what wants
In Female Sex, the more to draw his Love,
And render me more equal, and perhaps
A thing not undesirable, sometime
Superior: for inferior who is free?
[emphasis added] (Book 9, ll. 820–25)

Ultimately, it’s only the fear that God might have seen her violation of His law that convinces her to offer the fruit to Adam. For what if she died and were replaced with another Eve? No, consumed with jealousy after her consumption of forbidden knowledge, she decides it would be better for her and Adam to die together. As for Adam, when she returns to him bearing the fruit in her hand, he understands exactly what has happened, mourning inwardly, ‘How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost, / Defac’t, deflower’d, and now to Death devote?’ (Book 9, ll. 900–01). Yet, at the same time, he resolves to die with her.

William Blake's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1808

William Blake's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1808

The Temptation and Fall of Eve.

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Usage terms Photograph © [2018] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Love, lust and damnation: Adam’s eating of the forbidden fruit

If Eve’s sin is (like Satan’s) a rebellion against secondariness, Adam’s is his uxorious passion for Eve, his lost rib, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. Accordingly, although he ‘scrupl’d not to eat’ (Book 9, l. 997), he is ‘not deceiv’d, / But fondly overcome with Female charm’ (Book 9, l. 998–99). And while his forbidden meal damns him, it doubly damns Eve, whose ‘Female charm’ is so insidious – her ‘wanton’ locks paralleling the coils of the serpent – that he can’t resist her insistent pleas.

If a kind of drunkenness was Eve’s first reaction to the fruit, lust is Adam’s, who finds her ‘inflaming’ (Book 9, l. 1013) his senses and leads her, ‘nothing loath’ (Book 9, l. 1039), to a shady bank. Where their earlier lovemaking had been innocent and beautiful, their new fall into ‘Love’s disport’ is ‘of their mutual guilt the Seal, / the solace of their sin’ (Book 9, ll. 1042–43). When they wake from a gross sleep, they suddenly feel shame at their nakedness, ‘destitute and bare / Of all their virtue’ (Book 9, ll. 1062–63). Horrified, they fall to blaming each other, and, tellingly, ‘in mutual accusation spent / The fruitless hours’ [emphasis added] (Book 9, ll. 1187–88). For ultimately the fruit of the forbidden tree, as Satan and his cohort also discover in Hell, ‘is dust and bitter ashes’ (Book 10, The Argument).

William Strang's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1896

William Strang's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1896

‘Adam rejects the condolement of Eve’.

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Redemption after transgression

What redemption can there be for Eve after her transgression? Gradually, throughout the last three books of Paradise Lost, Milton depicts her mounting remorse, shame and guilt. But by the end of the epic, once the Archangel Michael has revealed the coming history of mankind to Adam and, in sleep, to Eve, she is reconciled to her fate, understanding that ‘By mee the Promise’d Seed shall all restore’ (Book 11, l. 623): her descendant Mary shall become the Mother of God. Submissive, Eve is now a vessel for futurity. And though she and her husband have been expelled from Paradise, she assures Adam, in a poignant sonnet, that he means more to her than Eden:

With thee to go,
Is to stay here; without thee here to stay,
Is to go hence unwilling; thou to mee
Art all things under Heaven. (Book 11, ll. 615–18)

Her rehabilitation is secure so long as she abides by this vow, and according to Christian doctrine her ‘willful crime’ (Book 11, l. 619) shall come to be called a felix culpa – a fortunate fall – for it will bring God’s Son to earth.

William Blake's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1808

William Blake's illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1808

Michael foretells the Crucifixion to Adam and, in sleep, to Eve.

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Eve’s afterlife

How fortunate, though, was Eve’s fall from the perspective of her countless female descendants? In A Vindication of the Rights of Women the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft passionately repudiated the infantilisation of women that she associated with Milton’s description of ‘our first frail mother’. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a number of important women writers fiercely lamented Eve’s fall. In ‘Eve’, Christina Rossetti has our mythic first ancestress mourn that, ‘As a tree my sin stands / To darken all lands’ (ll. 5–6). And in ‘How Cruel Is the Story of Eve’, Stevie Smith struggles with a comparable burden, complaining ‘How cruel is the story of Eve, / What responsibility it has / In history / For misery’. Unlike Rossetti, however, she emphasises Eve’s status as a fictive character:

It is only a legend
You say? But what
Is the meaning of the legend
If not
To give blame to women most
And most punishment?

Similarly, other modern and contemporary visions and re-visions of Eve have emphasised her origin not as an archetype, not as theological truth, but as a problematic construction that is also an obstruction for women. As Virginia Woolf wrote in the famously prophetic conclusion of A Room of One’s Own, ‘if we look past Milton’s Bogey ... then [the] dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down’.

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

The first edition of Woolf’s ground-breaking book, published in 1929.

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Usage terms © The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

  • Sandra M. Gilbert
  • Sandra M. Gilbert has published eight collections of poetry with a new one, Judgment Day, forthcoming in 2018, and among her prose books are Wrongful Death, Death’s Door, Rereading Women and The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity. She is currently at work, with longtime collaborator Susan Gubar, on a history of seventies feminism tentatively titled “Still Mad." Also with Gubar, Gilbert is co-author of The Madwoman in the Attic and co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, along with numerous other volumes: the two received the 2012 Award for Lifetime Achievement from the National Book Critics Circle.

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