The Corruption of Christabel: Coleridge, Milton, and Portrayals of Fallen Femininity
In his poem Christabel (1816), Samuel Taylor Coleridge revises John Milton’s Paradise Lost to create a version of the fall of humanity that is wholly feminine. Coleridge represents Eve though the character Christabel, an innocent young maiden whose naiveté makes her easily corruptible. Geraldine, a beautiful and manipulative seductress, represents Satan and her sexuality is the source of corruption that leads to Christabel’s loss of innocence. Coleridge’s version of the fall unambiguously targets the feminine trait of sexuality as the cause of the fall and emphasizes Christabel’s naiveté and Geraldine’s deceptive nature to paint woman as wholly culpable for the fall therefore placing the blame for all of the human suffering that comes from the fall onto women.
Coleridge’s version of Eve emphasizes the corruptibility of woman and places part of the blame for the fall onto Christabel because she’s naïve and falls for Geraldine’s charms. From the outset of the poem, Coleridge emphasizes Christabel’s naiveté through the way she makes herself vulnerable to dangerous situations. Christabel ventures into the woods when “the night is chill, the cloud is grey,” creating an eerie setting that leaves the reader on edge in anticipation for an impending danger (l.20). The narrator asks, “What makes her in the wood so late / A furlong from the castle gate?”, which encourages the reader to question Christabel’s judgement (l.25). Coleridge’s invocation of a gothic setting sets the tone for the rest of the novel and cues the reader to look for signs that something out of the ordinary will happen in the following lines. Through asking the question regarding Christabel’s purpose for being in the woods, Coleridge invites readers to question her judgement and see the naiveté behind her actions. All events that follow throughout the rest of the poem stem from her decision to venture out into the woods in the middle of the night, therefore through questioning her judgement at the outset of the poem Coleridge places the blame for the actions that follow onto Christabel. Coleridge’s framing of Christabel’s poor judgement relates to Milton’s framing of Eve’s decision making in Paradise Lost. Prior to Satan tempting Eve, she insists that her and Adam work separately so that they can be more productive with their labor. Despite Adam warning her about the possibility of her being tempted if they are separated, she chooses to leave him and gets tempted by Satan in his absence. Similarly, Christabel’s decision to wander into the woods late at night gave Geraldine the opportunity to corrupt her therefore Christabel’s poor judgement and naiveté hold part of the blame for the fall.
In addition to placing herself in a questionable situation from the outset of the poem, Christabel ignores the ominous signs surrounding Geraldine and allows Geraldine into her bed where the corruption of Christabel takes place. When Christabel first encounters Geraldine, she notices her “blue-veined feet unsandal’d were” (l.63). Blue-veined feet provide an allusion to some sort of undead creature and make Geraldine’s beauty uncanny, yet Christabel fails to recognize the oddities surrounding Geraldine and invites her back to the castle once again highlighting Christabel’s questionable judgement. Ominous and supernatural signs, such as Christabel having to carry Geraldine over the threshold, a dog moaning in its sleep, and an unlit fire flickering, all signal to the reader that something bad is about to occur, yet Christabel fails to read any of these signs. Once Geraldine and Christabel reach her chambers, Geraldine disrobes and reveals a mark on her side that she calls “this mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow” (l.270). The revealing of this “mark” represents the most overt signal of Geraldine’s true identity, yet Christabel ignores it and gets into bed with her. Coleridge highlights Christabel’s naiveté and poor judgement to illustrate that she holds some of the blame for her corruption. Geraldine presented signs to her that Christabel should have recognized as uncanny yet she fails to see Geraldine’s true nature which leaves her vulnerable to corruption. Coleridge’s version of Eve differs from Milton’s version of Eve in that while Satan had to tempt Eve into eating the apple by using her desire for knowledge, Christabel fails to even question Geraldine’s actions and goes along with her whatever she says, despite overt signs not to. Coleridge highlights the naiveté and poor judgement of Christabel through her blind following of Geraldine and therefore places some of the blame onto Christabel for her own corruptibility. Coleridge’s reworking of the Eve character essentially dumbs her down and makes her even more susceptible to corruption than the Eve of Paradise Lost.
