Discuss the issue of gender in Paradise Lost by John Milton, paraticularly as it relates to the relationship between Adam and Eve.

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One particularly interesting episode in Paradise Lost that is relevant to the issue of gender and to the relationship between Adam and Eve occurs in Book 10, after the sin has occurred and after Adam and Eve have quarreled and become bitter toward one another. In lines 867-908, Adam has just angrily reproached Eve, even exclaiming, “Out of my site, thou serpent” (867). Later he turns away from her (909), but Eve,

Not so repulsed, with tears that ceased not flowing,
And tresses all disordered, at his feet
Fell humble, and embracing them, besought
His peace (910-13)

Such behavior on Eve’s part might seem stereotypically feminine and might seem actually weak, especially when she embraces Adam’s feet.

However, Eve’s humble behavior here is actually brave and ideal behavior from Milton’s Christian perspective. Her conduct indicates that she has begun to break free of the pride that caused the fall in the first place and that made the results of the fall even worse. Eve is actually showing great spiritual strength or fortitude here. She freely confesses her own fault in having sinned against both her husband and God (930-31). She thereby shows an extremely mature willingness to accept responsibility for her actions. In this sense, Eve behaves as men were usually expected to behave: with strength, with forthrightness, and with unflinching honesty. Milton’s point, of course, is that these qualities are not restricted to members of either sex or gender. Often, in fact, in Renaissance literature it is women who behave more sensibly, rationally, and responsibly than men (as in many of Shakespeare’s comedies and in many Elizabethan sonnet sequences).

By making Eve the first one of the first couple to admit responsibility and behave humbly, Milton actually pays great tribute to her and shows his real respect for her. Her willingness to admit her dependence on Adam--and especially on his “counsel” (920)--shows both her love for him and her renewed ability to reason properly. She had misused her reason just before eating the fruit; now she regains her reason quite impressively. It is thanks to Eve’s willingness to humble herself that she and Adam begin to climb out of the spiritual hole they had earlier dug for themselves.

A particularly beautiful speech occurs when Even calls herself “me already lost, me than thyself / More miserable” (929-30), and especially when she later vows to ask God to forgive Adam so that

The sentence from [Adam’s] head removed may light
On me, sole cause to thee of all this woe,
Me me only just object of his ire (934-36)

Normally when a person repeats the word “me” so frequently, it is safe to assume that that person is afflicted with pride. Here, however, the repetition of “me” implies just the opposite. In fact, Eve’s words here echo the words of the Son in Book 3, when he offers to sacrifice himself for mankind:

Behold me then, me for him, life for life
I offer, on me let thine anger all;
Account me man (236-38)

Without knowing it, Eve behaves as Christ would behave; although she is a woman, she displays true spiritual heroism and thereby helps to begin to undo the fall.

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Paradise Lost

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