In Defense of Milton: Eve, Lilith, and the Feminist debate in Paradise lost

Who is Lilith?

“That bad woman…,” this phrase embodies the recent scholarly debate which rages over Milton’s portrayal of the character Eve in Paradise Lost; contemporary feminist critics have condemned Milton as a misogynist in his regressive depiction of women as the precipitator of the fall of mankind in his embellishment of the Judeo- Christian biblical story of Genesis. Feminist theory focuses on the subjection and subordination on the role of Eve, emphasizing not only the similarities between Eve, and thus women, and Satan and their shared culpability in the loss of paradise, but also the inherent inequity between Eve and her male counterpart, Adam.

This narrow understanding of the text positions Milton as the author to be an advocate of men’s dominance over women, suggesting that patriarchy is both natural and indeed ordained by God. However, using a contemporary feminist lens to deconstruct the character of Eve is disingenuous. While the Genesis myth may advocate male patriarchy, the narrative of Paradise Lost in its entirety and Eve’s character serve a broader function – to see Eve as merely a means to reaffirm gender inequality is to read only select passages of Milton’s narrative while ignoring his larger purpose of instilling his readers with the importance of Christian values. Milton’s portrayal of Eve is not an indictment of women’s inherently sinful nature, as some feminists have claimed, but is a sympathetic depiction of both Adam and Eve and mankind’s “first disobedience,” (Milton pg 211) in an effort to enlighten and inspire his readers while still remaining true to limited text of the bible.

Before the purpose of Eve can be explored in Milton’s narrative, Eve’s origins within Genesis and meaning which Eve conveys to the ideology of woman must be examined.  Milton frames his epic within the context of the second genesis creation myth and thus is limited to parameters expressed within the bible. “God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).  After the creation of man, God makes him a suitable partner from his rib and, thus, woman was created out of man – made for man (Genesis). Images of women and men can effectively incite both sexes to adopt certain self-images, attitudes, and behavior. Male-constructed images of women, and men, are so embedded in Western culture that they appear quite “natural” (Jungman pg 204).The constructed social relationship between women and men in western civilization are rooted in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.

It is claimed that God created man in his own likeness, was given dominion over beasts and to subdue the earth with his offspring (Landes). Equally significant is the prominence given to men; God is male and his most important creation is male (Landes). The story stresses the primacy of man and the centrality of his place in the universe, while making it clear that women play a subordinate role (Landes). The story also recounts how the woman, Eve, was disobedient and succumbed to temptation the result of which was the expulsion of both Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.  For her disobedience, Eve was condemned to subordination; “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3: 16).

Therefore, according to the biblical narrative, original sin is inherited from Eve and for her crime she must submit to man’s authority. Even doomed Adam, woman corrupted man and thus woman as sexuality has been characterized as dangerous throughout art, literature, and culture (Landes) while male dominance is justified.  The creation myth serves to be the catalyst of feminine rage; a rage that has been imposed on Milton’s poem. Yet, viewing Milton’s work solely through the Genesis narrative is overly simplistic. Milton utilizes the guideline of Genesis and thus Eve must precipitate the fall – but rather than illustrate Eve as defective from the moment of her creation, Milton creates a character whose ultimate temptation is paralleled to Satan’s fall from paradise. Hence through his parallel of the fallen state of Satan and man, Milton’s ultimate blame for evil entering the earthly realm is placed not on Eve but on Satan.

In order to understand Eve’s character the reader must first understand the overall cosmology in Milton’s narrative; Eve is not tempted by the serpent simply to reveal feminine nature to be inherently weak rather her temptation within the narrative text serves to emphasis the theme of disobedience. A predominant theme within Paradise Lost involves the hierarchal nature of the universe. The layout of the universe, with Heaven above, Hell below, and Earth in the middle, presents the universe as a clearly defined framework based on the proximity to God and his grace (Jungman, Milton).

