Frailty, thy name is … Eve? A passage in search of a discussion for Year 13.

It seems a little unfair to equate Eve with Gertrude who is so strongly told off and used as a synecdoche for the entire female gender by Hamlet in the quotation bastardised above, yet I want to explore the presentation of Eve in the first 400 or so lines of Paradise Lost IX, a passage in which Milton is foreshadowing the fall, and more importantly, beginning to implicate Eve as the begetter of all that follows. To a heavily misogynistic readership and in a firmly patriarchal society such as his, it is convenient to place the blame for the Fall onto woman in general. We need to see whether Milton leaves open room for doubt in his telling of the story.

LL: 205 – 250:
After the calm glories of dawn, and still with the memory of Satan travelling to Earth and hiding himself in the snake fresh in our minds, Milton allows the couple to emerge onto the “stage” of his writing and begin their dialogue. (In an exam which requires comparison with drama, I find it useful to consider sections of PL as a drama – dialogue and often narratorial comment which tae the place of stage directions.). Eve speaks first with little fuss: “ Adam, well may we labour…”. At this stage there is no great exordium to introduce the argument in debate, but rather a plain request to share out labour. Furthermore, the rationale seems quite worthy: “…which intermits/ Our day’s work brought to little, though begun / Early…”. Eve seems to be suggesting a simple solution to a problem – that of the work not being completed and even seems to suggest that “supper comes unearned”, thus equating the right to relax with the achievement of hard work.
It is interesting though to look at the language which she uses in this speech. The garden is described as becoming “luxurious”, “wanton” or “wild”. IN short, her choice of lexis is suggestive of a sensuous or libidinous world. That this language is natural to her his further suggested by the flower imagery used: although Adam will engage with manly ideas such as providing strength and security in his work with the woodbine and the ivy, Eve will work in a “spring of roses intermixed, with myrtle”. Although Myrtle was generally considered to represent fidelity, roses are of a different plane, suggesting not only beauty of softness, but one which is shortlived and inclined to the decadent.

Adam treats Eve well in his response – his exordium suggesting a willingness to debate the point, though possibly also a sense that as the male, he does not expect to lose the debate. His hyperbolic opening: “Sole Eve, associate sole, to me beyond / Compare…” with its homophonic punning and deliberate playing on Eve’s willingness to be flattered seems rather extreme after the plainness of Eve’s opening. Adam moves into his argument only after a rather chauvinistic comment about how a woman should behave: “nothing lovelier can be found / In woman, than to study household good, / And good works in her husband to promote”. In short: thanks, but no thanks. He further suggests that since mankind has reason, and the ability to feel emotions comes from this source, then God intends them to be more than a mere working pair ( “not ot irksome toil…”) but a pair to share love. Before he moves to his second argument, however, he seems to backtrack on himself. Here it is Adam who seems ot be falling over himself not to seem too didactic or patriarchal. Suggesting possibly that he is aware that Eve does not share his attention span for conversation of this type, he offers the possibility of a “short absence” and is able to see the potential benefit of short separation on the relationship.

It is from here that he picks up his argument which foreshadows the rest of the book. Satan is near and will try to tempt them. He is clear that i) Satan wishes to come upon them individually and ii) Satan is jealous of their relationship and will seek to split them up and tempt them. He concludes by repeating the idea that it is safer and “seemliest” for a wife to remain beside her protector.

LL 270 – 290: Milton’s stage directions are clear: Eve, in her “virgin majesty” is offended by Adam’s heavy handed attempt to control the situation. Milton suggests that she replies with “austere composure”. I like this. She knows what she is doing here, and austerity does not immediately suggest someone relying on their femininity to win a point. Eve is intelligent and perfectly able to mix it in debate with Adam. In a short speech she responds first in a voice of injured pride – “I expected not to hear” – that Adam is not telling her anything she has not heard before and she goes on to point out that she and Adam need not fear any physical attack (being immortal) and so it is only Satan’s “fraud” which Adam is fearing. She is insulted, I think, that Adam clearly believes that her “firm faith and love / Can by his fraud be shaken or seduced”. Once again, Milton’s choice of language is powerful – alliterative fs abound, but Eve once again suggests a sensual weakness by her choice of the verb “seduced” which allows the physical sexuality of the moment to be recognized.

