How are gender roles expressed in Paradise Lost?
The importance of gender roles is particularly highlighted because Adam and Eve, being the first two humans, clearly should provide some sort of guide as to the roles played by men and women. The differences between them are evident upon their first mention in this epic classic, which occurs in Book IV when Satan has his first look at the Garden of Eden and comments upon two similar creatures who are obviously unlike any other creature he has seen as they are "new to sight and strange." This first assessment of Adam and Eve points towards the gender roles that each perform. Although both are equal in terms of their appearance, it is also clear that they are "not equal" because they are clearly different in terms of their roles:
For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace,
He for God only, she for God in him...
The description continues with Adam having "absolute rule" and Eve's appearance hinting at "subjection" but not in the sense of being a slave. This initial description of Adam and Even therefore points towards the authority that men have but also the nature of the submission that women give to men, which is not slavish in any sense but:
...required with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best received,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay.
Although man is clearly dominant, the explanation of the nature of Eve's submission recognises that this is not an imbalance of power so much as a choice to "yield" that submission to Adam. The description thus points to men as being more dominant and to women as being more caring and nurturing.