Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2785
Since nothing escapes the eye of the omniscent God, it is known in Heaven that the Serpent has perverted Eve and she has, in turn, tempted Adam to taste the “fatal fruit.” God has not hindered Satan from tempting Adam and Eve, however. In his wisdom and justice, God has armed them with free will, but they have chosen to disobey him and have, therefore, deserved to fall.
The guardian angels from Paradise arrive in Heaven with the sad news. They are greeted by multitudes of angels who are displeased but also show pity for Adam and Eve. God’s voice appears from a cloud amidst the thunder, and the angels gather to listen. God calms the angels’ fears and tells the guards of Paradise that what has taken place could not have been prevented. He has known all along that Satan would prevail in his attempt to seduce Man and cause him to fall. Man was governed by his own free will, however, and sentence must now be passed on his transgression. Though death has already been determined, it has not yet been inflicted. God appoints the Son as Mediator to administer justice as well as mercy to Adam and Eve. The Son is considered to be Man’s friend since he has already volunteered to give himself as a ransom for Man’s sin.
The Son arrives on Earth in the cool of the evening. When Adam and Eve hear him walking in the garden, they hide in the thickest part of the forest. The Son calls Adam’s name with a loud voice, and they both appear with guilty looks. Adam tells the Son he was afraid of him and hid himself because he was naked. The Son asks whether he has eaten the forbidden fruit and, therefore, realizes he is naked. Adam deliberates, wondering whether to take all the blame himself and protect Eve by concealing her guilt or whether to tell the truth. He finally decides to tell the Son that Eve offered him the fruit and he ate, but the Son rebukes him, asking him whether Eve is his God whom he must obey. He tells Adam he should love Eve but not be held in subjection to her. She was not meant to rule, the Son says, since that is Adam’s part by nature.
The Son then asks Eve what she has done, and she replies that the Serpent beguiled her. Promptly passing judgment on the Serpent, the Son dooms him to grovel on his belly and eat dust for the rest of his days. The Son also proclaims that hatred will exist between Eve’s descendants and the Serpent’s offspring. Turning to Eve, he decrees the pain of childbirth and the submission to her husband’s will as punishment for her sin. He declares that Adam shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow until he returns to the ground that God used for his creation.
After Adam and Eve have been judged, the Son tells them that their deaths will be far in the future. Feeling pity for them, he dresses them with the “skins of beasts” that have either been killed or have shed their skins. He also clothes their “inward nakedness” with his “robe of righteousness” before he ascends into Heaven.
Meanwhile, Sin becomes restless as a mysterious force is drawing her to “things of like kind.” She reveals her plan to her son, Death, to build a highway from the gates of Hell to Earth where Satan, their father, now resides. Death agrees to do his equal share as he sniffs the air for the smell of mortal carcasses that he will feed on when he arrives on Earth. “Following the track/ Of Satan,” Sin and Death build a broad high-arched bridge across the Abyss. Along the way they meet Satan who is escaping the judgment of the Son of God in Eden. Though he is disguised as a bright angel, they recognize him immediately and greet him with joy. Sin attributes the highway to Satan’s success on Earth and salutes him as the monarch of Hell and all the World. Satan gives Sin and Death his blessing and sends them off to Paradise to “reign in bliss” as he continues his journey on the highway to Hell.
Disguised as a common military angel, Satan arrives in Pandemonium and mounts his throne. He reveals himself as his head slowly appears out of a cloud, and he is greeted with cheers and congratulations. Addressing the fallen angels, he promises to lead them out of Hell to their newly acquired world. He lies as he tells them how much pain and suffering he has endured on his crude passage through the Abyss, but now, he says, the way has been paved to expedite their “glorious march” out of Hell. Satan tells them of his fraudulent seductions of Man which separated him from his creator. What is even more strange, and perhaps laughable, is that Man and all of God’s world has now been given to the powers of Hell, and Satan has done it with an apple. God judged the Serpent but only with a bruise, Satan says, and who would not purchase a world for a mere bruise. Satan expects applause but all he gets is a “dismal universal hiss” because he and his angels are all being transformed into serpents. God is passing judgment on them as he had promised, and he now lures them to a grove of trees resembling the Tree of Knowledge, but as they eagerly eat the fruit, it turns into “bitter ashes.”