LL291 -342: In this sequence, Adam’s comparative weakness is clear. Whether he is weak in the face of Eve’s beauty or her intellect is open to discussion. There is an absence of overtly flirty or flattering speech from Eve, and she seems to take some control of the scene for this point. Adam, in “healing words” (again the stage direction points the reader towards a clear understanding of the characters) offers more argument, though the material is weak: first he suggests that he is worried that Eve will be discredited by the attempt alone, and then that Satan is wish to attack him, being the stronger, since greater kudos will come to Satan as a result. He does suggest, however, that he gain strength from Eve’s presence and that he shall be driven to his “utmost vigour” by “you looking on”. He goes on to suggest that his vigour will help typo unite them.

In this passage, Adam is described both as “domestic” and as possessing “matrimonial love”. Eve is not impressed and Milton seems to be pushing us to see her as the home breaker here. She is offended still by the suggestion that she might be seduced and replies in accents “sweet” – presumably an ironic comment due to an enforced politeness. Certainly her response is swift in its attack on Adam’s ideas – she is in control of this debate and raises the essential question: “How are we happy, still in fear of harm?”. This, together with “What is faith, love, virtue unassayed / Alone, without exterior help sustained?” show a clear train of thought or reason here – there is no real life for the pair if they are in constant fear. There is also a hint at the pride to come in her idea that he and she will gain “double honour” by overcoming Satan. She sees no stigma from his attack and is focused solely on the glory of overcoming him. She challenges Adam to rethink his ideas concerning God’s gift of Eden – “frail is our happiness” she cries and forces Adam to respond “fervently”. It is as though he finally realizes that he will not win this argument based on logic and has to engage with his emotional response to God.

LL343 – 400: It is hard to see “Oh Woman” as anything other than a put-down. Certainly it is neither hyperbolic in grandeur nor expressive of love. It suggests that it is time for the Man to educate the Woman about God and his ways. Adam tries to explain Free Will and Reason, suggesting that God wants mankind to use reason but also to “beware…lest by some fair appearing Good surprised / she dictate false…” He offers a crumb of comfort by suggesting that he is not mistrusting her, but engaging in the sort of mutual support that will allow them to use Reason, yet not be deceived. His speech becomes rich with imperatives and he seems to be moving into the ascendancy until in Line 370 he offers another sharp contradiction: “Go, for the stay, not free, absents thee more”. It is hard to work out what Adam is doing here. The two obvious possibilities are i) that he is allowing Eve to use her Reason and will not seek to impose his will upon her, or that ii) he is actively pushing her away. I see no reason for ii. The effect tof the passage is that the decision to leave and therefore the beginning of the sequence leading to the fall either has to be seen as Eve’s choice following the options, or as Adam’s failure in that he pushes Eve away.

The next lines show Eve leaving. She is clear that she has heeded Adam’s most recent warning and clearly understands the risks, even though she does not believe that Satan will attack her. Here she seems to be offering Adam a sop. She has bested him in debate, but has no wish to seem overproud as she leaves. And she is the instigator of the farewell – “from her husband’s hand her hand / Soft she withdrew” and it is she who breaks the clear symbol of marital unity before leaving Adam he “pursued” her with “ardent eye”. She seems to be much the more reasoned of the two. Even at this stage Adam seems to be emotionally affected in a way we do not see in Eve. Far from being weak and driven by emotion, the Woman here is in full control of herself. Milton undercuts this by his choice of Simile and Classical allusion. Each of the nymphs mentioned will end up being seduced. We can understand that despite her victory in the debate, she will not return for “noontide repast, or afternoon’s repose”.

Her midmorning snack will put an end to this calm repose forever.



