The Nature of Dominance Portrayed Through Relationship of Adam and Eve
Out of all the competing plots and themes in Paradise Lost, arguably the central and most important story is that of humanity’s first members, Adam and Eve, and their self-induced fall from grace into sin. The nature of their relationship is a complex one in which initial appearances are deceiving and in which it is impossible to make any sweeping statements about who holds the authority and power therein. On the surface, Milton adheres to the pervading sexism of his day, creating an Eve that appears to be a submissive and domestic servant commanded by authorities in Heaven to serve her man. In this chauvinistic interpretation, her decision to disobey God and eat the Forbidden Fruit stems from her foolish attempts to buck the natural human hierarchy of female inferiority and become an equal to Adam. However, this reading is complicated by the tremendous amount of spiritual and sexual power with which Milton endows his Eve; she uses that power to captivate Adam with such force that he turns away from God and begins worshipping her instead. Despite her lack of domestic authority, Eve’s endowment with this type of alternative power demonstrates the surprising complexity and value that Milton, the product of a misogynistic age, gives to his female characters.
At first glance, the relationship between Adam and Eve is clearly sexist and in favor of a male authority. Adam, as God’s original human creation, is the one intended to be the dominant personality; he leads and controls his lover both in Paradise as well as in the world after the Fall. Such a masculine hierarchy is legitimated by Milton, who employs divine characters to make these claims; for example, when the Son ventures down from Heaven to relay God’s judgment on the pair, He tells Eve that “to thy husband’s will thine shall submit, he over thee shall rule” (10.195). Later, the Archangel Michael, upon arriving to evict the pair from Eden, indicates that it is compulsory for her to subordinate herself to Adam and become a possession of his, saying: “thy husband, him to follow thou art bound; where he abides, think there thy native soil” (11.291-92). This idea of “belonging” is enforced by the very nature of Eve’s creation: although she is now a fully developed person with her own thoughts and feelings, her initial formation by God was from a rib that had once been belonged to Adam (4.466). By being made from a piece of him instead of being freshly created from scratch like Adam was by God, Eve becomes a sort of second-generation creation, one who is less connected to the Lord than her male counterpart. As the source of her existence, Adam is also in some sense her creator, a second God who can make a claim to authority as her maker in the same way that God claims sovereignty over him and every other object in His universe.
This idea of Adam as an auxiliary God, ordained by the original to rule over Eve and all of the other creatures of the Earth, can be corroborated by Milton’s use of the verb “submit” to describe both his first interaction with God and the role ordered upon Eve by the Son. Adam describes his first meeting with the “Presence divine” after his formation as “rejoicing, but with awe in adoration at his feet I fell submiss” — a gesture of thanksgiving as well as an acknowledgement of God’s status as a superior being. Interestingly, Eve’s desperate apology to her husband is described in almost the exact same words, with Milton writing that she was “now at his feet submissive in distress” (10.942). It is striking that not only do these two separate scenes share the same action verb of placing oneself under another, greater figure, but also the exact same imagery of one figure actually falling to the feet of the other superior character. Whereas Adam fell out of a sense of wonder and adoration, Eve prostrates herself here to seek forgiveness and to visually demonstrate how much she needs her admittedly better half. Not only does she fall to admit her sorrow and beg for forgiveness, but she also reveals how she is literally incapable of living without Adam’s guidance:
At his feet [she] fell humble, and embracing them besought his peace… forsake me not Adam… thy suppliant I beg, and clasp thy knees… where on I live, thy gentle looks, thy aid, my only strength and stay: forlorn of them whither shall I betake me, where subsist? (10.911-923)
Here Eve admits her folly for eating the fruit that God strictly forbade them to consume and then coercing her partner into doing the same, but more significantly, she is also apologizing for ever attempting to be Adam’s equal. During her temptation by Satan (the serpent), she admits that one of the incentives for eating the apple would be its ability to “render me more equal, and perhaps, a thing not undesirable, sometime Superior,” followed by her direct admission of her unhappiness with Adam’s hegemony, wondering “for inferior who is free?” At the time, consuming the Forbidden Fruit and gaining the knowledge of good and evil seemed like the perfect way of allowing her to get a leg up on Adam and add parity to their relationship as well granting her more power to dictate her own life. However, having seen the consequences of her attempts at independence, Eve’s begging for forgiveness illustrates her recognition that the natural order is one where she is subordinate to Adam and that, had she initially obeyed his initial wish for them to work together, her weakness never would have been exposed by Satan. That her apology for breaking God’s command is directed not at the Almighty, but at her husband, is indicative of how great of a priority it is for her to placate him and earn his forgiveness.
