Satan and Eve
Published in 1674 John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost is an ambitious retelling of Satan and Mankind’s fall from grace. While today it is generally thought of as a straightforward recount of the book of Genesis as interpreted by a devout Christian, the poem itself contains far more moral ambiguity then one would expect. Milton may have been unwaveringly devoted to Christianity and Puritanism, but he was also deeply distrustful of the church. He attended college with the intention to become a clergymen, but became disenchanted with the career. Years later he wrote several pamphlets advocating looser divorce laws with arguments based on a non-literal reading of the gospel, all of which directly contradicted church teachings. Milton, therefore, is far from the fervent church goer he is often remembered as. His belief in God was as solid as his cynicism towards the church, and this contradictory nature reveals itself throughout the poem. Two of the poems main characters, Satan and Eve are both portrayed in a more nuanced and sympathetic manner then they are in the book of Genesis. They are also much more central to the plot. Satan especially, dominates the first part of the poem while Eve, and Adam, are introduced in the middle of the poem, and take on a greater role towards the end of it. Yet for all their similarities there are several key differences between Satan and Eve that lead the characters to two different endings.
As is befitting the prince of darkness Milton’s Satan is one of the most contradictory characters in all of English literature. He is both the poem’s antagonist, and its first empathetic character. He is introduced in Book 1 shortly after his defeat at the hands of heaven when he has been damned “To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/ In adamantine chains and penal fire” (47-48), here already Milton is cultivating sympathy for him. The image of an immortal bound in chains by God alludes to the myth of Prometheus, the Greek god punished by Zeus for stealing fire from the heavens to help humanity. Satan’s rebellion of course was meant to help no one but himself, but the reference evokes images of unjust punishment and a vengeful god that helps to humanize the prince of darkness. The rest of Book 1 portrays Satan as a military hero, rallying his followers not to give up hope in spite of their defeat. This heroic image continues in Book 2 during which the fallen angels hold an open debate to decide their next course of action. Milton’s depiction of the government of hell as an open forum further humanizes Satan, especially to modern readers who would likely expect hell to be more of a dictatorship. Far from behaving like a tyrant Satan behaves reasonably, even nobly, allowing several fallen angels, Moloch, Belial, and Beelzebub, to separately take the floor and argue for their own course of action. Beelzebub suggests that they get revenge on God by corrupting his newly created world. Following the plan’s approval Satan volunteers himself as a scout to explore the new world. The plan however, was not Beelzebub’s, it was Satan’s. As Milton explains “for whence, /But from the author of all ill could spring /So deep a malice” (Book 2. 380-383), the entire forum was a sham manipulated by Satan to make himself appear heroic in spite of his recent defeat. This is just the beginning of Milton’s deconstruction of Satan. When Milton finally reveals the details of Satan’s fall in Book 5 they are far from noble or heroic. Satan’s rebellion was motivated by his envy of the Son of God after his father declares him the “Messiah King” (664) Satan “could not bear/ through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired” (664-665). Thus at the core of Satan’s strife is nothing but petty jealousy, a sense of entitlement, and an inability to be happy for another’s success. Satan is, to put it bluntly, a spoiled brat. His rebellion was completely futile and almost comical as neither side’s warriors can be...
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