Filed under AQA LitB 4, Milton, OCR A level, OCR English Literature

10 responses to “Frailty, thy name is … Eve? A passage in search of a discussion for Year 13.

  1. Adam

    I believe that Milton could use Eve so blatantly to prove misogyny is wrong. By calling Adam ‘matrimonial’ and ‘domestic’, he seems to undermine these traditionally accepted female attributes.

    From this we then question whether Adam is implicated enough in the pre-fall, and i think he is. Eve evidently has the stronger reason of the two, or at least more intelligent reason, Adam’s in fundamental in his faith to the word of God. She seems to command his forgiveness of ‘healing words’, as a play this would have been acted out on the stage dramatically through facial expressions and emotion, however as a poem, written it is just commanded of him to apologise. Supported by his sudden change of heart, Adam is certainly weaker at this moment.

    I don’t think its possible to blame a single character for the fall, i think it is far too ambiguous and Milton does this deliberately. What is evident however is the role of sexual desire, implied by the ‘myrtle’ and ‘roses’ of short lived love – which for me paralleled Brachiano and Vittoria’s affair. Thus we can imply that Milton suggests sin is derived from sexual desires and that no one man or woman is the cause of the fall. Satan’s ‘stupidly good’ undoing due to Eve’s beauty, makes him jealous. Adam admits he feel the ‘utmost vigour’ by ‘you looking on’ suggesting a sexual undertone and i questioned whether this was lust or love due to the pride and way he parallels Satan in his weakness for Eve’s beauty ‘as soft she withdrew’. Is sexual desire a possible cause/contributing factor of the fall? This for me parallels WD in the causes of Brachia’s death – sexual desire for Vittoria/betrayal and Marcello for kicking Flamineo’s lover Zanche.

    Let me know what you think…is this plausible?

  2. Robert

    For me the two most evident aspects conveyed by Milton in this passage are Eve’s greater ability to argue and reason than Adam, but also the clear understones of sexual desire that foreshadow Eve’s temptation.

    Firstly, Eve’s argument is evidently logical as separating with Adam will surely increase their productivity esepcially as they are distracted by ‘sweet intercourse of looks and smiles,’ meaning they cannot cope with their ‘growing work.’ To back up her logical starting point, Eve is able to put forward an eloquent and clear argument that immedietely brings to mind Vittoria’s speech in the arraignment scene in the TWD. As Vittoria’s eloquence portrays her as a strong and intelligent female character, in contrast to the corruption of the Church; here Eve seems intelligent in contrast to Adam’s weak argument. Adam’s argument is littered with contradictions and backtracking, and this leaves Adam as an intrtiguing characrer to interpret. Possibly Adam’s argument is so weak purely because due to Eve being a woman, and him believing that she will not defy him, hence there being no need for him to put forward a strong argument. This would be in line with his comment about ‘nothing lovelier can be found / In woman, than to study household good, / And good works in her husband to promote’ and it seems to me as if Adam never truly believes Eve will defy him until their union is actually solidified through the imagery of their hands breaking apart. Therefore, in my opinion at this stage Eve’s portrayal is actually quite complex, rather than simply being blamed by Milton for the fall, she seems to be an empowered woman, in a very similar mould to Vittoria and her role in TWD.

    However, as previosuly mentioned in the other posts, their are clear sexual undertones of this passage through the flower imagery and Eve’s lexis. While I agree with all of this and it seems clear that Milton is foreshadwoing Eve’s temptation, which is clearly linked to the views about women being promiscous through Satan’s phallic representation, I would also lend some support to Adam’s point of view. To me it doesn’t seem that Eve is the only one influenced by her sexual desire, and some of her lexius that has been argued to protray her as sexually motivated are not so clear cut. For example, her use of ‘wanton’ was mentioned in the original post as being linked to sexual undertones. While this may be a valid interpretation, the lexical choice ‘wanton’ also refers to the natural tendency for nature to overgrow, and hence it’s need for rational human control, therefore this could support the legitimacy of her argument rather than foreshadowing her temptation. Moreover, as Adam said, both Adam (haha) and Satan are also clearly influenced by their sexual desires as Eve’s sexual lexis can be seen to lead to convincing him and when Satan sees Eve her beauty and innocence almost seems to “rape” him of his evil. Therefore, I can seen some textual evidence for Adam’s idea that Milton could possibly be conveying the dangers of all sexual desire in Paradise Lost, however I wonder if this interpretation has any grounding in the context of the time or Milton’s personal views?

