Milton’s EveBooks, Essays — By kimjoyster on May 31, 2012 at 7:39 am
There often comes with certain persons of Christian faith and feminism, a conflict of ideologies. This is not necessary with a specific interpretation of the Bible and God’s word on women’s position in the world. John Milton gives his interpretation in his epic Paradise Lost in support of the conflict between feminism and Christian theology. Milton’s misogynist tendencies apparent in Paradise Lost do not correspond with the role of women set out in the New Testament of the Bible; therefore it is possible for female leadership according the Christian principles.
According to the critic Lisa Hopkins, Milton’s position comes from culture more than any personal bias (1). To some degree a bias such as a misogynist has must also be born from not just mature decisiveness but culture and personal experience. Culture and personal experience simply add irrational thoughts to the fire.
To explore Milton’s personal experience that supports misogynistic writing, it is best to begin with his first marriage. Flannagan tells us that in 1642, Milton decided to marry Mary Powell, a woman of a large family and the daughter of a country squire (19). Their families did not share the same political views at that time; the Powell’s being Royalists and Milton himself sympathizing with the Puritans. Eventually Mary’s family and friends called her to visit them in the country for which she stayed three years apart from Milton. He was upset because of her neglect and proceeded to write tracts supporting divorce. Milton then went one step further and seriously studied into polygamy. Mary’s family at that point found a way to reconcile them by Mary “making Submission and begging Pardon on her Knees before him” (qtd. in Flannagan 20). This can immediately be compared to Eve’s submission at the closing of Paradise Lost. The ending position of Eve seems to be somewhat peaceful, but it has a negative implication for the position of woman in the world. Milton makes Eve concede that “for [her] wilful crime” Adam is “banisht hence” (12: 619). Thus the fall is Eve’s fault and all women must pay for this crime in childbirth and submission to their husbands.
Milton presents Eve’s guilt through her words written by him and bases this on the biblical text of the man being the head of the woman. While Eve is the one who first eats of the fruit, in Genesis God does not place blame on one of them, but rather the fall of man is considered as the fall of creation. Both deserve some blame in being in some way deceived by the serpent. The verse from Paul states that “sin entered the world through one man,” (Holy Bible, Ro. 5:12). This verse suggests that Milton could have blamed either party and chose to blame Eve due to his misogynistic tendencies.
So according to Hopkins’ critique, the context of an author’s work must be placed in its time period and the personal experience of the author. Placing this in the time of Milton, we have women on an unequal footing with men. They do not have the right to vote or hold office. The main position of women in the 17th century is still considered to be wife and mother. Women in the literary world are just beginning to find their voice in feminism. Milton has been taught along with all of the women in society that they should submit to their husbands. This is his only societal support. He then uses his interpretation of the bible to further support his claim of women’s inferiority.
The first introduction of Eve involves the prevalent displacement of authority on the male showing Milton’s biblical interpretation of the places of men and women as respectively authority and softness. He says “Whence true autority in men; though both/ Not equal, as their sex not equal seem’d;/ … For softness shee” (4: 295-298). Softness gives us a sense of the lower placement of Eve, mother of all womankind. Milton also uses the word of “true” authority for men, implying a false authority in the being of Eve.
He goes on to say “Hee for God only, shee for God in him:” (4: 299). Milton is interpreting the verse from Paul’s words which are “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (Holy Bible, 1Co. 11.3). This verse is located in a passage titled “Propriety in Worship”. Also included in this passage are the directions for “every woman who prays…should cover her head” (Holy Bible, 1Co. 11:5-6). These directions for worship are true to the ancient times of which it was written. Literature is purposefully studied in context to understand fully the author’s purpose. If everything is taken in context, its application to Milton’s culture did not mean for women to never hold positions of leadership. The bible, as literature, must also be placed in context and according to the author’s original purpose.
The author of the Bible is arguable. While in Christian circles, the Bible is considered the word of God, it was written through God’s chosen men. The New Testament’s twenty-seven books have varying authors, but the context and culture at the time the bible was written is clear. The New Testament, written starting at approximately 40 BC, was written with the Roman Empire in power and the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar as the divine monarch. Slaves were common products, common enough that the Bible proceeds to direct slaves in how they should react to their masters when Paul writes “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them” (Holy Bible, Tit. 2:9). Applied to the modern world, telling slaves to submit to their masters should not be taken in the modern context that slavery should still exist, but in the ancient context where it goes on to say “so that in every way they will make the teaching about our God our Savior attractive” (Holy Bible, Tit. 2:10).
The New Testament and its Author believe in the equality of all peoples. This belief is represented by the radical Jesus. When presented by Matthew in his book, Jesus heals a leper and talks to the possessed to exorcise their demons. Paul when writing to the churches in Galatia about being children of God said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Holy Bible, Gal. 3:28). Milton dismisses this in his representation of the first mother.
