Milton and Feminism

In a strictly biblical context, a woman is most often held culpable for the fall of mankind. This ideal often captures women in a negative light, and lends Mankind an excuse to hold women captive through rules and social norms with roots that begin in the Christian Church’s doctrine. In John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, however, one may discover feminist ideals through Eve’s character. Eve asserts her independence while recalling her awakening, while questioning the heavenly bodies in the universe, and when wanting to work separately from Adam. Attitudes that are in the poem that show Eve to be of a weak character are to be satirized, and criticized. Male perspectives are often displayed as chauvinistic and incorrect. Through Eve’s character, a positive outlook on feminist ideology can be witnessed.

The character of Eve displays her independence throughout Paradise Lost, firstly, with the recollection of her waking. Eve remembers gazing into a pool, and seeing her own image. When Adam spied her and called her toward him, Eve preferred the reflection of herself to his appearance, actually returning to the pool once gazing on him. Although this might be easily dismissed as Eve being a naÃ?¯ve, vain creature, this is more likely hinting and foreshadowing toward her independence. However, her choice to remain with Adam may be explained. A voice (the reader assuming, as the characters do, the voice is God’s) speaks,

What thou seest,
What there thou seest fair creature is thyself,
With thee it came and goes: but follow me,
And I will bring thee where no shadow stays
Thy coming, and thy soft embraces, he
Whose image thou art, him thou shall enjoy
Inseparably thine, to him shalt bear
Multitudes like thyself, and thence be called
Mother of the human race.(IV, 467-75).

This statement by the voice is a full outline of Milton’s theories on narcissism. Examining what the voice is saying, it can be interpreted as, “That is your image, but it is only a shadow; you are Adam’s image; your children will be your real image.” (Earl, 16). For the “Multitudes like thyself” refers to Eves image, not Adam’s, or theirs together. (16). This statement, supposedly by a higher authority, makes Eve question her independence, and remain with Adam for search of her true identity, that being via offspring. It is here that the reader may note that the idea of ‘God’ may not necessarily be a good gage for moral standing. “Milton’s GodâÂ?¦institutes a rule of masculine authority which is static, closed, and oppressive, especially to women, who are excluded from heaven, and subordinated on earth” (Shullenberger, 71). The notion of Milton’s God in Paradise Lost, furthermore, is strictly a creation of Adam’s, and not that of Eve’s. Additionally, Adam and God share a frighteningly similar personality, this being that God is Adam’s own mythological creation, catering to his needs, and not necessarily that of Eve’s. When examining the text in this light, one will find that the traditional Christian views, which often hinder women’s independence, are easily satirized and interrogated.

Eve questioned her surroundings and existence more rigorously than Adam, displaying her independence, and making a statement against misogynist standards. While talking together, Eve questioned Adam about the existence of the stars, wondering why God has made them shine at night when no one can watch them due to sleep, “But wherefore all night long shine theses, for whom/This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?” (IV, 657-58). Adam doesn’t realize that Eve is really wanting is to be appreciated as an intelligent, rational being, and engage in an spiritual conversation. He gives her a scientific explanation of the stars burning in the sky, with a patronizing attitude, missing her point entirely. This is one of many times when Adam dismisses one of Eve’s thoughts merely because she is the origin of the query, when he has the same question himself. At this point, the reader must note that although a misogynistic perspective is being given, it is a point of view from a character only, and that leaves the subject of Adam’s attitude toward Eve open for criticism.

The principle of women’s liberation from social norms pertaining to the issue of the stars and Eve’s identity does not end with the conversation with Adam. Satan may be viewed as her alter ego, for he appeals to her senses the most. While in a dream, Satan speaks to her and states the answer that she would have wanted to hear from Adam to her question of the stars, “heav’n wakes with all his eyes/Whom to behold but thee, Nature’s desire/In whose sight all things joy, with ravishment/attracted by they beauty still to gaze” (V, 44-47). Here Satan appeals to Eve’s need for validation by commenting in the same elegant prose in which her question was originally asked. Answering that the stars burn at night so they can watch her sleep in beauty, and by not belittling her question, Eve could find contentment in this answer. Furthermore, the next action in Eve’s dream was to fly through the air with Satan after tasting the forbidden fruit. Psychologically speaking, flying is a release of sexual frustration and a way of having a pseudo-orgasm while asleep. She regaled the tale of her dream to Adam, “With him I flew, and underneath beheld/The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide/And various: wond’ring at my flight and change” (V, 87-89). This displays Eve’s true feelings about her desire for independence. When she dreams, and in her dream partakes of the fruit forbidden by Adam’s God, she is above the world, liberated, and finally free. When examining the text from this perspective, Satan could be more of a facet of Eve’s personality rather than a character in and of himself. Eve is expressing her desires to be an individual in the only method she is allowed, and that is in a dream. Milton is questioning societal misogynistic norms by using this method.

