Sin, Fall, and Redemption in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Part II

As book IX begins, with the Satanic serpent crouching in wait, Adam and Eve begin their fateful debate about the morning’s gardening—history’s first battle of the sexes.  Looking at the conversation between them as a whole, however, one overwhelming fact emerges:  from first to last, Eve takes and keeps the initiative.  Her speeches are short, clear, and determined; Adam, on the other hand, is off guard and on the defensive.  It is a state of affairs both entirely realistic and absolutely contrary to the ideal picture in book IV, in which Adam, fully conformed to his role as a symbol of the masculine Reason, possesses absolute sovereignty over a contently obedient and deferential Eve.

Sounding rather like a modern efficiency expert, Eve suggests that they divide their labours; let Adam prune the ivy while she, in another part of the garden, tends to the roses.  Not only will more work get done as a result of specialization, but being separate, the temptation to dally with each other, so much are they in love, will be obviated.

It all sounds innocent and reasonable enough, except that efficient labour is hardly what is required of this blissful pair. They are recreational gardeners in the Martha Stewart mode, not subsistence farmers.  God has ordained that the land give of its bounty freely.  It is not yet required that Adam and Eve live by the sweat of their brows, which is the curse to which they are condemned by the Fall, and which Eve is here ironically anticipating.

Besides, the first couple is still in the honeymoon stage, and probably the last thing Eve wants is to be separated from her beloved.  It seems rather that she is laying a gentle trap for Adam, hoping he will not fall into it but will retort that she asks too much–that he cannot bear to be away from her even for a moment.  But poor Adam, simple and uncomplicated like all the Adams after him, does not understand the subtle indirections of the female mind.

After the manner of most men when sleepy and not at their best, Adam takes Eve at her word.  He praises her initiative, and then explains, in a rather abstract way, the principle that God made them not for “irksome toil, but delight, and delight to Reason joined”.  Literally, Adam  means that God is not such a taskmaster as to deny the first couple a little dalliance and enjoyment as is only appropriate in this golden age, before, as Virgil puts it in the Aeneid, men were required to eke out their existence through “toil, unrelenting toil”.

But allegorically, in the phrase “delight to Reason joined”, Adam is describing the ideal marriage, and Milton is reminding us of the marriage of the soul it symbolizes, that is soon to be turned up-so-doun.


In an equally abstract way, as though applying Eve’s arguments about efficiency to the principle of pleasure, Adam acknowledges that brief periods of separation might indeed make their reunions all the more congenial.  But of course, this is not really what Eve wants to hear, any more than my first wife, as I discovered much too late, wanted to hear me say, “Okay, if that’s what you want”, when she proposed that we go on separate vacations.

Having already lost the battle, Adam then chooses this moment to advance what should have been his first and only argument, about the folly of being separated when they have been warned that the Tempter is close at hand.

The Wife, where danger or dishonor lurks,

Safest and seemliest by her Husband stays.

So long as Reason is joined to Sensuality, it may run to the latter’s aid; parted from Reason, however, Sensuality is perilously exposed to the suggestion of sin.  But failing to understand the allegory, Eve takes Adam’s words as merely self-praise, which could hardly have been ingratiating to her just then.

Eve must now stand on her dignity, and her mind working very clearly on that emotional level, she replies that Adam plainly does not trust her, and that this is an unjust slander upon her character.  Of course, Adam had not meant anything like that, but is obliged in any case to try to mollify his wife’s hurt feelings.  Meanwhile her indignation steadily mounts, and Eve goes on to score several points.

Of what mettle can a man’s virtue and faith be, she asks, if it remains untested and must be constantly propped up by someone else?; forever huddled together in fearful vigilance, “How are we happy then?”  On the contrary, in resisting Satan, our honour will be doubled, and we will achieve the serenity that comes with knowing that we are proof against temptation.


Eve’s speech is brief, emphatic, and persuasive.  Yet it is nonetheless wrong.  It forgets the ancient Christian admonition that it is more prudent to flee temptation in the first place than to court it in order to show that one is capable of withstanding it—which in itself is to succumb to the temptation of pride.  Moreover, she confuses the virtue of standing firm against temptation with the sin of inviting it, and indeed sullies the former by speaking proudly of the “doubled honour” it will gain her.

