John Milton’s Paradise Lost provides a historical-fiction narrative of the creation and fall of human beings in the biblical book of Genesis. Dianne K. McColley, who wrote about Mr. Milton and his use of gender throughout his work, said: “Milton believed that the Bible was divinely inspired but open to interpretation by the individual conscience guided by the Holy Spirit and the rule of charity. He believed also that next to the relation between each person and God, the relation of husband and wife was the chief source of personal happiness or misery” (McColley 178).
The way in which Mr. Milton portrays men and women has been critiqued by feminists and literary scholars since the Paradise Lost was first published in 1667. Adam and Eve, as the only human characters in Paradise Lost, are the first man and woman, respectively, to walk the Earth, and Mr. Milton portrays each of them as the archetypes of the male and female genders (Reimer 1).
The main issue that literary critiques have with Paradise Lost is its contradiction in its portrayal of the female gender. Eve, and the female gender, is a character who at times is highly valued, and at different times is degraded (Reimer 1). The clearest example of this portrayal is in book eight, when Adam expresses his happiness at being given a companion:
“For well I understand in the prime end
Of nature her the inferior, in the mind
And inward faculties, which most excel,
In outward also her resembling less
His image who made both, and less expressing
The character of that dominion given
O’er other creatures…” (Paradise Lost 520, 8.540-545)
In this speech, Adam describes the nature of Eve as inferior, both intellectually and physically. Adam states that she does not mirror God as much as he does, and he believes that she does not hold as much potential (Reimer 1-2). However, he continues by stating:
“…yet when I approach
Her lovliness, so absolute she seems
And in herself complete, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say,
Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best;
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded, wisdom in discourse with her
Loses discountenanced, and like folly shows…” (Paradise Lost 520, 8.547-553)
This contradiction is what makes Paradise Lost’s approach to gender so complex and controversial (Reimer 2).
Perhaps the most popular critique of Paradise Lost is through a feminist lens. Feminist critiques all hold that Mr. Milton’s Eve represents the oppressed experience of a woman living within a patriarchal system (Reimer 2). One of many such critics is Elspeth Graham. Mrs. Graham contends that due to Mr. Milton’s past in politics and “As prime defender of an all-powerful God-the-Father, [Milton] becomes the ultimate spokesman for a misogynistic western culture” (Graham 134). Mrs. Graham continues by writing, “Milton is currently either reaffirmed as the archetypal misogynist, or, at the other extreme, presented as some sort of proto-feminist” (Graham 134). There are times throughout her writing that Mrs. graham choses to side with the idea that Eve is a victim of oppression. However, throughout her analysis, she fails to focus on in depth analyzation of Eve’s character, and Mrs. Graham does not fully commit to one side of the argument (Graham 133-139).
This impartial opinion seems to be a reoccurring theme in modern feminist critiques of Paradise Lost. Patrick J. McGrath is another critique who does not fully commit to one side of the argument. In order to understand whether or not Eve is a victim of an oppressive patriarchal system, Mr. McGrath explores the differences in the language and literary devices used my Milton in writing the conversations between Adam and Eve. Mr. McGrath decides that Eve is nowhere near as oppressed as many other feminist critiques say she is. However, his findings leave him impartial towards Mr. Milton’s handling of gender in Paradise Lost (McGrath 71-90).
Through close examination of Mr. Milton’s Paradise Lost, one can come to understand the role gender plays in the nature of human beings. In book four, Adam and Eve are compared side by side:
“And worthy seemed, for in their looks divine
The image of their glorious maker shown
Truth, wisdom, sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe but in true filial freedom placed;
Whence true authority in men; though both
Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace,
He for God only, she for God in him…” (Paradise Lost 428, 4.291-299)
The first portion of this description puts both Adam and Eve at the same level – both are made in the image of God. However, the second portion of this quote separates them due to their contrasting gender. The key word in this quote is “seemed.” Eve did not seem equal to Adam, because Adam displayed valor and Eve displayed grace (Reimer 5).