In contrast to this clearly sexist reading of the relationship between Adam and Eve, where the man seemingly has been granted the power to rule over his woman in much the same way that God has dominion over men, another interpretation exists where Eve is seen as an equal who wields an alternative type of influence that makes her a match, if not superior, to her husband. One of the simplest and strongest arguments for gender equality comes from the mouth of Adam himself, who asks God not for another creature for him to rule over like all the other animals of the Earth, but rather someone on his own level, asking “among unequals, what society can sort, what harmony or true delight?”(7.382-83). Having seen every other creature have a mate that complements them perfectly, he is particularly aware of his loneliness and inability to form connections with other species, telling God, “of fellowship I speak such as I seek, fit to participate all rational delight, wherein the brute cannot be human consort” (7.390-92). For Adam, the most important part of finding a mate is not sexual pleasure (which he hasn’t yet felt because no one yet exists for him to share that experience), but rather to have someone with whom he can share and relate the unique experiences of a human being on which there is no burden of being a master or a servant. Even the poem’s final line creates an image of togetherness: Adam and Eve exit Paradise “hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way” (12.648-49). The very physical action of walking with hands intertwined requires that the two be standing abreast of one another; it cannot work if one is walking ahead of the other. That they enter into the new, dangerous, and sin-filled realm of the new world in this manner indicates how much they need other: only by working together will they be able to create a new life after the Fall.
Although previously-mentioned commands from both the Son and Michael the Archangel indicate where the domestic or physical authority lies in their relationship, Eve wields a sort of spiritual and sexual power that captivates Adam and signifies that her role in their partnership is much more than just that of a faithful servant. He is infatuated with her from the moment he first laid eyes on her, telling Raphael that “here passion first I felt, commotion strange, in all enjoyments else superior and unmoved, here only weak against the charm of beauty’s powerful glance” (7.531-33). Even though he understands that God created him first and intends that he be the authority figure over Eve, Adam can’t help but recognize how truly spellbound he is: “for well I understand in the prime end of nature her th’ inferior,” he says, “yet when I approach her loveliness, so absolute she seems and in her herself complete” (7.540-41, 547-48). Eve’s sensational beauty, at least in the way that it can enthrall the only man on Earth, gives her a power that helps to counter the masculine nature of domestic hierarchy: while Adam may have been ordained by God to be in charge, she can use her attractiveness and his fixation on her to asset authority and control over him.
Such is the extent of Adam’s fascination with Eve that she becomes an idol to him, the figure he turns away from God to worship, and the one who causes his downfall. His love for the Lord is obscured by the more immediate physical love he feels for Eve, and he endows her with virtues that are more befitting a divine presence than a human: “what she wills to do or say seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best,” he exclaims, and that “all higher knowledge in her presence falls degraded” (7.549-552). This particular line foreshadows the higher knowledge that Adam will soon abandon — God’s command not to eat the fruit — which he chooses to ignore because another figure whom he adores says he should. Upon arriving on Earth to pronounce judgment on the couple, the Son rebukes Adam for obeying the wishes of a false deity over the orders of the real one, asking “was she thy God, that her didst obey before his voice, or as she made thy guide superior, or but equal, that to her thou didst resign thy manhood?” (10.145). Although both Adam and Eve sin by disobeying a heavenly command, both also have failed in some way by disrespecting their Heavenly Father: Eve’s failing is in her desire to eat the apple in order to rise above her station, while Adam’s failing is putting his love for her above all others, including the Almighty. Ultimately, he has fallen because he has been blinded by his own obsession and has lost sight of who the most important figure in his life should be.
Throughout the course of Paradise Lost, the reader is exposed to a large body of conflicting evidence about the nature of the relationship between Adam and Eve. On one hand, the language used by Milton’s divine figures and even by the character herself suggests that she is the traditional, “submissive” Eve, the one who dooms the entire human race in an attempt to escape the natural hierarchy that places her husband rightfully above her. In contrast to this chauvinistic model where she is but a servant bound to her man by God’s will as well as her own failings, Eve can also be seen as having an alternative type of power based on the strong sexual influence she wields over Adam. His incredible infatuation with her beauty leads to his foolish belief in her perfection, which ultimately causes him to abandon the true God and His commands for those of an idol who leads him into falling from grace. That such competing theories regarding their relationship exist at all is proof of Milton’s surprisingly tolerant views on women. Although he is never quite able to escape the prevailing ideas of sexism that were prevalent in his time, his Eve is still a much stronger, and much more equal character, for the standards of the day.
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