Milton and Our First Parents Essay
John Milton’s character of Satan is quite unique compared to most classical literary portrayals; he does not fit the classical caricature of, for example, Dante’s gargantuan three-headed demon, or the contemporary view of the fiery nymph equipped with horns and goats’ feet. He seems rather a dynamic character with whom it is easy to sympathize, harshly cast out of heaven because of his poorly constructed violent and
prideful nature. He is in some sense heroic, and thus quite sophisticated and charismatic. In the human world, it is certainly this sort of man that is most easily able to tempt and win over a vain woman—and then our author introduces the nature of Eve. Milton’s portrayal of Eve in Paradise Lost as a quietly vain and ambitious being indicates her character weakness and subsequent pivotal role in the Fall.
Despite the differences in ambition and obedience between our two first parents, they are similarly both portrayed as extremely majestic beings. They are naked and ignorantly happy; they cannot progress in knowledge in their state, but they are blissfully enjoying the emotional and sensuous joys of their innocent condition. Even Satan, having greater knowledge than Adam and Eve, looks upon them with envy and mourns his fallen state: “Invincible: abashed the Devil stood, / And felt how awful goodness is, and saw / Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined / His loss…” (108).
Especially in Book IV, Milton focuses most of his attention on depicting the attributes and desires of Eve. There are two central characteristics of Eve on which he concentrates; both have to deal with her intrinsic womanhood. The first is her inherent inferiority to Adam—she can only contact God through her husband, and her only purpose for existence is dependent on him: “O thou for whom / And from whom I was formed flesh of thy flesh, / And without whom am to no end…” (97). And again, to Adam, “My author and disposer, what thou bidd’st / Unargued I obey; so God ordains, / God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more / Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise” (102, italics added). If one defines sexist as simple gender inequality, it is evident that Milton is certainly sexist in this portrayal. It is obvious that through these passages, he is creating a hierarchy congruent with the general views of 17th century Europe—man seemingly can exist and function without woman, but woman is a byproduct of and has no existence without man.
The second peculiar characteristic of Eve is her vanity. From the outset of Book IV, we are treated to an account of Eve recollecting her creation. She peers into a lake in Eden and sees her reflection—at first she is captivated by its beauty without knowledge of what it actually is, but she is soon informed and not only loves it, but is tempted to turn back to the lake when she sees Adam’s inferior beauty. The fact that Milton initiates his character sketch of Eve with a description of her vanity indicates its importance and subsequent role in the Fall. John Milton wrote his epic poem at least in part in attempt to describe the rationale for evil in the world and the fallen state of the human race; Eve here seemingly represents the female gender as a whole and Milton is representing the general vanity of women.
From vanity comes ambition—such is the case when Eve has her dream at the beginning of Book V. She dreams that she is guided to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and by doing so, she becomes a goddess and ascends to heaven. Vanity often consists of viewing oneself as greater than one actually is, and Eve’s approval and excitement about the dream here indicates her ambitious desire to be a goddess. Again, the contrast between the two genders is amplified by Adam’s disapproval and disturbance with the dream. Milton paints a clear portrayal of our first mother—her excitement with the notion of disobeying God indicates her spiritual inferiority to Adam; her weakness of vanity stamps a further convincing argument on her potential to fall to this character flaw and disobey God. Surely, if Satan were to choose someone to tempt to partake of the fruit and initiate the Fall, these attributes would prove quite convincing in his choice to select Eve as his tool to frustrate the happiness of God’s creation.