Some Reflections Upon Marriage
Milton Versus Astell: A Study of Paradise Lost, Reflections on Marriage, and Holy Matrimony
When comparing their two works, it becomes clear that while John Milton’s Paradise Lost shares the general viewpoint on marriage found in Mary Astell’s Reflections upon Marriage — that being that the institution of marriage of the time period was problematic — the two differ greatly on what they present as the cause of the problem. Based on the evidence in the text, Milton appears to believe that women pose the issue in the union. In sharp contrast, Astell appears to propose that the fault lies with men, outlining a few that is equally strong-willed in its assertions.
One feature that reveals Milton’s and Astell’s conflicting viewpoint on who holds the fault for problematic marriages is the focus of their writing when referring to the subject. One will note, for example, that the argument posed in Astell’s writing largely criticizes the way men choose their wives: “They who marry for Love as they call it, find time enough to repent their rash Folly… Whether it be Wit or Beauty that a Man’s in Love with, there’s no great hopes of a lasting Happiness” (Astell). Men are spoken of in an active tense, having actions attributed to them in a way not found in Astell’s descriptions of women. To be fair, there is one mention of action attributed to the hypothetical women in this scenario, but it does not disprove my point. When speaking on how a woman’s wit will not give her husband long-lasting satisfaction, Astell states, “…it is not improbable that such a Husband may in a little time by ill usage provoke such a Wife to exercise her Wit, that is, her Spleen on him, and then it is not hard to guess how very agreeable it will be to him” (Astell). Juxtaposing the two examples, one can see that Astell only breaks from describing women in the passive when explaining how a woman’s actions will cause he husband to react. The description is sandwiched between two male actions and will largely go unnoticed to those who read it.
Compare this depiction of men to the way Milton writes Adam as he reflects on Eve. As he speaks with the angel Raphael about his creation and thusly the creation of Eve, Adam expresses that his adoration for her goes beyond rational thought: “For well I understand in the prime end / Of nature her th’ inferior… yet when I approach / Her loveliness, so absolute she seems/ And in herself complete” (Milton 2088-2089). While the writing still places Adam as the active subject, notice that Eve, intentionally or not, entices Adam to abandon the principles with which he was created. Eve is literally the cause of the earliest issue with their union. This, one can see, is the key difference. Both Astell and Milton express their beliefs that long marriages must be sustained on more than mere attraction to the body or mind, but they place the blame in the situation on the opposite party. Astell’s focus on male folly as she writes demonstrates her assumption that should a marriage fail, it will be because the husband acted too hastily as he chose a life partner. Meanwhile, Milton asserts that in a marriage based on love, women will be the ultimate destruction of their combined happiness. Based on the evidence, it becomes apparent that while Milton and Astell share the perspective that marriage is problematic, they differ drastically on who in the relationship is the cause of the unhappiness.
Much like how the writing styles of both Milton and Astell explore the parties they place blame on for an unhappy marriage, so to do the narrative they create around their arguments. In both their works Astell and Milton construct a clear antagonist figure in the marriage, portraying the problematic party in purely negative contexts. To begin, I will dissect Milton’s depiction of Eve’s awakening after being created. “I first awakened, and found myself reposed / Under a shade of flowers,” Eve recounts in a conversation with Adam, “much wond’ring where / And what I was” (Milton 2012). There are immediate differences between Eve’s first impressions versus Adam’s. As Adam remembers being created, he tells Raphael, “As new waked from soundless sleep… I found me laid / In balmy sweat, which with his beams the sun / Soon dried” (Milton 2083). Whereas Eve wakes in the shade — the darkness — Adam wakes in the light. This not only portrays Eve as an innately antagonistic partner but also symbolizes their intelligences relative to each other. There are multiple instances throughout the poem of Eve having to be explicitly told information. By her own admission, she would have remained staring at herself had a divine voice not intervened: “…there I had fixed / Mine eyes till now, and pinned with vain desire / Had not a voice thus warned me” (Milton 2013). This is similar to how Astell portrays the antagonist in her views on marriage. The husband in her scenario is portrayed as hasty, focusing on things that will grow unfavourable over time. As Astell describes, “They who marry for Love as they call it, find time enough to repent their rash Folly” (Astell). Much like Eve the hypothetical husband is conveyed as largely unintelligent and not having put much thought into their actions.
Similarly, both authors mention their respective problematic partners being quick to anger when the situation does not become ideal. Note that in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, after Adam and Eve have eaten from the Tree of Life, there comes a scene that perfectly echoes Astell’s description of why wit will not sustain a happy a happy marriage. Similarly to the hypothetical wife in Astell’s scenario, Adam “exercises his Spleen” on Eve when he fully realizes how her actions have doomed them both, something that appears to be justified by the text given Eve’s antagonistic portrayal. I encourage the reader to compare this with Astell’s version: “…it is not improbable that such a Husband may in a little time by ill usage provoke such a Wife to exercise her Wit, that is, her Spleen on him, and then it is not hard to guess how very agreeable it will be to him” (Astell). The pattern in both are mirror copies of each other — the problematic spouse causes the unproblematic spouse to get angry, resulting in the problematic spouse getting angry in turn rather than try to resolve the matter peacefully. The intent to place one party in the wrong is strongly apparent and once again displays that while Astell and Milton agree that marriage is problematic, they differ on the matter of who in the marriage is responsible for the unhappiness.
Both Astell and Milton were authors that challenged the expectations of marriage, revealing that under planned, rushed judgements for long-term relationships are ill-advised and do not produce long-lasting happiness. While they do agree on this idea, they disagree on who should be blamed for this unhappiness. Astell accuses men of being the problem; for his part, Milton places the blame on women, reflecting a divergence in the views of these two influential authors.