  3. Sachin

    I definitely agree that Eve is a complex character and cannot be taken at face value as a weak, simple-minded woman who causes the fall of mankind through her womanly qualities. However, I do think it is too far to suggest that Milton empowers her and purposefully makes her seem strong and independent. Rob said that Adam is weaker at arguing, thus loses the argument and that Milton empowers Eve through this. However, an alternative viewpoint, and one that I think is more cohesive with Milton’s views (as brought up by Rob’s final question), is that Eve overpowers Adam with her forcefulness, and, rather than being the victor, is the one who ‘shouts the loudest’ and storms off before Adam has a chance to think and stop her. From line 384 to 385, she ends her speech with the idea that Satan’s pride will stop him from attacking the weaker, and then instantly withdraws her hand and leaves. Furthermore, I think that Rob’s point that Eve’s argument is intelligent and that therefore makes her seem empowered is flawed, because she is just plain wrong when she claims that Satan would not go after the weaker, therefore severely weakening how well we can see Eve’s argument, because she falsely assumed that Satan would portray certain traits, and she didn’t listen to Adam, who knew that Satan would be wily and cunning and would put his goal above his pride.

    Furthermore, in the post it was said that:

    The garden is described as becoming “luxurious”, “wanton” or “wild”. IN short, her choice of lexis is suggestive of a sensuous or libidinous world.

    There is irony here because the apple IS sex (among other things), and upon Adam’s discovering that Eve ate it, he says asks rhetorically (already knowing the answer is yes), whether she is “Defaced, deflowered, and now to Death devote? “ She is deflowered when she eats the apple and discovers the sin of sex, yet she begins with telling Adam that the garden cannot become ‘sexual’ in any way through their negligence. Another way in which the patriarchy tells the audience of the time that women are contradictory and flawed, as Eve contradicts herself here regarding sexuality. Although this could be disputed by the fact that Eve did not know what the apple would bring, and thus contradicted herself unknowingly.

    Thus overall I think Milton did in fact take the “convenient” route, and blame most of, if not all of, the fall on Eve’s womanly features and her pride.

  4. Nour

    In order to provide a counter-argument to the increasingly popular feminist readings of Eve that Robert, Adam and Sachin seem to agree (more or less) on, I would like to offer the below reading of Eve that Milton himself was likely to have had in mind when writing (dictating?), that is to say a Puritan reading of Eve.

    It is not easy to describe how despicable Eve appears through Puritan eyes, so I’ll use an analogy: Eve is to Puritans what George W Bush was to the City of New Orleans in 2005. That is, if Bush had personally blown up the levees and clogged the storm drains because he “thought it would look cool” and had intended to drown the entire city to win a bet he had with Tony Blair that he could. The analogy fails because no character in history, real or fictional, has ever been perceived as as much of a disappointment to the entire human race than Eve (2005 New Orleans only being an insignificant fraction of the human race even then). She robbed humanity of all of eternal life and bliss with God, forcing us to live on a damp rock where pestilence (Great Plague – 1665), debauchery and sin (Restoration – end of enforced Puritan values by Cromwell – 1660), anti-intellectualism (Milton’s own books were destroyed by Charles II- 1660) and destruction (Great Fire of London -1666) are wreaked upon us by a now-vengeful God. She robbed us of these things for no noble purpose, she was instead blinded by her hubris and too mentally weak (perhaps, somehow going back on topic) to be able to take apart Satan’s sophistry.

