Rebellion in Paradise Lost

My paper will attempt to show how Milton’s characters oscillate between Christian humanism and a world of independence which oscillates between predictability and idiosyncrasy by focussing on the notion of rebellion. Through the text, I would like to illustrate how rebellion is ingrained in the characters of Satan, Adam and Eve; by focussing on the imagery and allusions associated with them, the conflict which arises in them from their sense of self and their relation with God. Through the concept of “felix culpa”, I would like to show that Milton depicts rebellion as a deviation from God’s will, yet, at the same time, as a part of God’s Plan; and how rebellion becomes associated with contemporary ideas of humanism and individualism.

John Milton declares in the concluding lines of the “Invocation” of his epic, Paradise Lost that his aim in writing it is that

“I may assert Eternal Providence,

And justify the ways of God to men.”

(Paradise Lost, Book I. Lines 25-26).

These lines, which mark the beginning of the epic comprising of twelve books, show the mixing of religious orthodoxy and humanism, which becomes characteristic of the entire epic. While Milton’s claim is religious, it is also the voice of overreaching, of attempting to pursue “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (Book I.16). By calling on the Holy Spirit as his muse, and alluding to his writing as creation; as coming out of emptiness, just like God created the world, Milton stresses on the ambitious nature of his undertaking. Stressing that his muse isn’t pagan (Book I. 7-16), and that his theme isn’t human but divine (Book IX. 13-47), Milton claims to have a “higher argument” (Book IX.42); higher than anything ever attempted before by any man. Thus, in Milton’s ambitious claims itself, the oscillation between Christian humanism and independence, between obedience and overreaching, which characterizes the conflict in the major characters of his epic, is introduced. The purpose of the epic as espoused in the “Invocation” also indicates how Milton himself was never free from the ambiguities surrounding the dichotomy of obedience and free will, of blind faith and reason. This ambiguity is reflected in Satan, Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, as they struggle to find a resolution to this conflict within them. In this paper, I would like to show that this conflict, or rebellion, is ingrained in them, and how Milton attempts to resolve this conflict by depicting rebellion both as a deviation from God’s Will, and yet, a part of God’s Plan, thus associating rebellion with contemporary ideas of humanism and individualism, and enabling a binocular view of the characters.

Rebellion is inevitable in Paradise Lost from the moment God elevates man, a weak and frail creature, as the centre of the universe, endows him with reason, and places the Garden of Eden and all the creatures within it under his dominion. When Satan enters Eden, he is overwhelmed by the beauty of God’s creation, hailing it in these words,

“O earth, how like to heav’n, if not preferred

More justly, seat worthier of gods, as built

With second thoughts, reforming what was old!”

(Paradise Lost, Book IX. Lines 99-101)

Rebellion seeps in as Satan dislocates heaven by making Eden the centre of the universe. Eden is a “reform”-ed (made better, re-created) version of “old” (obsolete, orthodox) heaven. In describing Eden not as spiritual, but in sensory, physical, sensual terms, Milton’s language is pagan, as in the Bible, images of abundance and fullness are associated with blessings, the spirit and the soul, and not with nature. Through Satan’s praises, the voice of Milton the humanist comes in, as the earth is deified, and Adam and Eve made gods of this better heaven. Eden represents a space poised for rebellion, where everything is moist, implying femininity and seduction, and overgrown and over-weeded, bringing in the notion that something is disorderly and needs to be fixed. The garden also represents Adam and Eve’s tendency to go wild if they don’t have a restraining hand to “prune” or “bind” them. These inferences can be seen in the following lines, where Eve complains of the overabundance and overgrowth of the garden, and the need for more helping hands:

“…the work under our labour grows,

Luxurious by restraint; what we by day

Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,

One night or two with wanton growth derides,

Tending to be wild…”

(Paradise Lost, Book IX. Lines 208-212)

While inferences to rebellion can be derived from descriptions of the Garden of Eden, the concept of rebellion is more evident in the allusions associated with the descriptions of Adam, Eve and Satan; in the heroic terms in which Milton describes their appearances, actions and emotions. Though Milton uses darkness and images of falling to describe Satan’s entry into Eden, his entry is raised to heroic heights as time and space is expressed in epic terms. Satan travels from Pandemonium to Eden, covering an incredible distance. He circles the equator thrice for seven nights, crosses the shadow of the earth four times, travelling from pole to pole, traversing each circle; to return on the eighth night to enter Eden. Later in the text, when he leads Eve to the Tree of Knowledge, his movements are described using an epic simile, comparing it to the movement of a ship steered skilfully in a stormy sea. Through Satan’s praise of mankind in the line, “Of growth, sense, reason, all summed up in man” (Book IX.113), Milton is deifying man by presenting Adam as an archetype of the Renaissance man: capable of reason and logic, possessing common sense, and constantly developing, continuously growing. Satan’s envy is also provoked because Adam, a “man of clay” (Book IX.176) becomes God’s “new favourite” (Book IX.175). However, Miltonic descriptions of Eve surpass those of Adam and Satan. It is in Eve that the inevitability of rebellion seems most obvious. She is called “sole Eve” (Book IX.227) by Adam, indicating her sovereignty and peerless nature. When Satan’s eyes fall on Eve, he is struck by her beauty, which undermines even the beauty of Eden: “Much he the place admired, the person more (Book IX.444). She embodies the Renaissance stereotype of the aristocratic, unattainable woman. Satan feels she is “fair, divinely fair, fit love for gods” (Book IX.489). Here, Eve comes to embody the seventeenth century stereotype of threatening female sexuality. Her body undermines dominant ideology and patriarchal, Biblical and phallocentric discourses. Her beauty relativizes the hierarchy of “He for God only, she for God in him” (Book IV.298), in which Eve’s position is clearly demarcated as subservient to God and to Adam. Both Adam and Satan’s gazes are fixed on her, prompting the reading of her as an embodiment of the Forbidden Fruit. Her power is so great that Adam chooses to die with her rather than live alone, and Satan’s malice is temporarily neutralized as he becomes “stupidly good” (Book IX.465) gazing at her.

