Sunday, September 29, 2013

Eve: The Problem Child

Did it bother anyone else that Eve is content to be an object in Paradise Lost? It got my feminist tendencies going a little bit. I have "ugh" written in the margins of the section where she says:

“My author and disposer, what thou
Unargued I obey; so God ordains, 
God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise."

Milton, John (2009-10-28). The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 14820-14823). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

But Eve nevertheless intrigued me. Milton made Eve seem more self aware in books four and five than Adam is. And that seemed radical. A woman was supposed to be the pretty little caged bird during Milton's time—supposed to praise and honor her husband and do whatever he desired. Having desires of her own was unheard of. She would want whatever the man wanted. While this riles me, I expected it. What I didn't expect was the problems that Eve creates for God and Adam. I didn't expect Milton to use Eve as a commentary on identity and self-awareness.

Eve poses a problem to God and Adam from the moment of her creation. Instead of looking up to God, she looks at her reflection in a pond, just as Narcissus did. She already exhibits self-awareness to some degree. The waters murmur to her, and later Satan murmurs in her ear at night, creating within her a false sense of self-awareness. 

Those murmuring waters came from a cave. According to Eric LeMay in his dissertation on Paradise Lost, this is an allusion to Plato's Republic. For those of you not aware of the Allegory of the Cave, here's a good, quick, fun overview of it.

While at first she's a perfect little pet to God and her husband, perfectly content with following them without question, it looks to me like what will lead to her fall is their suppression of her. She will choose to fall to temptation because she's never allowed to properly develop her own persona under God and Adam. It's only with Satan's temptation that she is able to come to some sort of awareness of herself.

LeMay, Eric CharlesLively shadows: Dreams, visions, and self-knowledge in "Paradise Lost." Northwestern University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2002. Web.


  1. I'll admit, that part bugged me a bit too, Chelsea. I do find it interesting what you said about Eve only finding her own self awareness through the temptation of Satan. It's almost the whole Satan being the protagonist thing again. I also think Milton is portraying Eve with several layers (like he is with everything else). She does seem content to be an object, but she also is developing her own awareness. It's in interesting conflict going on. I'm not sure what it means but it definitely is radical for Milton's time.

  2. Your point on Narcissus is an interesting one. It's odd that in the classical myth, Narcissus (a man) is led to the pool by Nemesis (a woman), whereas in PL, Eve is led called away from the waters by God. It paints women as somewhat vain and likewise calls to mind the caprice of both Nemesis and Echo, female characters from the myth of Narcissus. I wonder, though, if Milton isn't more feminist than we maybe think he is. Some of his ideas seem to be very forward for his time, and it may be that he uses some of the constructs to elucidate inconsistencies in the practices of his time. I'll be interested to see what comes up in future books...