Meanwhile, Sin and Death arrive in Paradise. Sin asks Death what he thinks of their empire, but he says it matters little where he stays as long as he can satisfy his ravenous appetite. Sin tells him to feed on the vegetation and beasts until she can infect Man, and he will be the “sweetest prey.”
God observes the “waste and havoc brought about by the “dogs of Hell,” but promises that the Son will eventually be victorious over them and hurl Sin and Death through Chaos, sealing up the gates of Hell forever. The heavenly chorus responds with halleluiahs to the Son. God then orders the angels to regulate the sun and create changeable weather. Some say the angels inclined the axis of the Earth over 20 degrees, and some say they steered the sun off its course and brought about the change of seasons, the poet says.
Discord, the daughter of Sin, causes the animals to fight and devour each other and flee in fear of Man or glare at him as he passes by. These are the “growing miseries” Adam observes from his hiding place in the gloomy shade. He cries out in pain, mourning the loss of his “glorious World” and his communion with God. He sees no reason to propagate the race if it will only bring curses on his head. He tells his Maker he did not ask to become Man. He finally concedes that his punishment is nevertheless just, but he still sees no reason to prolong his life as long as he knows Death is coming. He wishes he could die, but one thought still plagues him—that the spirit of Man might not perish with his physical body, and he will die a “deathless death.” He wonders whether God’s anger will never be satisfied and why he must punish all mankind for one man’s sin.
As he curses the day he was created, Eve approaches with soft words, but he orders her out of his sight. Calling her a serpent, he rails at her “inward fraud” that is disguised in her “heavenly form.” He wonders why God, who created all the spirits masculine, placed “this fair defect/ Of Nature,” Woman, in Paradise. Eve is in tears and falls at Adam’s feet, begging him to forgive her and not forsake her. She loves him sincerely and pleads that they might live in peace for the short time they have left. She admits having sinned against God and Adam and wishes the sentence could fall on her alone. Eve’s words soften Adam’s anger, and he vows that all the blame should fall on his head rather than hers. He proposes that they put blame aside and lighten each other’s burden. Eve then suggests that, with Adam’s approval, they either remain childless by abstaining from “nuptial embraces,” or take their own lives to keep from bringing a cursed race into the world.
Offering a “safer resolution,” Adam cautions Eve that suicide is not an escape from God. If Eve’s “seed shall bruise/ The Serpent’s head,” then they will avenge themselves on the Serpent by propagating the race who will eventually defeat Satan and his evil powers. In the meantime they will learn about fire and how to deal with inclement weather. “What better can we do,” Adam says, than to bow humbly before God and ask for his pardon. They both fall prostrate on the ground and humbly confess their sins.
Immediately after Eve eats the fruit in Book IX, she reflects briefly on God’s ability to see her sinful act. Rationalizing that Heaven is “High and remote” (P. L., IX, 812), she dismisses her fear and turns her thoughts to Adam. In Book X, nothing “can scape the eye/ Of God all-seeing,” and her forbidden act is soon known in all of Heaven. Adam and Eve, though tempted by the Serpent, have exercised their own free will when they disobeyed God, and they must now be judged. God sends the Son to Earth to administer “justice with mercy.”
Betrayed by his guilt, Adam can no longer hide his nakedness and must confess to the Son what he has done. “She gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” The Son counters Adam’s excuse with a sharp rebuke: “Was she thy God?” He tells Adam that God set him above Eve as her superior, and it is his duty to rule her rather than be subject to her rule. She should “attract/ Thy love, not thy subjection.” This is reminiscent of Adam’s discussion with Raphael in Book VIII. The words are almost identical. Eve is “worthy well/ Thy cherishing, thy honoring, and thy love,/ Not thy subjection” (68–70). Adam has made the mistake of exalting Eve above her place in the scale of nature. With their fall, the hierarchy has been broken and tragedy is the result. The scale of Nature has been reviewed in Book V where Milton gives an elaborate description of the various degrees in the hierarchy, impressing upon the reader that the lower forms of Nature must never usurp the power of the higher ones (469–505). This idea harks back to ancient times, the days of Aristotle and was still being revered in the seventeenth century. It must be understood that in the epic, Milton is setting before the reader an accepted seventeenth-century ideal of male/female relationships. Helen Gardner points out that “Eve sinned by being ‘bold and adventurous,’ qualities Milton, with his age, thought inappropriate in a woman. Adam sinned by being dependent on another, a quality inappropriate in a man” (Helen Gardner, “The Human Theme,” 90). Adam falls because he cannot live without Eve (P. L., IX, 908), and she falls because she dares to “work separately” (P. L., IX, 424).