    This Puritan view of Eve is utterly despicable is evidenced by Milton’s own 4th-wall-interjections, calling Eve ‘our credulous mother’, a scathing and deeply personal attack on what, to a 21st century audience, is a fictional character. This view of Eve is irreconcilable with the above views that Eve can be seen as complex, logical or feminist. Because of the nature of the story behind Paradise Lost as inherently Biblical, in addition to the fact that prelapsarian Eve was by definition unchangeable, Eve’s character development prior to her Fall cannot be seen as linear, she must be the same exact person in Book IV as in the first half of IX, which therefore means that during the first 400 lines of IX (back on topic again), Eve’s character would have still been seen as that which betrayed humanity, and so can be read as such from this Puritan reading (therefore conveniently making this comment somewhat relevant to the thread).

    In short, from a Puritan perspective, Eve and the forbidden fruit hold no more complex a relationship than Bush and his Red Button. Both were able to bring about the end of the world on a fleeting desire for a cheap thrill, the difference being that Bush listened to his advisors where it counted, Eve was not even thoughtful enough to do that.

  5. kj

    Although there are many valid points in NOur’s argument, i would have to disagree on the idea that Eve brought about the ‘ end of the world on a fleeting desire for a cheap thrill’. Eve’s desire to ascend and gain more power is as well as Satan’s manipulative ways lead to the end of the world. Eve being made from Adam’s ribs, clearly highlights the social position of Eve in Eden and it is understandable for her to have insecurities with regards to power. Therefore it is satan that leads to the end of the world. The potency of Satan’s flattery leads to Eve eating the forbidden fruit. He tells her that ‘ye shall be as gods’ if she eats the apple. This comparison of Eve to the ‘gods’ is blasphemous because she lives in a monotheistic society, and may be a comment on Galileo’s discovery of other planets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The prospect of Eve eclipsing God is an example of Satan capitalising on her lust for advancement in social hierarchy in order to trick her into eating the apple. This is significant because it shows the intelligence of Satan’s flattery in realising that Eve’s pride is something that could be exploited. Similar intelligence of Satan’s flattery is shown by him describing it as a ‘goodly tree… loaden with fruit of fairest colour.’ Positive adverbial phrases such as ‘goodly’ and the superlative ‘fairest’ are employed by Satan in order to subliminally condition Eve into believing that this ‘tree’ is harmless and this beguiling nature of Satan is key to tricking Eve into believing his rhetoric and causing the fall of man. Indeed, he refers to her as ‘sovereign mistress.’ The adjective ‘sovereign’ has connotations of royalty and rule and so not only is Satan being sycophantically towards Eve but Milton is also associating the monarchy with Satanic flattery.

  6. Adam Woolley

    You speak of the beauty and tenderness of the “soft she withdrew” line; however I believe this to be more than a perspective opinion/view of Adam rather than the two as a couple. This could be justified by the technicality that it is Eve who withdraws her hand from Adam, suggesting perhaps that he does not want to let her go, but she pulls away from him. This can be further supported by the later contrast in the description of Adam’s extreme emotions of love, professing that “Should God create another Eve, and I / Another rib afford, yet loss of thee / Would never from my heart”. This in comparison to Eve who’s emotional state appears not to have altered since their splitting presents Adam as the more feminine of the two characters, professing his love for her in a manner that almost echoes the story of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. This presentation of a ‘masculine female’ is also seen in The White Devil through the character of Vittoria – most prominently during her arraignment; further supporting Rob’s paralleling of the two characters’.

    It is interesting that it is Adam who “[her hand he] seized” back after they have both fallen, almost as if reclaiming his property – seemingly cohering with the misogynistic ownership of women by men at the period of writing. This utter harshness in juxtaposition to the “soft” and emotional nature, in which they parted, I would say, supports Sachin’s idea of the apple literally being sex; and bringing Adam and Eve down to a raw, almost dirty, form of mankind born with original sin. This is furthered by the description of the “shady bank” that they retire to, with the lexical choice “shady” having connotations of doubtful honesty or legality. This question of legality would now make their sex sinful and so the “shady” location is necessary to hide their actions. The promised power that the apple will give appears to come to FRUITION as Adam becomes forceful in his deflowering of Eve, and rather in a more animalistic manner takes Eve than the perhaps “soft” love they consummate in, in earlier books.

