Wisdom Vs. Vanity In John Milton's Paradise Lost
In the seventeeth century, women were not permitted to embrace in the power of knowledge. John Milton portrays the only female character in his epic poem, Paradise Lost, as a subservient creature caught in a seemingly misogynistic society. Milton states Eve’s location in the great chain of authority of his time quite clearly with her inferiority to man repeated frequently throughout the epic, especially amplified in Book IV and Book IX. Milton uses the character of Eve to represent the ills that can befall mankind after she (the woman) breaks the chain of authority in which she was placed. A twenty-first century reader might perceive Milton’s theodicy on a woman’s place in society to be inhumane as well as appalling, however, during his time women were accepted by society and themselves as subordinate on the chain of hierarchy. They were to be treated properly by their man but were to walk two steps behind their superior male counterpart at all times. Even though Milton’s blatant description of Eve’s role in the created world is unequal, the twenty-first century reader accepts this concept and enjoys the passionate power that the character has over the reasonable male authority figure.
In the traditional epic structure and in Book I of Paradise Lost, the reader is immediately introduced to the main action of the story being told, the narration opens with the middle of the story (media res) and uses flashbacks to develop the plot. “Of man’s first disobedience…Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?…the infernal serpent; he it was, whose guile stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived the mother of mankind”(PL: BK 1, L 1-36). It is stated quite clearly in these lines that Eve initiated the fall of man by giving in to the temptation posed to her by Satan. Knowing this from the absolute beginning of the narrative, it is clear that the woman unreasonably steps out of her position in Eden and is overcome by evil.
In Book IV of Paradise Lost, Milton expresses Eve’s perception of herself when she sees her image as well as the reader’s insight to Eve’s role through Satan’s initial description of her. At the beginning of this narration Adam and Eve are identified, very briefly, as alike, “Two of far nobler shape erect and tall, Godlike erect, with native honour clad in naked majesty seemed lords of all”(PL: BK IV, L287-290). This narration then immediately turns to a characterization of Eve as the secondary being, “Whence true authority in men; though both not equal, as their sex not equal seemed…He for God only, she for God in him” (PL: BK IV, L295-300). Here, then, is a grand example of Eve’s submission to her “absolute ruler” (PL: BK IV, L300) who is man and her place in the natural order of creation is beneath him. Milton immodestly states in these lines that the male authority figure in this story is the most divine of all created beings and the female is only there to enhance his being. They are both made in the likeness of God, but Eve is divine-like only through Adam.
Milton, in Paradise Lost, as in all epic structures, uses many classical allusions to help the reader gain insight to a woman’s standpoint through the power of poetry. To enforce Eve’s position and to introduce Eve’s flaw, Milton alludes to Ovid’s character, Narcissis. Narcissis vainly yearns for his own image reflected in a pool. In Book IV, Eve’s vanity is explained, “A shape within the watery gleam appeared bending to look on me…pleased it returned as soon with answering looks of sympathy and love; there I had fixed mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire” (PL: BK IV, L460-466). The importance of this parallel is the forefront of Eve’s weakness to be overcome in Book IX. In addition to exclaiming vanity as the root of all evil, Milton stimulates a sense of corruption in Eve with this comparison. Likewise, Satan is able to captivate Eve’s imagination while she sleeps, “him there they found squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve; assaying by his devilish art to reach the organs of her