The powerful descriptions Milton makes of these characters is difficult to reconcile with their roles as subservient to God, a God whose descriptions appear immobile and lustreless when pitted against the allusions associated with his creations. Satan, as Lucifer, was God’s most beloved angel. Though Satan vows war against God, and finds ease only in destroying God’s creation (Book IX.129), his agony at being separated from God is evident here:

“…but I in none of these

Find place or refuge; and the more I see

Pleasures about me, so much more I feel

Torment within me…”

(Paradise Lost, Book IX. Lines 118-121)

Satan’s despair is as tragic as Macbeth’s:

“I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as going over”

(Macbeth, Act III Scene iv 160-162)

There is no exit for him, no way he can turn back and become a part of God’s creation again, just like Macbeth cannot end the cycle of murders that he starts after the murder of Duncan.

Among Adam and Eve, Adam is the more rational of the two, the one more connected to God. It is with him that the angels converse, and he is God’s favourite; Eve being created as a helpmate for him in a garden which lacked a creation that could be his equal. He has a reified conscience, constantly espousing God’s commands whenever Eve questions, and unlike her, he is fully aware of the consequences of eating the fruit. Eve is twice removed from God. Her role and functions are pre-conditioned by the ideology of theodicy: inferior to God and Adam. Heaven and God are notional for her, as she knows of them only through Adam’s words. Her knowledge of the enemy, of evil, is mediated, as she says,

“That such an enemy we have, who seeks

Our ruin, both by thee informed I learn,

And from the parting angel overheard”

(Paradise Lost Book IX. Lines 274-276)

The subservient, obedient roles that Adam, Eve and Satan occupy in relation to God contrast sharply with the epic heroic terms in which they are described. Thus, rebellion seems imminent, as the grandeur of these characters seems to defy the scruples of obedience that bind them. In this view, Satan, Adam and Eve can be viewed as embodiments of the ideals represented by humanism and individualism. Satan is the sharpest critic of “God’s first devolution of power in appointing the Son vicegerent” (Radzinowicz 128). Satan was God’s most beloved angel. Corriptio Optimi Pessima, or “the corruption of the best is the worst of all”, is a characteristic of many tragic heroes, like Faustus and Macbeth. Like Faustus, knowledge corrupts Satan, and like Macbeth, he wishes to be sovereign. He rebels against God, and takes his army of devils to war against the divine forces of God. He goes against authority and fights for freedom. He is willing to put up a pointless fight even if it means that he’ll lose a place in heaven to not be subservient to anyone. In Satan, Milton finds the same inward conflicts as those experienced by man. Satan experiences the same dualism, the same conflict of good and bad, and makes a conscious and free choice of evil over good. Milton’s Satan feels pangs of envy when he sees Adam and Eve, a Satan who lives in constant agony after the loss of Paradise. Miltonic descriptions of Satan is so elaborate, and Satan’s rhetoric so convincing, that the Romantic poet William Blake remarked,

“The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

(Blake 102)

Yet, Satan falls short if being a tragic hero as his rebellion is ultimately limited in nature as he fights for personal gain and not any ideal. He seeks revenge as an end in itself, and his rhetoric begins to sound like petty propaganda after a point. Whatever Satan fights against, what he himself stands for is a “frozen meritocracy or tyranny” (Radzinowicz 128).