This spatial order leads to a social hierarchy of angels, humans, animals, and devils: the Son is closest to God, with the archangels and cherubs behind him. Adam and Eve and Earth’s animals come next, with Satan and the other fallen angels following last. “To obey God is to respect this hierarchy. Satan refuses to honor the Son as his superior, thereby questioning God’s hierarchy” (Landes pg 110). When Satan and his league of fallen angels are defeated, they are banished to hell where, as Satan argues, they can make their own hierarchy in Hell (Landes). However, they are nevertheless subject to God’s overall hierarchy, in which they are ranked the lowest (Landes). Satan continues to disobey God and his cosmic framework as he seeks to corrupt mankind (Jungman; Landes).

Likewise, humankind’s disobedience is another corruption of God’s hierarchy (Landes). Before the fall, Adam and Eve treat the visiting angels with proper respect and acknowledgement of their closeness to God. Eve embraces the subservient role allotted to her in her marriage. Eve willfully leaves Adam alone to converse with Raphael, preferring to hear the angel’s stories from Adam himself. God and Raphael both instruct Adam that Eve is slightly farther removed from God’s grace than Adam because she was created to serve both God and him, “Hee for God only, shee for God in him” (IV 299). Thus, the narrative suggests that Adam is more spiritually pure than Eve as is evident in the differences of Adam and Eve’s first awaking moments.

Adam awakes in the radiant light and even visibly sees the outline of God while Eve awakes alone in the shade and only hears God’s voice. This apparent distance from God, ultimately proves disastrous for Eve as her allotted inferior role is what prompts her separation from Adam – driving her closer to the serpent’s elusive trickery. When Eve persuades Adam to let her work alone, she challenges him, her superior, and he yields to her, his inferior. Again, as Adam eats from the fruit, he knowingly defies God by obeying Eve and his inner instinct instead of God and his reason. Therefore, Eve’s primary focus within the narrative is simply to further the plot and further illustrate the proverbial snowball rolling downhill of evil’s influence seeping into the world after Satan’s disobedience.

Eve’s temptation, Adam’s defiance, and the entrance of death and sin into earth all stems from Satan’s fall from grace which acts as a “catalyst to the breaking down of God’s hierarchy which is further explored through Adam’s visions”(Jungman 207), but also demonstrate that with the Son’s sacrifice, this hierarchy will be restored.

Milton’s presentation of Adam and Eve is controversial in modern discourse because the dynamics between Adam and Eve strikes many modern audiences as misogynistic. Milton portrays Adam as her superior because he has a closer relationship to God. According to feminist theorists, the idea that Adam was created to serve God only, and Eve is created to serve both God and Adam, further promulgates the idea that women were created to serve men as implied through the Genesis story (Landes).

Indeed, the narrator’s own commentary within the text implies the inequity of Adam and Eve is inherent, “Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem’d; / For contemplation hee and valor form’d, / For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace, (IV.296-298). Feminists’ readings of the physical differences between man and woman suggest that Eve is weaker in mind as well as body than Adam. Indeed, Eve freely admits her secondary and subordinate role. She surpasses Adam only in her beauty. Eve’s intelligence and spiritual purity are constantly tested; she is not ambitious to learn, content to be guided by Adam as God intended. Eve’s dependence upon Adam also supports her subordinate role as Adam’s wife. When she explains her dependence on Adam, she explains to him that she is created because of him and is lost without him.

Yet, focusing on the regressive elements of Eve’s character and the inequity between the first man and woman only presents a small piece of Milton’s masterpiece. Milton’s task with Adam and Eve is to demonstrate, contrary to most puritan beliefs, the purity of love both spiritually and emotionally between men and women. With Adam and Eve, Milton presents marriage in its most perfect form- man and woman wholly devoted to one another despite the slight differences between the sexes. Eve refuses to live without Adam and finds paradise with him even though they must leave paradise. Adam also refuses to be without Eve and freely chooses to eat the fruit.

