Adam’s decision to fall, along with Eve, in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost is perhaps the crucial turning point in human history – at least until the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Adam’s decision to sin as Eve has sinned prevents any kind of solution to her sin, or at least any kind of solution short of Christ’s later intervention into human history. If Adam had not sinned, paradise might never have been lost.
Milton keeps us in suspense regarding Adam’s response to Eve’s sin. Initially Adam praises Eve when he learns what she has done, calling her
fairest of creation, last and best
Of all God’s works, creature in whom excelled Whatever can to sight or thought be formed, Holy, divine, good, amiable, or sweet (9.896-99)
Such lines suggest that Adam is thoroughly smitten with Eve and will never abandon her. However, he then immediately criticizes her, and even seems to distance himself from her, when he asks her,
How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost,
Defaced, deflow’red, and now to death devote? (900-01)
Yet no sooner does Adam seem to thereby distance himself from her than he next proclaims, “for with thee / Certain my resolution is to die” (906-07).
This willingness to die along with Eve might at first seem brave, selfless, and noble, and indeed many readers have difficulty imagining what other course of action might be open to Adam. Should he simply abandon Eve to her fate? That would seem heartless. Should he ask God to make him a new wife? That would seem selfish. What other course of worthy, noble action is open to Adam except to die with the woman he loves? Eve herself, after all, thinks that by expressing his willingness to die with her, Adam “his love / Had . . . ennobled” (991-92). How, then, could Adam possibly behave more nobly than he seems to behave here?
Adam might have responded far more nobly to their predicament if he had simply gone to God and asked God to let Adam take all the blame for Eve’s sin on himself. In other words, rather than being willing to die with Eve, he might have expressed a willingness to die for Eve. This would have been a far more noble gesture than the gesture he finally chooses. In fact, if Adam had volunteered to take another person’s punishment on himself, he would have been behaving as the Son chooses to behave in Book 3 (236-41) and as Eve herself later offers to behave in Book 10 (930-36).
Adam’s willingness to die with Eve is only superficially noble; true Christian nobility would have involved a decision to offer to sacrifice himself on Eve’s behalf, offering to suffer for her sin, as Christ does later in human history. Unfortunately, however, Adam chooses a course that is only superficially noble and that leads both him and Eve to further suffering.
For an excellent brief overview of the poem, please see C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).