Adam and Eve, God’s most perfect creations, are bestowed with free will, and established as gods over Eden. Though warned not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the choice finally rests on them. In Paradise Lost, man’s recognition of the degree to which his fate is in his own hands is shown. He is not the victim of uncontrollable fate. The Fall is specifically a human act: the humanity of man is proved by his ability to fall. Eve is beguiled to her fate not because of her narcissism, but because the serpent offers her knowledge which could free her from succumbing to a strict hierarchical structure. The story of the fall can be read as the danger Eve’s desire for experience rather than mediated reality poses on an authority whose power arises chiefly from suppressing all other forms of authority (Froula 151). While Eve’s fall may reflect vulnerability and susceptibility to emotion and evil’s seduction, as well as a certain degree of innocence regarding the consequences of her action, Adam’s fall is a stronger humanist paradigm of the conscious use of free will in choosing Romantic love over Divine love. Adam follows Eve because of his inherent sense of inadequacy when he cannot reconcile God’s assurance of his own superiority with her apparent perfection (Froula 153). He believes Eve because she is so sure of her completeness and absoluteness:

“Nature failed in me, and left some part
Not proof enough such object to sustain,         535
Or, from my side subducting, took perhaps
More than enough…
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems
And in herself complete, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say
Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best.         550
All higher Knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded; Wisdom in discourse with her
Loses, discountenanced, and like Folly shews;
Authority and Reason on her wait,
As one intended first, not after made         555
Occasionally; and, to consum’mate all,
Greatness of mind and nobleness their seat
Build in her loveliest, and create an awe
About her, as a guard angelic placed.”

(Paradise Lost Book VIII. Lines 531-59)

When Adam falls, he realizes his actions are wrong, but exercises his free will to remain with Eve; to die with her, rather than live alone. Adam thus becomes the forerunner of the Humanist man, who exercises his individual reason to make decisions.

However, the humanist characteristics of Satan, Adam and Eve do not justify the Fall, which Milton portrays as a tragedy of epic proportions; a deviation from the will of a God benevolent enough to bestow his creations with free will. In the “Invocation”, the tasting of the forbidden fruit is blamed to have

“Brought death into the world, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden…”

(Paradise Lost Book I Lines 3-4)

Adam and Eve’s mistake is shown as a universal problem by imposing the microcosm on the macrocosm; as the act of tasting the fruit results in cosmic chaos. The opening lines of Book IX establish its theme as tragic, through the use of words like “tragic”, “foul distrust”, “breach disloyal”, “revolt and disobedience”, “alienated, distance and distaste”, “a world of woe”, “sin and her shadow death”, “misery” etc. (Lines 6-13). The epic consequences of the act they committed is reflected in nature. When Adam takes the fruit from Eve,

“Earth trembled from her entrails, as again

In pangs, and nature gave a second groan;

Sky loured, and muttering thunder, some sad drops

Wept at completing of the mortal sin


(Paradise Lost Book IX Lines 1000-1004)

The knowledge that Adam and Eve gain is ultimately lesser knowledge, as baser feelings of distrust and hate develop in them in the place of innocence and love. Book IX ends on a note of fissure, with Adam blaming himself for having worshipped Eve too much; out of his sense of inadequacy, when he was supposed to be master over her. Milton laments the fall as the loss of innocence, as the inception of despair and woe, a violation of God’s Will.

Humanist readings of Paradise Lost have described the fall as felix culpa, or happy fault. By this interpretation, though the fall resulted in the loss of Paradise, it opened up a world of choices for Adam and Eve, and the rest of humanity. After the fall, humans lead a life in which their choices differed from what was available in Eden; and it is these choices which determine the course of their life. The liberty of free will that God bestowed on Adam and Eve is hereditary. Thus, the Fall proves that the “law of liberty” is the very “law of God’s universe” (Radzinowicz 132). Adam’s fall may have brought mortality to all his descendants, but it also gave them liberty, a very cherished humanist ideal.

The forbidden fruit becomes the symbol of the Enlightenment as it brings in the notion of experiential reality and marks the rites-of-passage from ignorance to experience. The Tree of Knowledge becomes a means of upward social mobility by education and knowledge, transforming Adam and Eve’s myopia into telescopic, magnified vision. Adam and Eve die as a result of the Fall, but they die free of the existential stupor which characterizes their existence in Eden until they rebel. In the end, the Fall presents them with liberty, and thus, it becomes, felix culpa. They now lead a life based on the choices they make, and as Eve remarks in Book IX lines 335-336, “And what is faith, love, virtue, unassayed/ Alone, without exterior help sustained?”, bringing in the idea that virtue is pointless in the absence of freedom to face freedom. Thus, Milton’s major characters, through the fall, can be read as essentially flawed, essentially human characters, who struggle to strike a balance between obedience and independence, between belief and reason, between life and death.

Works Cited

Froula, Christine. “When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy” Ed. Patterson, Annabel. John Milton (Longman Critical Readers). Longman Publishers, 1992. Print.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Book I (The Invocation) and Book IX. Ed. Mangalam, B. Delhi: Worldview Publishers, 2014. Print.

Milton, John, “Paradise Lost”. Ed. Eliot, Charles W. The Complete Poems of John Milton. New York: The Harvard Classics., 2001. Web.

Radzinowicz, Mary Ann. “The Politics of Paradise Lost”. Ed. Patterson, Annabel. John Milton (Longman Critical Readers). Longman Publishers, 1992. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Ed. Eliot, Charles W. New York: The Harvard Classics., 2001.  Web.


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