John Milton and the Reception of Eve by Michelle J. Morris

When John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, he was, like many in seventeenth-century Britain, caught between his commitments to humanist reason and to Christianity. He also struggled in his relationships with women and thought that he was unable to find his intellectual equal. This perspective shaped Milton’s famous portrayal of Eve in Paradise Lost. Though Milton’s Eve is very different from the Eve found in the biblical book of Genesis, Milton’s poem has for centuries greatly influenced perceptions of Eve.

How does Milton portray Eve?

He in delight
Both of her beauty and submissive charms
Smiled with superior love… (4.497-498)

Milton repeatedly characterizes Eve in terms of her physical beauty and her inferiority to Adam. Adam is the image of God; Eve is the image of Adam (4.299).

Milton’s Eve has “golden tresses wore / Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved / As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied / Subjection…” (4.305-308). Someone from Britain might idealize a blond beauty, but his assumption that her subjection is justified by her curly hair seems arbitrary and prejudicial.

At the climax of Milton’s story, Eve considers concealing the fruit she has taken from the forbidden tree so that she can be superior to Adam, but she changes her mind because she might actually die, leaving Adam free to marry another (9.816-832). Adam, however, chooses to eat the fruit because he cannot imagine life without Eve (9.908-916). In the Bible, the woman eats because the fruit looks edible and could make her wise, and the man apparently eats because the woman handed it to him as he stood next to her listening to the serpent (Gen 3:6). There are no further details on their motivations.

Milton’s portrayal of Eve is pervasive in Western culture. Influenced by attitudes of his time, Milton perpetuates the idea that Eve alone chose to sin for selfish reasons. Eve’s worth is in her beauty, though Milton does allow her high-order reasoning (see her discussions with Adam and Satan in Book 9). Unfortunately, like Satan, she uses her power for her own gain. While it is true that Milton builds on long-held conceptions of Eve (found in early stages in 1Tim 2:13-15), his poetry brings her to life in ways that color social and theological perspectives still today. One can see Milton’s influence in a wide array of places, from the opening credits of the television show Desperate Housewives to a finalist in a 2011 Super Bowl advertising contest sponsored by Doritos.

It is important for modern readers to be aware of other significant interpretations of the character Eve, many of which are more ethically and literarily sophisticated that Milton’s. Recently, many biblical scholars have tried to read Gen 2-3 without the assumptions and elaborations of Milton’s version. For example, the biblical scholar Phyllis Trible has offered a particularly compelling rereading of the story of the garden of Eden in which she proposes that not only is the woman the man’s equal: the woman actually acts as a theologian and translator while the man is a passive recipient of the fruit.

Michelle J. Morris, "John Milton and the Reception of Eve", n.p. [cited 27 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/john-milton-and-eve

Contributors

Michelle J. Morris

Michelle J. Morris
Ph.D. candidate, Southern Methodist University

Michelle J. Morris is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University. Her forthcoming dissertation examines infertility in the New Testament. She has taught courses in world literature and on family and sexuality in the Bible.

A 17th-century English poet who wrote "Paradise Lost," an epic poem describing the fall of humanity and the war between Heaven and Hell.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, located in the garden of Eden, from which God forbade Adam and Eve to eat.

Someone whose personal and ethical beliefs emphasize human behavior and individual responsibility, rather than adherence to an external code.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Gen 3:6

6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of ... View more

1Tim 2:13-15

13For Adam was formed first, then Eve;14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.15Yet she will be saved through childbea ... View more

Gen 2-3

1Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.2And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seve ... View more

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