Adam has by now finally shaken the cobwebs from his sleepy brain, and begins to display his own innate intellectual superiority.  He grasps Eve’s mistake, and tries to explain it in terms of the conventional moral-psychological process of sin, and the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, reason and sensuality, that I, and Milton, have so often rehearsed:

                                within himself

The danger lies, yet lies within [Man’s] power.

Against his will he can receive no harm.

But God left free the Will, for what obeys

Reason is free, and Reason he made right,

But bid her well beware, and still erect,

Lest by some fair appearing good surpris’d

She dictate false, and misinform the Will

To do what God expressly hath forbid.

Not then mistrust, but tender love enjoins,

That I should mind thee oft, and mind thou me.

Firm we subsist, yet possible to swerve,

Since Fancy not impossibly may meet

Some specious object by the Foe suborn’d,

And fall into deception unaware…

Seek not temptation then, which to avoid

Were better, and most likely if from mee

Thou sever not:  Trial will come unsought.

Wouldst thou approve thy constancy, approve

First thy obedience…

Adam asks Eve to respect the natural sovereignty of the husband-Reason, as it had been instituted by the divine Reason, and would be proclaimed in Christian doctrine and biblical exegesis for centuries.  The danger arises, as he says, when some “fair appearing good” enters the feminine “Fancy” and is referred by it to the masculine Reason, which, if defective, may “dictate false”.  That is why Adam (qua Reason) must “mind Eve”, and why Eve (qua Sensuality) must “mind” Adam.

Adam has been eloquent and firm, and Eve must have been impressed.  Indeed, when she responds with her next (and last) argument, she is “submiss”, as Milton says.

And then comes the tragedy: Adam weakens just when he could have remained firm; Eve gains her request of liberty just when she has begun to repent of it.


With this whole preliminary phase of the Fall, Satan, significantly enough, has had nothing to do.  Adam qua Reason has already subjected himself to Eve qua Desire even before the Satanic temptation has begun.  From a modern, egalitarian perspective, Adam’s concession to Eve might seem merely diplomatic, even chivalrous.  At the least, we have to credit him with the self-interested awareness of what is required to preserve domestic peace.

But in terms of the allegory, Adam’s deference to Eve is a moral calamity.  With it, he has abdicated his duty as the sovereign Reason to assert his guidance and authority; he has turned the providential order on which the whole cosmos depends, “up-so-doun”.

There follows one of the most poignant scenes in all of literature, the description of Eve letting go of Adam’s hand and walking away from him with her gardening tools.  Adam’s eyes follow her departing form anxiously, and they try to reassure each other by repeating their mutual promise to return at noon, for a pleasant lunch together, followed by an afternoon nap.  But Milton makes it plain that the innocence of Paradise has already been lost. “Farewell the tranquil mind!  Farewell content!”, as another great English poet put it.

When Satan does make his move, he can hardly believe his luck in finding Eve alone, “Her husband”, as he says, “not nigh,/Whose higher intellectual more I shun”.  His first task is to transform himself into the most beautiful serpent that has ever wriggled and writhed upon the earth:  “pleasing was his shape”, pronounces Milton, “and lovely, never since of Serpent kind/Lovelier”.

Thus even before Eve is presented with the fruit that she will find “fair to the eyes” and “delightful to thought”, she is tempted by the specious beauty of the world in the form of the Serpent wearing his highest heels, flashiest jewels, and all dressed up for a night out on the town.  As he comes within Eve’s sight, says Milton, Satan “curl’d many a wanton wreath…to lure her eye”.  Then, having gained her attention,

              Oft he bow’d

His turret Crest, and sleek enamell’d Neck,

Fawning, and lick’d the ground whereon she trod.

The Serpent does everything but unbutton his disco shirt to his navel and jangle his gold chains.  And finally, switching from his John Travolta impersonation to that of some self-effacing courtly lover in a cheap medieval French romance, he begins to pour out his heart, begging Eve not to disdain his suit but to show him mercy.