In his other writings Milton occasionally abandons the commonly held ideas about sex roles that are set forth in Paradise Lost. In “Tetrachordon,” for example, he discusses the idea of wives being subject to their husbands and denies that this is always the case. “Not but that particular exceptions may have place, if she exceed her husband in prudence and dexterity, and he contentedly yield: for then a superior and more natural law comes in, that the wiser should govern the less wise, whether male or female” (“Tetra¬chordon,” IV). These are exceptions, Milton says, rather than the rule.
When Eve shamefully admits that “the Serpent me beguiled and I did eat,” the Son promptly judges the Serpent, in his absence, sentencing him to grovel on his belly for the remainder of his days. There will be hatred and strife between Satan and the Woman, the Son says. “Her seed shall bruise thy head, thou bruise his heel.” Milton alludes to Genesis 3:15 in this passage, repeating it almost verbatim. The Serpent (Satan) will be defeated by the future generations of Eve. Jesus will triumph over Satan, “prince of the air,” whose kingdom will be usurped as he falls “like lightning down from Heaven.” This will be a fulfillment of the prophecy, recorded in Luke 10:18. “And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.”
Satan’s evil deed on Earth has not only established him as the Prince of Darkness, widening his vast empire to include Earth and Hell, but has given his offsprings, Sin and Death, the legacy of his “infernal empire,” as well. They will rule the “race of Satan” on Earth, and the three will have dominion over Hell and all the world. Rajan appropriately refers to Satan, Sin, and Death as the “infernal trinity” (B. Rajan, Paradise Lost and the Seventeenth Century Reader, 77). As the “Antagonist of Heaven’s Almighty King,” Satan’s plan to lead a “glorious march” to Earth on a newly paved highway is foiled as his infernal kingdom degenerates into a race of serpents, turning his triumph into shame. “A greater power” rules them and, just as the Son had decreed, they are destined to crawl on their bellies and eat the dust for the rest of their days. Satan’s metamorphosis into a lowly serpent is the last stage of his progressive degeneration that has been taking place since his arrival in Hell in Book I. His form in the body of a serpent now conforms to the evil that is inside of him. Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Milton, has set this Platonic idea into verse.
For of the soule the bodie forme doth take:
For soule is forme, and doth the bodie make
An Hymne in Honor of Beautie, 132–33.
Spenser expresses the idea that spirit and matter are interconnected.
After the fall there was a change of weather on Earth, the poet says, bringing harsh winters and hot summers. It is rumored that the angels slanted the Earth’s axis slightly more than 20 degrees or perhaps the sun was set to fluctuate its movements north and south of the equator, causing the change of seasons. Before the fall there were flowers and trees in a world of eternal spring, but now Adam and Eve must contend with the extremes of weather. When the Son comes to Earth to administer justice to Adam and Eve, he pities them because they stand “before him naked to the air, that now/ Must suffer change.” He clothes them in skins of beasts to cover their nakedness and ward off the cold.
Discord, the daughter of Sin, resides on Earth after the fall and brings Death among the animals. For the first time, they fight and kill each other and run away from Man out of fear.
In his long soliloquy (124 lines), Adam struggles with the difficult problem of death. He considers death a mockery and would welcome the end of his life that is nothing but the “cruel expectation” of his inevitable death and that of his offspring. He is plagued by one doubt—that his spirit will not die with his body, and he will “die a living death.” He vacilates back and forth indecisively until he finally concludes, with little conviction, that “all of me then shall die . . . since human reach no further knows.” This is comparable to Hamlet’s plaintive cry when he considers suicide as an end to his miserable existence but is held back by his fear that death may not be the end.
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Shakespeare, Hamlet, 77–81
Like Hamlet, Adam is afraid he will die a “deathless death” where God might “extend/ His sentence beyond dust.” Out of the depths of despair, Adam finally recognizes his guilt and concedes that his punishment is just, and he is later led to repentence. At the end of Book X he again falls prostrate on the ground before God, but his mood reflects one of repentence rather than despair.
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