The Problem of Misogyny in Milton’s Work
Paradise Lost, the epic poem written in blank verse by the 17th-century English poet John Milton narrates the biblical account of the Fall of mankind. Eve is the only character that is both female and human in the poem and Milton’s depiction of her is unquestionably sexist. However, it can be debated whether this depiction is simply a product of Milton’s culture, or if Milton is indeed a misogynist. Throughout the epic, there are many implications about Adam’s and Eve’s character traits which play a key role in their weaknesses that lead to the Fall. While Adam’s tragic flaw is loving too passionately, Eve’s tragic flaws are narcissism, vanity, and curiosity. This stark contrast is just one of many examples that prove that Milton’s discrimination against Eve as an independent, curious woman goes beyond the sexism found in the Bible or in Milton’s culture and rather is a direct result of his misogyny.
Milton introduces Adam and Eve in book four. Satan sees the pair in Paradise and states “For contemplation he and velour formed; / For softness she and sweet attractive grace” (4.295-296). Adam is strong and curious while Eve appears to be timid and sweet. Satan points out these differences almost immediately after seeing them for the first time. He also overhears Adam telling Eve that God must be infinitely good and that they only have one simple rule to follow, which is do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and Eve agrees completely. This very first image of Eve that Milton portrays shows Eve to be a subservient woman who is not as strong, spiritual, or as intelligent as her husband, which is distinctly sexist. The belief exhibited here that the male is superior to the female and therefore the female should be subservient can be seen as a reflection of Milton’s society which was outwardly sexist. Milton justifies the belief that Adam is superior to Eve based on religious terms as well when he states “He for God only, she for God in him” (4.297). Adam was created for God and Eve was created for both God and Adam, emphasizing that she was created for the purpose of another being and to be an object of affection. Because Eve was created from Adam’s rib and this is described in the Bible as well, Christianity also supported the idea during this time period that Eve is a lesser part of Adam, and this was generalized to all of society. After she has been created, Eve is “Man-like, but different sex; so lovely fair” (8.471). Eve’s depiction as an innocent and subservient woman in Paradise who obeys Adam because “So God ordains” represents Milton’s ideal for a woman’s place in a marriage, even if this particular image of Eve does not for last very long (4.634).
Eve recounts the story that when she was born, she wandered to a lake and was startled by her own reflection. Here is where Milton’s historically sexist depiction of Eve starts to become more misogynistic in nature because he begins to associate negative qualities with Eve rather than simply stating that the genders are unequal and therefore have different roles. Eve’s experience with her reflection is an allusion to the story of Narcissus in Greek mythology, suggesting that she is vane and shallow because she is so fascinated with her own reflection. Milton’s misogyny is presented mildly here, but these small implications are significant because they serve as a preface for Eve’s vulnerability to Satan’s temptation. However, Adam and Eve are limited by God in their knowledge about themselves and their environment. For example, Adam and Eve do not know what death is or what will happen if they eat the forbidden fruit. Therefore, Eve staring at her reflection could very likely be driven by curiosity rather than vanity since she had never seen what she looked like before that encounter with her reflection. Therefore, Milton’s implications of narcissism contradict the information that he gives the reader about Adam and Eve’s primitive knowledge. God saves Eve from her own vanity and leads her to Adam saying “follow me, / And I will bring thee where no shadow stays” (4.467-468). Here Milton integrates the Classical with Christianity which is done frequently throughout the poem as he perpetuates the image of God’s benevolent presence and Grace, as he gave them Paradise and instructed them on how to live happily there.
The portrayal of Adam and Eve’s love through Milton’s eyes is interesting because their true devotion and pure love for each other is highlighted throughout the poem. The couple spends every day and night together, and they are blissfully happy in each other’s company. Adam adores Eve to the point that his love for her becomes his ultimate weakness and leads to his downfall later on in the poem. In book nine when the two are taking on the task of doing their labor for the day, Adam would prefer to take on the work together but agrees with Eve’s wish and tells her “For solitude sometimes is best society, / And short retirement urges sweet return” (9.249-250). It appears as though Adam is obeying Eve’s wishes, and this is because he loves her and wishes to make her happy. Even though these are Milton’s words, they are the opposite of sexist, which is intriguing. Like Eve’s story of her encounter with her reflection having implications of vanity and narcissism which leads to her fall, this event foreshadows Adam’s weakness which leads to the Fall of mankind.
Amongst the angels’ teachings to Adam, they describe how he should act as the man in a relationship. In book ten, Raphael tries to enlighten Adam when he says that Eve is “Adorned / She was indeed, and lovely, to attract / Thy love, not thy subjection;” (10.151-153). This is one of the most important quotations in the entire poem because it conveys Milton’s view that loving a woman is acceptable but unreasonable passion is not. This is because passion it eliminates the ability to think clearly and rationally and might compromise the hierarchy of gender roles. This is seen when Adam is head over heels in love with Eve and agrees to Eve’s wishes of working separately. Eve’s does love Adam, but her love does not have the same sense of intensity or emotionality that Adam’s does. As a result, Eve can be seen as a character who has a good sense of reason, but this can also make her appear to be coldhearted because she doe not seem to be as in love with Adam as he is with her. All of Eve’s negative attributes are not significant in and of themselves, but are more noteworthy when viewed in the context of Eve succumbing to Satan’s temptation.