Passages demonstrating this gender imbalance litter the narrative. Eve is drawn to her own reflection over Adam. Eve listens to Adam rather than Raphael. Eve’s vanity drives her to toward temptation. After her disobedience, Eve’s jealousy is what prompts her to share the fruit with Adam as she fears that god might make him another “Eve.” These are the passages which feminist critics cling toward; ultimately, these passages form the basis of their rejection as, according to feminist views, Eve represents everything about a woman a man should guard against. The symbol of Eve implies that all woman are “by nature disobedient, guileless, weak-willed, prone to temptation and evil, disloyal, untrustworthy, deceitful, seductive, and motivated in their thoughts and behavior purely by self-interest” (Landes 210). In place of Eve, some radical feminists suggest that women reform their identification toward a new mother whose legend has roots within Jewish folklore; Lilith.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is derived from the last of the two contrasting creation stories. The first creation story in Genesis describes male and female being created at the same time. God “created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Inconsistencies in the story of Genesis, especially the two separate accounts of creation, received particular attention (Alpert). Later, beginning in the 13th century CE, such questions were also taken up in Jewish mystical literature known as the Kabbalah (Alpert). According to Midrashic literature which does not discount the first creation story, Adam’s first wife was not Eve but a woman named Lilith, who was created in the first Genesis account (Alpert). “At the same time Jehovah created Adam, he created a woman, Lilith, who like Adam was taken from the earth (Alpert). Adam, as a way of asserting his authority over Lilith, insisted that she lie beneath him during sexual intercourse” (Alpert pg 144). Lilith, however, considering herself to be Adam’s equal, refused, and after pronouncing God’s name, flew off into the air (Alpert). “Only when Lilith rebelled and abandoned Adam did God create Eve, in the second account, as a replacement” (Alpert pg 144).  Lilith’s refusal to accept Adam’s authority has revived the Lilith’s image amongst radical feminists, suggesting her to be a new role model for the modern woman – who unlike Eve rejects male dominance and is the true personification of female sexuality. Ironically these same feminists often ignore or avoid the rest of the Lilith narrative which portrays her as the monstrous, demonic origin of the female succubus myth.

The Lilith debate amongst feminist scholars demonstrates the polarizing attitudes towards the depiction of Eve in popular culture which, given the vague description in Genesis, is largely credited to Milton’s illustration of Eve in Paradise Lost. However, feminist critiques of Eve’s character, particularly those who advocate the revival of Lilith, completely miss the point of Milton’s epic poem. Milton’s purpose, not matter his contradictory attitudes towards women, is to reinforce Christian values such as temperance, patience, and mercy while also teaching that mankind, though fallen, can redeem and save itself through a continued devotion and obedience to God.

The salvation of humankind, in the form of the Son’s sacrifice and resurrection, can begin to restore humankind to its former state. Eve, within in the narrative, is presented to be man’s true companion, complementing Adam’s weaknesses with her strengths. Neither is without fault: Eve demonstrates vanity in her dealings with the serpent. Adam exercises flawed curiosity when learning from Raphael. Both man and woman overstep their boundaries in trying to understand God and his reason. 

Before the fall, Eve chooses to listen to Adam and follow him. Adam, in turn, allows her to have independence when he lets her separate from him. After the fall, the significance of Eve’s character increases as she is the first to accept the consequences of her disobedience. Eve displays a new humility and grace when she repents after the fall. “Her strength lies in her ability to relate her feelings to Adam, feelings that Adam shares” (Landes 116). Thus, together the couple chooses hope over despair.

Works Cited

Alpert, Rebecca. The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics. Shofar 24.4 (Summer 2006): 144-146.

Genesis 1:3. Catholic Holy Bible. Douay-Rheims Version.

Jungman, Robert E. “Eve as a Fair Defect in Milton’s Paradise Lost.” The Explicator. 65.4 (Summer 2007): 204- 212.

Landes, George M. “Eve: Accused or Acquitted? An Analysis of Feminist Readings of the Creation Narrative Texts in Genesis 1-3.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 67. 1 (2005). Pg 104-116.

Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” Complete Poems and Prose.  Hacket Publishing Co: Cambridge, 2003. pg 211- 467.

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