Wisdom vs Vanity in John Miltons Paradise Lost

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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.

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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 fancy, and with them forge illusions as he list, phantasms and dreams, or if, inspiring venom, he might taint”(PL: BK IV, L799-804). This foreshadows how Eve’s submission to vanity initiates the fall in Book IX. The fact that Eve’s mind is the one that Satan plants the seed of evil in exemplifies Milton’s view of the woman’s subordinate intellect and her vulnerability.

Eve’s rank in the created world is again enforced when a voice removes her from the reflection and leads her to “he whose image thou art” (PL: BK IV, L472). Eve is to dismiss her own image and adore “him who thou art, his flesh, his bone” (PL: BK IV, L483-484). This is one indication of how Milton disbands any ideal that a woman is higher up in the course of the natural order or intellectually superior to a man. Eve, herself realizes this, “Part of my soul I seek thee, and thee claim my other half: with that thy gentle hand seized mine, I yielded, and from that time see How beauty is excelled by manly grace and wisdom, which alone is truly fair” (PL: BK IV, L487-490). Milton indicates Eve’s acceptance of her lack of mindful authority in these lines and her willingness to accept herself as exclusively outwardly beautiful. She worships Adam for his intellectual beauty and states that his wisdom is her ultimate authority. She accepts her role kindly and states, “ My author and disposer, what thou bid’st unargued I obey; so God ordains, God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise”(PL: BK IV, L635-638). This statement would not go over well in the twenty-first century, however, the modern reader can surrender to the idea that Eve is powerless and unequal as permissible for this poem. Again, this is indicative of the power of poetry.

Book IX is the setting for the fated tragedy – the fall of mankind. This is a powerful book where Milton explains how ultimate dependency is more powerful than independence. When approaching Book IX, the reader has a sense that Eve is delighted by her role in Eden. However, Milton invokes a discord in that harmony with the persistence of Eve to convince Adam that she is not as submissive as he thinks. There is a feeling that maybe Eve is proceeding with reason and the innate ability to overcome temptation because of who she is and where she came from. However, knowing from the beginning, that Eve ultimately causes the fall of man, this idea is expelled when the inevitable does happen. According to the reader, Adam clearly states the obvious, “Lest harm befall thee severed from me…what malicious foe…watches, no doubt, with greedy hope to find his wish and best advantage…leave not the faithful side that gave thee being, still shades thee and protects the wife…safest and seemliest by her husband stays”(PL: BK IX, L250-270). Milton, in Adam’s words, claims that the woman is unable to relinquish the idea of temptation without the man to protect her. Eve overwrites her position of authority and argues, “His violence thou fear’st not, being such, as we, not capable of death or pain, can either not receive, or can repel his fraud is then thy fear, which plain infers thy equal fear that my firm faith and love can by his fraud be shaken of seduced; thoughts, which how found they harbour in thy breast Adam, misthought of her to thee so dear”(PL: BK IX, L280-290). This statement is ironic because, it is exactly what happens. Also it is a complete contradiction of her statement in Book IV mentioned above that,” what thou bid’st unargued I obey.” Instead of taking heed to Adam, Eve argues and ultimately does not obey. Eve’s persistence does win over Adam’s wisdom, “With thy permission then, and thus forewarned …I go, nor much expect a foe so proud will first the weaker seek”(PL: BK IX, L376-381). Eve knows that the evil creature that lurks will go after her, and yet she still thinks that she is strong enough to overcome him on her own. Yet, the serpent is overjoyed that the two are apart and is eager to pounce on his prey. He states, “Then let me not let pass occasion which now smiles, behold alone The woman, opportune to all attempts, her husband, for I view far round, not nigh, whose higher intellectual more I shum” (PL: BK IX, L 475-482). The serpent appeals to Eve’s most impressive weakness, her vulnerability. Through disguise, deceit and flattery, Satan is able to convince Eve to do what took eight books for those characters of higher power and wisdom to describe and to warn not to do; to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. By disobeying Adam’s wishes and trying to step above what she is capable of, Eve has sinned. Eve’s blatant transgression has caused the loss of paradise and all of creation has to experience the consequences of original sin, now inherited from Adam and Eve to all of mankind. The consequences of the fall include sexual lust, discord in human social relations, shame, Loss of innocence, guilt and the most impressive death. These consequences are to be bequeathed by all of mankind and originated from Eve’s persistence to separate from her commander and remove herself from her place in the chain of authority. Book IV is a pivotal book due to the fact that it sets up what is to come and foreshadows the fall in Book IX. Milton gives Eve the simple power of submission to prove that vanity can appeal and overpower even the most virtuous and intellectual of beings. Eve, as a woman, is to love, honor and obey her husband. These words are vows of marriage that are no longer acceptable in today’s society but these words are what exemplify the marriage of Adam and Eve. Eve is supposed to submit to her ultimate authority, who is Adam. Adam, in Book IX submits to Eve’s unreasonable discourse on separation. The implication of a ruler succombing to the power of passion is quite intense and the consequences of this are serious and life changingBibliography:No outside sources used for this essay

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Wisdom vs Vanity in John Miltons Paradise Lost. (2019, Apr 02). Retrieved from


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