Paradise Lost Summary
Paradise Lost is an epic poem by John Milton about the fall of Adam and Eve.
- Satan sets his sights upon the world of Man after being cast out of Heaven.
- He comes down to Earth, disguises himself as a serpent, and convinces Eve to eat the fruit of knowledge—an act that results in her and Adam being banished from paradise.
- God identifies Satan to the Son and explains that Satan will lead Man to Sin. The Son volunteers to sacrifice himself in return for God’s divine grace for Man.
Last Updated on June 15, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1671
John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost, is an essential work of English literature and one of the best-known poems ever written. First published in 1667, this monumental masterpiece has been read and studied closely for centuries because of its rich storytelling, complex themes, and profound philosophical inquiries that still resonate today. Author and Context:
John Milton (1608-1674) was an influential English poet and political thinker of his time. A devout Puritan, Milton wrote Paradise Lost during a time of political and religious upheaval in England. The poem reflects his deep religious convictions and explores theological and philosophical concepts related to the Fall of Man and the very nature of good and evil.
Composition and Publication:
Paradise Lost was composed over several years and completed by 1664. The poem was initially written in blank verse, a form of unrhymed iambic pentameter, reflecting Milton's vast ambition to create a work of this complexity of form and vision. It was published in 1667, initially consisting of ten books. However, Milton expanded the poem to twelve books in the second edition, published in 1674.
Plot and Structure:
Paradise Lost retells the biblical story of the Fall of Man, drawing primarily from the Book of Genesis. The poem begins with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and follows their journey through the mortal world, all while exploring the themes of temptation, sin, redemption, and the conflict between good and evil.
Milton employs a complex narrative structure, intertwining various storylines and incorporating heavenly and earthly perspectives. The poem showcases vivid descriptions of celestial realms, Hell, and Earth while incorporating multiple dialogues of angels and demons, soliloquies of significant characters, and dramatic scenes. The main story is driven by the actions and choices of key figures such as Satan, Adam, and Eve.
Themes and Motifs:
Paradise Lost explores profound philosophical and theological themes, delving into the nature of free will, theodicy (the problem of evil), and the complexities of human existence. It presents a highly nuanced portrayal of characters, their motivations, and the consequences of their actions. The poem also examines themes of knowledge, disobedience, and the fragility of human happiness.
Influences and Legacy:
Milton drew inspiration from various literary and religious sources, including foundational classical epics such as Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid. His work reflects his extensive knowledge of classical literature, mythology, and biblical texts, to the degree that many footnotes are needed for a normal reader to understand all of the references.
Paradise Lost has had a profound impact on subsequent generations of writers and thinkers. Its influence can be seen in works by renowned authors such as William Blake, Mary Shelley, and T.S. Eliot. The poem's exploration of profound moral and philosophical questions continues to resonate with readers, making it an enduring masterpiece of English literature.
Summary of Paradise Lost:
Satan, one of the brightest and most highly favored angels in heaven, leads a band of other angels in rebellion against God. God easily defeats the rebels, and throws them down from heaven to the burning lake of hell. Satan is the first to recover, and he flies away from the burning lake, calling his troops after him and directing them to build a great city of gold on the fiery land. When they have constructed the city of Pandemonium, they hold a council there to decide how they will proceed against God. Beelzebub, Satan’s lieutenant, tells them of a newly created world which God intends to populate with a race called Man. He suggests that this is an easier target than heaven and that they should...
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try to gain their revenge by corrupting mankind rather than through open warfare against God, an endeavor in which they have already failed. Satan volunteers to undertake this mission himself and flies through the abyss that divides hell from the new world.
As God and his Son are looking at the new world, they see Satan flying towards it. God explains that Satan will initially be successful in his plan to corrupt mankind, but he intends to show humans mercy and allow them the possibility of redemption. The Son volunteers to die in order to redeem mankind, though he knows that he will not remain dead, as God has granted him eternal life. Meanwhile, Satan arrives on earth and makes his way to Paradise. There he finds Adam and Eve, whose beauty and grace astonish him. He hears them talking about God’s command that they must not eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. He decides that this is what he will use to bring about their downfall. He begins whispering corrupting thoughts in Eve’s ear while she is asleep, but he is discovered and expelled from the garden by the angels God has placed there to defend it.