Adam’s, and therefore, Gods, ignorance of Eve’s needs further exemplify how patriarchy is being satirized in Paradise Lost. This is further emphasized when Archangel Raphael arrives, for Adam asks the very same question that Eve had proposed to her mate. He remarks upon the angel’s arrival, “All her numbered stars, that seem to roll/Spaces incomprehensible (for such/Their distance argues and their swift return/Diurnal) merely to officiate light round this opacous earth” (VIII, 19-22). At this point pertaining to the stars, now newly raised by her spouse, Eve leaves the scene. The reader is told via the poet that she would prefer to hear what Raphael has to say through Adam. One must remember that the poet’s perspective is not necessarily that of Milton’s, nor should it apply to the reader. If one reads deeper into the lines and recalls the conversation that Adam and Eve had shared previously, it would appear that Eve was feeling slighted by Adam raising her question again to the angel. Moreover, she did not wish to be included in the conversation pertaining to a subject Adam had no interest in discussing with her.

Adam belittles another of Eve’s suggestions, therefore portraying him as chauvinistic, and making a patriarchy seem undesirable. Shortly after the fall, Adam and Eve expressed their grief and wondered what was to become of them. Fearing loss of her only companion, she expressed to Adam, “With my cries importune Heaven, that all/The sentence from thy head removed many light/on me” (X, 933-4). Her suggestion of praying to God may not be the greatest asset to the feminist ideal, however, it reveals that Eve is not a complete dweller in sin, as Satan, for he remained unforgiven by God; being that he was incapable of repentance. Adam, however, dismisses her idea initially since he still holds firm that any suggestion that stems from Eve must be ludicrous. In a condescending tone he replied to her suggestion, “If prayers/could alter high decrees, I to that place would speed before thee, and be the louder heard” (X, 952-54). However, after Eve makes the suggestion of suicide after her notion of prayer was dismissed, Adam can now revert back to the idea of repentance, making it his idea, and therefore a good one. In this light, servitude under a male is not portrayed as constructive. Therefore, Milton is making a suggestion towards female independence.

Eve’s desire to be away from Adam during their work proves to be an assertion of her independence and a motion towards a feminist movement. Shortly before the fall, while in the garden tending to their business, she felt weary of his presence and decided that it was best for them to separate. Her justification being to Adam, “New/Casual discourse draw on, which intermits/Our day’s work brought to little, though begun early” (IX, 222-25). It would appear that Eve is satiated with the conversation that she and her spouse share, and is using the slowed work as an excuse to become separated from him. This is a far cry from the Eve who before her dream of Satan and the fall stated to Adam, “With thee conversing I forget all time/All seasons and their change, all please alike” (IV, 639-40). Here, Eve is contented with her lot, and is still enamored by Adam. Her feelings are truly revealed before the fall when she speaks in a soliloquy,

But to Adam in what sort
Shall I appear? Shall I to him make known
As yet my change, and give him to partake
Full happiness with me, or rather not,
But keep 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?(IX, 816-25).

Here Eve is expressing her feelings of inferiority towards Adam and the God he has created. One must remember, however, that, “Christian misogynistic tradition(s) are present in Paradise Lost, but they are there to be silenced” (Wittreich, 84). Therefore, the fall is not witnessed as an evil accomplished by Eve in Paradise Lost but an assertion towards emancipation against the doctrines of the church and the paid clergy witch Milton abhorred. Her epiphany is not for her alone, it is for women everywhere to amass knowledge, seek truth, and discover feminism for themselves.

To conclude, feminism is flourishing in Milton’s poem, Paradise Lost as witnessed through the character of Eve. The poem may be viewed as a political critique as Christianity and theocracy are portrayed as tools of oppression, particularly for women. One must remember that it is not Adam or God who has the last word in Paradise Lost, but Eve. Her final words in Paradise Lost lead the reader to believe that she has found her own path towards identity. She consults her dreams for direction rather than letting Adam explain to her what he witnessed on the mountain with the angel Michael. “Whence thou return’st, and whither went’st, I know;/For God is also in sleep, and dreams adviseâÂ?¦By me the promised seed shall all restore” (XII, 610-22). Eve is allowing herself to choose her own destiny. Although she was fallen under the social doctrine that she has no real identity without bearing children, Eve is still claiming her providence and setting forth on her journey.

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