Nimbly, Satan seizes upon Eve’s matchless beauty as the means by which to seduce her:

Wonder not, Sovran Mistress,…

….who are sole Wonder, much less arm

Thy looks…with disdain,

Displeas’d that I approach thee thus, and gaze


Fairest resemblance of thy Maker fair,

Thee all things living gaze on, all things thine

By gift, and thy Celestial Beauty adore

With ravishment beheld, there best beheld

Where universally admir’d…


As a symbol of Sensuality, Eve is naturally defenceless against the Serpent’s flattery of her matchless beauty, and defective in reason, is subsequently easily taken in by his confabulation that, once a dumb beast, prostrate upon the ground, and taking no thought for anything but food or sex, he has by eating the fruit now achieved the upright stance of Ovid’s homo erectus, assumed the human faculties of speech and reason, and thereafter devoted himself to the philosophical contemplation of the invisible things of God.  So Eve, he assures her, will attain a proportionately superior state, if she eats the deifying fruit.

Knowing the allegory of the Fall better than Eve, the Serpent continues to frame the temptation in terms that will appeal to her sensual appetites.  He recounts his first encounter with the Forbidden Tree, “loaden with fruit of fairest colors mixt”, a “savory odour…grateful to appetite” wafting from its boughs, which “more pleased my sense” than “the smell of sweetest fennel” or the “teats of ewe…dropping with Milk at Ev’n”, until “to satisfy the sharp desire I had/Of tasting those fair Apples”, he could no longer demur.

Having tasted, Satan then describes his wondrous transformation from beast to man and from man to Platonic mystic, whereby

      to speculations high or deep

I turn’d my thoughts, and with capacious mind

Considered all things, visible and invisible in Heaven.

Finally, in the ultimate stage of his ascent toward the visio dei, this “spiritual serpent”, as Milton facetiously describes him, gazes upon Eve’s “Divine semblance”, and her “Beauty’s heavenly ray”.  Like Socrates in the Symposium, Satan has, under the material aspect of Eve’s earthly beauty, contemplated Beauty heavenly and divine, the Absolute Idea of Beauty, of which her own is a shimmering reflection.


Satan’s pious tale, as Milton’s readers would have recognized, is a cynical parody of the spiritual method Raphael had explained in book V, the way to ascend the gradual scale of nature:  to rise from inanimate matter, to vegetal life, to the rank of living and sentient animals, to man, living, sentient, and rational, to angels, living, sentient, rational, but also spiritual and intuitive, and finally to God.  To rise, that is, through the contemplation of creatures for the sake of the knowledge and love of the Creator, in the way that Paul and Augustine had described it.  And here Satan pretends that he has become a master of this spiritual regime, when his own aspiration to divinity, as manifested in his attempt to rise above his humble rank in heaven and usurp the sovereignty of God, is so obviously motivated by envy, pride, and ambition for power.

It is to this vanity and ambition that Satan so frontally appeals in Eve, when he invites her to “look on me who have touched and tasted, yet both live/And life more perfect have attained than Fate/Meant me, by venturing higher than my lot.”  The formulation “venturing higher than his lot” would remind Milton’s readers of Satan’s war on God in heaven, of which Eve’s aspiration “to know as God knows” would have been recognized as a recapitulation.  This too represents the inversion a hierarchy upon which the order and harmony of the universe depends, as it was understood and gratefully accepted in Milton’s time.  And of course, it is a datum of this hierarchical world-view, that the prideful effort to move up the chain of being leads inevitably to one’s being cast down.  While Satan tells Eve, therefore, that through a laudable aspiration he has risen from the muteness of a beast to the intelligence of a man, and that Eve shall rise “by proportion meet”, as he puts it, from an ignorant woman to a goddess of all knowledge, Milton’s audience knows that his ambition has reduced him from an angel in heaven to a fiend in hell, and finally to the lowliest invertebrate whose form he now inhabits.

That man’s ambition is in reality his degradation is made clear by Milton’s irony again when Satan recommends to Eve the new life that the fruit promises:  “So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off/Human, to put on Gods, death to be wisht.”  This is a parody of St. Paul’s injunction to “put off the old man and put on the new”, to “put off mortality and put on immortality”; but, of course, Paul’s exhortation to die to the sins of the world and the flesh, and, with the risen Christ, attain to new life in the spirit, demands contrition and humility, not pride.  Moreover, man’s overreaching ambition in seeking to become as gods requires a terrible reciprocation, for only God’s humble and selfless degradation into the form of man can repair it.