God sends the archangel Raphael to Eden to warn Adam and Eve that Satan has come to earth and to remind them that they have free will and can resist his temptation. The mortals receive Raphael as an honored guest and ask him many questions, culminating in a request that he tell them about Satan’s rebellion. Raphael says that Satan first defied God when God revealed his son to the angels and announced that he and the Son would rule heaven as equals. Satan felt that he deserved this position and ordered those angels under his command, a third of the entire heavenly host, to revolt against God’s authority in open war. Only one, Abdiel, refused. He flew back to the throne of God, where he found the loyal angels preparing for war. Under the command of the archangel Michael, the angels battled with Satan’s forces, with whom they were matched evenly until the advent of the Son. The Son terrified the rebel angels, who hurled themselves into the abyss and fell for nine days until they reached the fires of hell. Raphael concludes this story by saying he hopes that Adam now appreciates the consequences of disobeying God.
Adam then questions Raphael about how and why the new world was created. Raphael tells him that, after the war in heaven, God created the new world to replenish the number of his worshippers, after Satan had taken millions of angels from him. The world was created by the Son, who divided day from night, separated the ocean from the land, and made the plants and animals. Finally, God the Father and the Son together made Adam and Eve, to rule over the earth and populate it with their descendants. God’s only prohibition was that they must not eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. After Raphael has finished telling him all this, Adam wants to continue the conversation, so he tells the story of his own creation and Eve’s, as far as he remembers it. He tells Raphael how much he loves Eve and how strongly he is affected by her beauty. Concerned by these remarks, Raphael reminds Adam that he is a superior creature to Eve and that he must love God more than he loves her.
The next day, Adam and Eve are working separately in the garden when Satan, who has taken the form of a serpent, approaches Eve with flattering words. Eve is amazed that the snake has mastered human speech and asks him how this happened. Satan shows her the Tree of Knowledge and tells her that eating the fruit of this tree gave him the gift of speech and increased his mental powers in other ways. When Eve says that she has been forbidden to eat the fruit of this tree, Satan assails her with persuasive arguments which break down her resistance. She eats the fruit and takes some to Adam, who is horrified by her disobedience. However, he also eats the fruit, as he wishes to remain with Even and share her fate. Having eaten, he is overcome with lust, and the two of them have sex and then fall asleep. When they awaken, they are aware of their fallen nature and begin to argue.
The Son comes to Paradise to judge the sins of Adam and Eve. After condemning the serpent to crawl on its belly for its role in their disobedience, he punishes women for Eve’s sin with the pains of childbirth, and men for Adam’s sin with a lifetime of toil, followed by a return to the dust. Satan returns to hell and gives a triumphant speech to the other fallen angels about his success in corrupting humanity, but they have all been turned into hissing snakes. Meanwhile, Sin and Death are ravaging the earth, and Adam laments the consequences of his sin for himself and his children, though he does not understand why they will be punished, since they are blameless. In their misery, Adam and Eve are reconciled, and they confess their sins and implore God for forgiveness.
God sends the archangel Michael down to earth to lead Adam and Eve out of Paradise, since they can no longer live there in their sinful state. Michael shows Adam a vision of the future, which begins with Cain’s murder of Abel and continues with a litany of the horrible ways in which people will die. Adam also sees Enoch being taken up to heaven and Noah preaching against depravity and then building the ark. Noticing that Adam is fatigued by the vision, Michael tells him the rest of the story. Mankind will grow ever more sinful until God turns away from them, with the single exception of Abraham, whose descendants will be the Israelites. Among them, the Son will be born as a man, the Messiah, who will die for the sins of mankind and then rise from the dead, defeating Satan, Sin, and Death. Adam is comforted by this, and Michael tells him that he has attained wisdom and will carry Paradise within him. With this, Adam and Eve depart from Paradise and make their way out into the new world.