    I would disagree with Adam’s earlier idea of sexual desire being a possible cause/contributing factor of the fall. Until the characters have fallen, Adam only looks upon Eve with loving eyes and Satan appears more shocked by her beauty than sexually attracted (however, it is worthy to note that Satan uses his own “erect” and “neck of verdant gold” / attractiveness / phallic representation to in some way seduce Eve – but we must remember that she is still innocent and so cannot be condemned as lustful). It is not until after the fall that Adam becomes “overcome with female charm” and so we cannot use his suggested ‘sexual desire’ for Eve as reasoning for his to eat the apple, it is rather an act of love; once again echoing a story of ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

  7. Nour

    The problem, I think, with KJ’s argument is that blaming Satan for the Fall leads to a logical inconsistency regarding the relationship between humans and angels within the Great Chain of Being. Once Satan is blamed for the Fall, it then follows that those with greater power are obliged to take responsibility for the mistakes that those with less power make, a very Marxist reading of the poem. The problem here, and the reason why this view is even more incompatible than the feminist readings of Eve to a Puritan reading is that once the higher powers can be held to account for humanity’s misdeeds, it is logically inconsistent not to ALSO blame God for the fall of Man, as he laid the groundwork for humans to be deceived in the first place (free will) and due to his omniscience knew about the Fall before Satan even left Hell, back in (I think) Book IV. By KJ’s logic God is far, far more to blame for the Fall than Satan and obviously this would be extremely blasphemous if not downright Satanistic to any Puritan.

    I believe the only way to possibly blame Satan for the Fall is to use the same logic as above but to think of God as a relentless tester of Man, who engineered the Fall to test humanity, with humanity failing the test. Of course there are inconsistencies in this argument as well, but these inconsistencies (such as that God would have known that humans would Fall even before he created Satan or the angels before Book I) are complementary to Puritan beliefs unlike the above.

    I will concede that Eve, unlike Bush (possibly), did not sin for a “cheap thrill” as I said before, but I maintain that a Puritan reading cannot at all be compatible with her having noble intentions by any means.

    I will also re-iterate that everything I’ve argued up to this point is from a Puritan perspective, as all of you know I think God is to blame for literally every single thing in the poem, which is the only objectively correct reading of the poem, because it is mine. Before anyone flames at me tomorrow for holding silly opinions, keep that in mind.

  8. This came via my LinkedIn page:Andrew Davis
    Attending Indiana University East

    Yet Satan pretty much began having “sex” with Eve via her ear from immediately entering the garden and how much effort Milton uses in describing this sexuality. God is an inactive force just recognized and by and large inactive when compared to Satan himself. Eve is essentially raped. Adam is made a selfish and jealous party, but in this feeling whom can blame him? It is reason, reason alone that allows them to leave the garden and there is a negative psychological and teleological argument presented to mean the contrary that is a basis for wisdom, for seeking knowledge that cannot damn man, survival instinct kicks in, were he without it there’d be no armor at all, you wouldn’t even have the ability to judge and to decide. To put it into context of Cromwell, Cromwell thought he had as much authority as divine-right king and made Milton very depressed at the turn of events that could have favored better and is tied into Hobbes’s Leviathan. Being able to have a choice to decide and freewill is better than not having any choice at all. What a great Cathartic piece. I think utilizing some of Robert Grave’s White Goddess helps, albeit more associated with the Greek. Is it necessarily fair for Eve to be mechanized in such a way? Consider Henrietta and the arguments and counter-arguments of her involvement with the Civil War that were perhaps Charles’s undoing.

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