The Fall of Adam and Eve is where sexism in Paradise Lost becomes misogyny. Eve’s curiosity and independence that emerge as the epic progresses are admirable because she is a woman who is thinking for herself rather than simply following her husband’s orders. However, when Eve goes her separate way to work individually, these characteristics are not seen as an asset. In the form of a serpent, Satan addresses her as “Empress of this fair world, resplendent Eve” and begins to gain her attention with flattery (9.568). According to Milton, Eve succumbs to vanity once again. She is then convinced by the serpent’s rhetoric as he moves about like an ancient orator and tells her that God will admire her boldness. Eve knew that temptation was lurking, but she did know that what the serpent was telling her was indeed false. Adam and Eve are instructed to worship God, so it is not unreasonable that Eve would be drawn in by the offer to assume a godlike status from eating the fruit since they are told to look up to God so much. Satan’s rhetoric “Into her heart too easy entrance won” and as a result, Eve has essentially caused the Fall in Milton’s eyes (9.734). The misogyny becomes evident in Milton’s depiction of Eve’s subsequent attempt to persuade Adam to eat the fruit. In Milton’s perspective, because Eve has the ability to think for herself, she naturally becomes a manipulating, untrustworthy creature who lets her pride cause her to give into the temptation that she was strictly warned against. Eve is able to convince Adam to eat the fruit, showing that she holds a certain power over Adam that even God cannot transcend which is due to the fact that she is a member of the weaker sex, or even in spite of it. Because Adam and Eve were not predetermined to fall according to God, it is clear that both men and women are capable of falling. Their free will in relation to the Fall is reassured in 9.291 when Eve is told “For such thou art; from sin and blame entire.” Adam is reminding us that Eve is entirely free from sin which is significant because this represents the idea that the loss of innocence and purity in Eden is directly tied to free will rather than predestination. If Satan had first tried to make Adam succumb to his temptation, Adam may have also given in just as easily. He gave into Eve’s temptation because he did not want her to suffer alone and this comes across as a sweet and thoughtful action, which is the opposite of how Eve gives in to Satan even though he is equally as guilty. Misogyny is clear here because Milton has a hatred for Eve and is directly implying that women being allowed to have independence results in vicious, malevolent actions and schemes on their behalf, even though this is not a fair depiction of what happened between Satan and Eve in Eden.
After being persuaded by the serpent’s rhetoric, it becomes clear that Eve values superficiality more than God, and this is also seen when she begins to worship the tree itself. She addresses the tree directly saying “Oh sovereign, virtuous, precious of all trees / In Paradise! of operation blest” (9.795-796). She vows to sing to it and eat from it everyday in order to gain wisdom, much like someone worshiping the Christian God might sing and read the bible for the same reasons. This behavior is blatantly sacrilegious, creating a stark contrast with Adam’s innocence, especially before he gives into temptation as well. As a result of the Fall, one of Eve’s punishments is to have to submit to Adam. However, this seems like it may have happened regardless of the Fall because Adam was being influenced by angels like Raphael in regard to his role in the relationship. In addition, Jesus tells Adam that it was he who was given the power to rule and not Eve, highlighting that the Fall can be equally blamed on Adam since his overwhelming love for Eve is as detrimental as vanity and curiosity from a woman. This is conveying the lesson that men should be aware of the dangers of loving a woman excessively and that women should not be too curious about the world around them, which is an outwardly misogynistic view of the world. Satan is the first to note that Adam and Eve are unequal physically and in their actions, but now this sexism is perpetuated by God, as seen in Jesus’ critiques and God’s punishment of making women submit to men.
It is completely expected that a work of literature from England in the 17th century would be sexist in its ideology. However, Paradise Lost transcends this normality. John Milton feeds off the sexism in the Bible and creates a universe that goes beyond this, where a woman who has the courage to be independent ends up causing the Fall for all of mankind for eternity. Adam and Eve are both equally guilty for the Fall because they succumb to temptation independently due to their individual weaknesses. However, Eve’s weaknesses are malicious character flaws that Milton attributes to her while perpetuating the idea that Eve is narcissistic and a lesser part of Adam. This is because she is less like God than Adam is because she was made from him and not out of nothing in order to cease Adam’s loneliness. This sexism is conveyed by Raphael, Satan, and Jesus, and Milton adds just the right amount of his own misogyny to create a piece of literature that conveys the message that curious, smart, and independent women can only lead to destruction.
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