Satan’s reconstruction in the form of Geraldine eliminates all male culpability in the fall by making both actors in the fall female. Geraldine acts as the “Satan” in Christabel through her role as the corrupter of Christabel’s innocence. Coleridge signals the connection between Satan and Geraldine in his description of Geraldine’s appearance after Christabel tries to describe what Geraldine is. Coleridge writes that “A snake’s small eye blinks dull and shy / And the lady’s eyes they shrink in her head / Each shrunk up to a serpent’s eye” (l.583-585). In these few lines, Coleridge packs several references to snakes, which ties both into Satan’s appearance when he tricks Eve and the appearance of his daughter, Sin. The sibilance created through the repetition of the “s” sound refers to the hissing made by snakes. Additionally, Milton’s description of Satan as a snake describes “his head / Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes” (Milton, Book IX, l.499). The focus on Geraldine’s eyes ties back to Milton’s description of a snake, illustrating Coleridge’s allusion of Geraldine as his version of Satan.
Satan and Geraldine play the same role as a corrupter in their respective poems. Satan corrupts Eve through tempting her to eat the apple, while Geraldine corrupts Christabel with her sexuality. In Paradise Lost the role of sexuality in corruption was ambiguous and the overt causes of the fall were knowledge and ambition. In Christabel sexuality is a wholly feminine trait and acts as the main source of corruption and cause of the fall. From the outset of the poem, Coleridge aligns Geraldine with sexuality. Coleridge’s first description of Geraldine highlights her physical appearance by describing her “stately neck, and arms were bare,” (l.62). Her bare neck and arms imply some sort of nudity and define Geraldine’s sexual nature. Geraldine uses her sexuality as a tool to corrupt Christabel and strip her of her innocence. Prior to her corruption, Coleridge sets up a dichotomy between Christabel’s innocence and Geraldine’s sexuality in the way that they undress. Coleridge describes Christabel undressing as “Her gentle limbs did she undress / And lay down in her loveliness,” (l.237-238). Christabel’s version of undressing illustrates a level of innocence, despite the fact that she is naked. It only takes up two lines, Coleridge leaves out any explicit description of Christabel’s body.
Comparatively, Coleridge presents Geraldine’s undressing as some type of show. First, “the lady bowed / And slowly rolled her eyes around”, showing that she wants Christabel’s attention as she undresses (l.245-246). Coleridge continues and describes how “she unbound / The cincture from beneath her breast: / Her silken robe, and inner vest / Dropt to her feet, and full in view,” (l.248-251). Coleridge highlights the different aspects of Geraldine’s figure, like her breasts, and presents a dramatic undressing in which Geraldine appears to start seducing Christabel, as well as the reader. Geraldine’s sexuality juxtaposes Christabel’s innocence, yet the two become jumbled after Christabel and Geraldine spend the night in bed together. The next morning, Coleridge describes Christabel’s “heaving breasts” and her exclamation of “Sure I have sinned!” (l.380-381). This description of Christabel’s breasts represents the first time Coleridge ascribes any type of sexuality to Christabel. When coupled with her exclamation, Coleridge makes it clear that Christabel’s innocence has been corrupted through her night with Geraldine. Geraldine uses her inherent female sexuality to corrupt Christabel and expose her to her own sexuality. In Coleridge’s version of the fall therefore, all actors are female and the corrupting “thing” is an inherently feminine trait. This differs from Milton’s Paradise Lost because although sexuality plays a role in the poem, he portrays Eve’s sexuality as innocent until after the fall, when it becomes lustful and sinful. Knowledge and ambition, rather than sexuality, acted as the corrupting forces of Paradise Lost that led to the downfall of Adam and Eve.
Coleridge’s reworking of the characters of Eve and Satan from Paradise Lost creates a version of the story that eliminates all male culpability and places all blame onto women. His Eve is Christabel who, despite representing the ideal version of womanhood, allows herself to be easily corrupted by sex. Geraldine acts as Coleridge’s Satan and her gender removes males from the fall entirely by creating a version where the corrupter is female. Finally, Coleridge targets the inherently feminine trait of sexuality as the corrupting force that causes the fall making all aspects of the fall wholly female. Coleridge’s reworking therefore can be read as placing the blame for the fall of humanity and all of the adverse effects that emanate from it onto women.
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In his poem Christabel (1816), Samuel Taylor Coleridge revises John Milton’s Paradise Lost to create a version of the fall of humanity that is wholly feminine. Coleridge represents Eve though […]