Finally, Satan asks, “And what are gods that man may not become/As they, participating God-like food”, a direct and ironic reference to Raphael’s dissertation in book V on the possibility, through asceticism and divine contemplation, of man’s encouraging the flesh to wither away through disuse, becoming pure spirit like the angels, and sharing with them their spiritual food.


In the end, Eve’s vanity and appetite combine to make her an easy prey to Satan’s sophistry.  At ll. 733f., she is already in that crucial second stage of sin that the theologians and philosophers called “excessive meditation” or “pleasurable thought”:

He ended, and his words replete with guile

Into her heart too easy entrance won:

Fixt on the Fruit she gaz’d…

…and in her ears the sound

Yet rung of his persuasive words…

Then, in the subsequent lines, in keeping with her character as a personification of Sensuality, she inevitably returns to the image, fixed in her mind, of “this Fruit Divine,/Fair to the Eye, inviting to the Taste.”

Milton describes the result in a formulation of marvelous terseness:  “she plucked; she ate”.  With this all of Nature, as Milton says, feels the wound, for in the single act of disobedience, the entire hierarchical order of the cosmos is discomposed.

Milton then goes on to describe Eve’s gorging on the fruit in the most repulsive terms, and in so doing she grows fully into the allegorical caricature of rampant appetite.


I won’t have time to deal in any detail with the poignant denouement of Milton’s tragedy.  There is certainly something appealing in Adam’s  determination to die with Eve rather than live without her, but lest we get carried away with the romantic tenderness of it all, Milton brings us back to the allegory at l. 999:  he scrupl’d not to eat/Against his better knowledge not deceiv’d,/But fondly overcome with Female charm”.

And in due course we learn that Eve’s “female charm” is no longer for him the innocent object of his marital affection, but something rather more sinister, as gluttony then leads on inevitably to the sin of lust:

Carnal desire inflaming, hee on Eve

Began to cast lascivious Eyes, she him

As wantonly repaid; in Lust they burn:

Till Adam thus ‘gan Eve to dalliance move.

“Eve, now I see thou are exact of taste…

Much pleasure we have lost, while we abstain’d

From this delightful Fruit, not known till now

True relish, tasting…

But come, so well refresh’t, now let us play,

For never did thy Beauty…

…so inflame my sense

With ardor to enjoy thee.”

Here, in abandoning himself so completely to carnal appetite, Adam, like Eve before him, has utterly subordinated Reason to Sensuality, and turned the hierarchy of both his marriage and his soul up-so-doun.

Having given themselves over to a passion that Milton describes in the most distasteful terms, what follows their furtive assignation in the cave are the effects of it, a volcano of emotions that has entirely submerged the masculine Reason:

             not at rest or ease of Mind,

They sat them down to weep, nor only Tears

Rain’d at thir Eyes, but high Winds worse within

Began to rise, high Passions, Anger, Hate,

Mistrust, Suspicion, Discord, and shook sore

Thir inward State of Mind, calm Region once

And full of Peace, now toss’t and turbulent:

For Understanding rul’d not, and the Will

Heard not her lore, both in subjection now

To sensual Appetite, who from beneath

Usurping over Sovran Reason claim’d

Superior sway.

And then Milton ends book IX with the once happy pair absorbed in fruitless and petty mutual recrimination.


Having kept you long enough—past my time, for which I apologize–, I will dispense with the usual concluding summation. My principal point, which I hope I have managed to communicate amidst all the undoubtedly confusing detail, is that, as Milton conceives them, Adam and Eve are hardly the individualized, life-like characters we are used to meeting in modern fiction; they are, rather, representative types of certain universal and innate moral-psychological attitudes and processes.

Similarly, the Fall is not a distant historical event, but a myth in the ancient pagan sense of the word:  something more “philosophical” than history, as Aristotle explained in his Poetics, insofar as myth is the record not of things that occur only at this or that particular place or time, but recur everywhere and always.  This is the effect of allegory:  to turn history into poetry; and in his approach to the opening chapters of Genesis, Milton, like his Christian forbears, resorts happily to allegory.

What matters to him, as it should to us, is not some scarcely believable fable about a garden, a serpent, and a tree, but the allegorical significance of the biblical story, which points to the archetypal pattern that unfolds not in any distant time or remote physical place, but now as always, in the depths of every man’s soul.

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