Feminist Discourse in Paradise Lost: Book IX
John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most controversial and discussed epic which has only one female character who is Eve. Apart from religious point of view, many critics declared it as a misogynist text or represented Even as a female version of Satan etc. Analyzing different opinions of critics and considering many factors, this paper is a small attempt to conclude that this epic is neither misogynistic nor Eve is Satanic in nature rather a proto feministic venture. Most of the critics explained the feministic part from one side which can be considered as research gap. As the whole poem is vast and there is certain page limit for preparing this paper, only book IX is analyzed. But to contextualize, other books might be used. In that case, there can remain some gap also.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have reached a “conclusion that his i.e. Milton’s works are staunchly antifeminist” or “consistently masculinist”. Matthew Jordan (2001) joins those critics who defend Milton’s idea of woman as he says: “Eve is in significant respect an equal, a companion for Adam with considerable powers of reasoning and, while a beautiful, sexual being, is by no means the hollow temptress whose presence in earlier accounts of the Fall renders them so inconsistent”. Both McColley and Joseph Wittreich say this perception of inequality of prelapsarian Adam and Eve is the satanic view, because, for unfallen Adam and Eve, whether they are equal or not is not the question as long as both of them are equally free. Although they are different, it does not mean a superior-inferior relationship. Some critics like Shullenberger distinguish Eve’s virtues from Adam’s, and regard hers as feminine and maternal virtues. However, there is no means of dividing their virtues into feminine ones and masculine ones. Adam should learn the so-called feminine virtues such as modesty and subordination from Eve just as Eve should learn the so-called masculine virtues such as wisdom. These virtues should never be gender-based.
This paper is done based on textual analysis and the explorative study of different articles on the epic Paradise Lost. In most cases, the secondary data had been used i. e. articles and blogs from the internet were used to prepare this.
Milton’s construction of Eve in Paradise Lost is covered with oscillating ambiguity, with her identity being defined and redefined within. Milton’s portrayal of Eve has been touted both anti and proto-feminist, often got from her interactions with Adam and later, Satan. Questions about her autonomy as a ‘reasoning’ self constantly under the ‘gaze’ in a masculine ethos are caught out in the epic, with the ambiguities being highlighted in Book 9. Milton’s Eve is quite different from her Bible counterpart as her character is allowed much ocular and rambling space, with focusing on her evolving sexuality and the resulting effects in the poem. This paper will attempt to portray Eve’s style of dealing with the existing masculine power structures while actively engaging with the notions of ‘Choice’, ‘Responsibility’ and ‘Control’. Besides, it will try to find out the evolving ambiguities from within and analyze whether Eve’s becoming a woman is overtly a proto feminist representation or not.
The construction of Eve throughout the previous books (Book I- Book VIII) culminates in Book IX, the primary focus of this essay. Eve desired to work alone as she thought that in working together, there was possibility of wasting time. She then shared that idea with Adam, reached in a rational discourse. It is to be hypothesized whether her desire is to be in solitude for some time, supported by her own thoughts and herself. But, more importantly, her reasoning included a gendering of nature and work.
Eve said in line 215-218 of Book IX:
Leads thee or where most needs, whether to wind/ The woodbine round this arbour, or direct
The clasping ivy where to climb, while I/ In younder spring of roses intermixed
It is surprising that Eve affirmed the gender boundaries which she would soon break.
Adam’s mild response is possessive, harping on the domestic stereotype and trying to rein in Eve. For him, a woman studying household goods is an efficient domestic lady. He said in book IX-
Unpraised: for nothing lovelier can be found/ In woman, than to study household good,
And good works in her husband to promote.
Adam made it clear that Eve might befall any harm if she got separated from him. He fears that Satan might attack so asked Eve not to leave his side, since he shaded and protected her. This has serious implications since it nailed in the forced union of the couple. Be it will or woe, both of them should be experiencing it, but with the husband’s supreme position as protector incarnate. However, Eve started to feel uncomfortable with Adam’s arguments and his doubts about her intentions to go alone. It seemed painful to her that Adam was suspecting her firm faith in God and love for him. Adam was afraid for the Foe wouldn’t dare attack the both of them together, but he might attack Eve alone. Eve was not perturbed and she explained Adam’s fears as naïve and unreasonable. But at last, Adam allowed her to leave but emphasized on her God-granted free will, which attributed responsibility to her for her own actions. It is to be wondered whether this is a discursive submission to authority, forced by the masculinity structures or a statement, which tries to evade responsibility for the fall in the future by referring to Adam as having given permission. But to me, it was not masculinity force.
As Eve left, the ‘gaze’ returns, with both Adam and Satan as the agents. Satan’s approaching being a serpent itself was a clever move since it could drive away fear of insecurity from Eve’s mind, for who would be afraid of an inferior being. Satan convinced her that as she was such a beauty shouldn’t be just admired by one man, but be revered as a goddess among gods, adored and served by a train of angels. Narrating his own experience, Satan provoked her to use her reason, for she should be aspiring to be godhead. While Eve professed that ‘our reason is our law’ and so, they could not eat the fruit of knowledge. Satan mocked her hypocritical stance. Eve falls not only for the divine existence promised but also for Satan’s reasoned arguments and perhaps, in desire for the company of an intellectually competent being. For, throughout Book IX, Adam had been behaving like a moron, while Eve has been arguing rationally for her rights to go out alone.
Eve fell with the partaking of the fruit being overwhelmed by Satan’s reasoned discourse. Just after her fall, she thought over the next step, believing herself to have gained knowledge and experience but the question of Adam remained. She was calculating if the fruit begot happiness, she might share it with Adam, though the possibility was dim. But if the fruit begot death, she would definitely share it with him, for it was not possible for her to see Adam wedded to another Eve. Though she admitted to being non-existent without him, what got highlighted were Eve’s calculated aspirations to improve her existence. This section is what pushed Milton into the limelight as being proto-feminist in his rendering of Eve.
Adam voluntarily partook of the fruit being known of its implications and so falls. At that moment, presumably Milton’s voice seemed to be chastising Adam for his decision since he was emotionally overcome with female charm and not directed by Reason. He said in book IX:
Against his better knowledge, not deceived,
But fondly overcome with female charm.
This seems to be a flawed argument since Adam weighed in the possibilities after Eve’s falls and then decides to fall too. Later, the blame game began but Eve contradicted his every claim, shifting the responsibility back to Adam. Here, Eve is only portrayed with one of the human flaws only, not driven by any misogynistic order.
Though Adam and Satan’s masculine insinuations along with Milton’s chastising voice had been touted misogynist, Eve’s characterial ascension was perhaps a proto-feminist streak. For Eve was allowed much visual and discursive space, with focusing on her evolving sexuality and the resulting effects. She did not merely attack patriarchy for their hypocritical stance, but also redefined her position within the masculinistic structure, aiming for a balanced, if not equal position. Also, the urging to discourse acknowledging the submissive position of women is followed by humungous spatial allocation for Eve’s construction as a character in Book IX, which traced out her attempts to attain autonomy and freedom from Adam. Moreover, though the ambiguities arising from within the text were not really resolved, its representation of Eve’s becoming a woman is perhaps a proto-feminist venture.
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