Eve’s character in Paradise Lost is closely tied to the character of Satan. When criticizing Milton, the accomplished author and professor, Sandra Gilbert, brings up that the only other female figure in the work is the figure of Sin (373). Milton uses this representation of the female sex to express his misogynist opinion. At the gates of Hell, there are two shapes, one “seem’d Woman to the waist, and fair,/ But ended foul in many a scaly fold/ Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm’d/ With mortal sting:” (2: 650-653). The mortal sting is the fall of creation and puts it onto Sin, but also on woman. This monstrous being sits next to Death at the gates of Hell as is its mother which might seem like the antithesis of Eve being the mother of all. But Eve, in Milton’s interpretation, does bring death on all, through the fall.
After the fall, Milton’s true bias can be seen very clearly in Adam’s rebuke of Eve:
Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name best/ Befits thee with him leagu’d, thyself as false/ And hateful;… Rather than solid virtue, all but a Rib/ Crooked by nature, bent, as now appears,… Oh why did God,/ Creator wise,… create at last/ This novelty on Earth, this fair defect/ Of Nature, and not fill the World at once/ With Men as Angels without Feminine (10: 867-893).
Milton has placed Satan with Eve through Adam. He also defines her as naturally and originally crooked as a rib, perhaps the only part of Adam’s body that is naturally so. He goes so far as to question God’s original creation of woman, which might be Milton searching for a different partnering of sexes.
Not only does Milton portray Eve as the mother of evil in the world, he also shows her as a woman with low self esteem and insecurities. Eve’s accusation against Adam is to question, “why didst not thou the Head/ Command me absolutely not to go” (9: 1155-1156). When not defending her actions, Milton shows Eve as wishing Adam had pressed his will on her and then maybe none of the fall would have happened. Milton has Eve asking for submission as much as Milton thinks women should. He also portrays the equality of men and women as sin. Eve only thinks of being equal with her husband after she has eaten the fruit and is encased in sin. She, still thinking she is beneath him because of Milton’s writing of her, says, “so to add what wants/ In Female Sex, the more to draw [Adam’s] Love,/ And render me more equal, and perhaps,/ A thing not undesirable, sometime/ Superior: for inferior who is free?” (9: 821-825).
The statement of inferiority as against freedom is a motto for the 21st century. The United States especially is focused on freedom as one of its core values as stated in the Pledge of Allegiance; “One nation under God, with liberty and justice for all”. Milton is comparing that liberty with the fall of mankind. With fruit come consequences.
Milton also addresses men. The direction to men does not correspond with directions given in the New Testament of the Holy Bible. His direction to men is a warning that, “Thus it shall befall/ Him who to worth in Women overtrusting/ Lets her Will rule” (10: 1182-1184). Every man who puts his trust in a woman’s worth and let’s her will rule will suffer the consequences of the fall of the human race, according to Milton. He irrationally projects his marriage difficulties on the shoulders of Eve, implying he was stupid to let his wife’s will rule enough for her to take three years away from him.
The Biblical passages addressing marriage would rather support the golden rule of treating others as you would like to be treated. Paul while writing on “Wives and Husbands” says, “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” comparing that to “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Holy Bible, Eph. 5:25-28). The church as a woman figure is rather a better comparison than that to sin, but a woman writer may be bias.
For Milton’s conclusion, everything is tied neatly and the bow of “happy end” (12: 605) is tied on. Eve is given a dream that makes “all her spirits compos’d/ To meek submission” (12: 596-597). Milton prefers to look on this fall as fortunate and at the same time some of that fortunateness is due to the crush of female independence. Eve states “thou to mee/ Art all things under Heav’n” (12: 617-618) in reference to Adam. The personal connection of Eve to God has nothing between it, not even a husband.
In the New Testament Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Holy Bible, Jn. 3:16). Whoever believes in him shall have “one God and one mediator between… the man Christ Jesus” (Holy Bible, 1Ti. 2: 5). The principles spread by Jesus and his disciples touched the lives of many women, just recently given by this new religion the personal right to a connection with the one and only God. This representation of Biblical principles through Milton neglects the unity given by one Savior and one God.
Milton is a misogynist, but that need not be according to Christian principles interpreted in a way other that Milton’s. The generalizations of Christians are often based on the loudest Christians. The loudest Christians have a tendency to be just that– loud. No Christian can be expected to be a perfect human and no interpretation of the Bible in artistic form can be expected to be a perfect Bible.Paradise Lost, while an interesting work on portraying Adam and Eve as full characters, is Biblical interpretation and not Biblical fact. This includes all implications of inequality between men and women. Milton’s bias is clear, as are many other writers’.
Flannagan, Roy. John Milton: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
Gilbert, Sandra M.. “Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton’s Bogey.” Post Modern Language Association 93:3 (1978) 368-382.
Holy Bible. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1996.
Hopkins, Lisa. “’Moll, God’s Maid’: Milton, women and epic.” Women’s Studies 28.3 (1999): 291-303.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. New York: Odyssey Press, 1935.
“Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2009. Web. 4 Dec. 2009.