The last line (4.299) of the above quoted section, “He for God only, she for God in him,” has often become the focus for many critics of Paradise Lost. The most common understanding of this phrase is that Adam need only submit to God, whereas Even must submit to God and Adam. However, I would argue that the meaning of this phrase can be found in its literal interpretation. “God in him” (4.299) could refer to Adam’s body and the creative capacity Adam and Eve hold when brought together. This phrase could also allude to the way in which Eve was created – from the rib of Adam (Reimer 6). Critic Kent R. Lehnof’s understanding of this passage is that “Eve is required to obey Adam not because he is ontologically superior but because God has arbitrarily ordained that this be so” (Lehnof 68). Mr. Lehnof does not portray the relationship of male and female as hierarchical. Rather, he contends that God has a different, but equally as important, role for men and women. Eve does not serve Adam because she is inferior to him – Eve serves God and Adam because that is what God requires of her (Lehnof 68).
The hierarchal contrast between Adam and Eve is conflicting due to descriptions of Eve later in Paradise Lost. In book five, Adam refers to Eve as “Best image of my self and dearer half…” (Paradise Lost 448, 5.95). In book eight, Adam refers to Eve as “thy likeness, thy fit help, thy other self” (Paradise Lost 518, 8.450). And, in book seven, Adam refers to Eve as “thy consort” (Paradise Lost 504, 7.529). In book eight, Adam and Eve emerge as “one flesh, one heart, one soul” (Paradise Lost 519, 8.499). These passages from Paradise Lost suggest nothing but gender equality, which further complicates Mr. Milton’s portrayal of gender in this work (Reimer 6).
One of the many other critiques of Paradise Lost is Mr. Milton’s description of Adam’s lament of the fall and Eve’s decision to eat of the fruit. In book ten, Adam states:
“O why did God,
Creator wise, that peopled highest heaven
With spirits masculine, create at last
This novelty on earth, this fair defect
Of nature, and not fill the world at once
With men as angels without feminine,
Or find some other way to generate
Mankind?” (Paradise Lost 575, 10.888-895)
This passage is one that many feminist critiques point to when identifying the potential oppression of women in this poem (Reimer 7-8). Christine Froula is a feminist critic who describes Mr. Milton’s portrayal of eve in the following way, “Eve is not a self, a subject, at all; she is rather a substanceless image, a mere ‘shadow’ whothout object” (Froula 328). However, In book nine, Mr. Milton writes:
“To whom thus Adam fervently replied.
O woman, best are all things as the will
Of God ordained them, his creating hand
Nothing imperfect or deficient left
Of all that he created, much less man,
Or aught that might his happy state secure,
Secure from outward force.” (Paradise Lost 532, 9.342-348)
This passage from book nine emphasizes Eve as a creature of God. She does have “self,” because she has the ability to reason outside of Adam. God does not create the “imperfect,” so Eve does have substance (Reimer 8).
One of the greatest arguments for an esteemed view of the female gender in Paradise Lost is Mr. Milton’s connection of Eve to the Mother of Jesus Christ, Mary. In book five, Raphael, an angel from heaven, approaches Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and refers to Mary as “Mary, second Eve” (Paradise Lost 455, 5.387). This connection between Mary the “Mother of God” (as described by Catholics) and Eve in essential in Mr. Milton’s understanding of the nature of Eve. This phrase emphasizes the holiness and importance of Eve as the first woman on Earth and the first mother to human beings. In many Christian theologies today, Eve is understood as a representation of evil, and Mary is understood as a representation of morality. However, Mr. Milton’s reference to Mary as the second Eve changes this standard completely. Although Mary is the mother of the Son of God, Milton writes:
“Whence hail to thee,
Eve rightly called, mother of all mankind,
Mother of all things living, since by thee
Man is to live, and all things live for man.” (Paradise Lost 548, 11.158-161)
The responsibility Eve holds as the “Mother of all things living” seems to be paramount. Through Eve’s familial line came Mary and Jesus Christ, along with every other person who has ever walked this Earth. Through this connection, Mr. Milton is rejecting the reference of Eve as symbolic of sin, and he is holding her in a much holier place (Reimer 7).
Though there is plenty of evidence for a feminist critique of Mr. Milton’s Paradise Lost, oppression of women at the hands of God and men does not seem to be Mr. Milton’s intention for his portrayal of the relationship between God, men, and women. Men and women are in the same boat. They worked together in Paradise. And, at the end of Paradise Lost, God expells them from the garden of Eden. Milton writes:
“Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.” (Paradise Lost 618, 12.645-649)
They left Paradise “hand in hand,” and took on the world ahead of them together. Overall, Eve is not merely a “shadow,” as Mrs. Froula described her. Rather, she has a special relationship with God because of her connection with creation. Adam and Eve are equal beings – each playing an important role intended by God (Reimer 8).