Just a little taste of classic literary analysis.
Redeeming the epic tradition, John Milton retells Christian mythology by mingling the divine with the mortal in Paradise Lost. His poetic rendition paints the entwined relationship of God, angels, and men that brings about man’s fall. Lifting him to converse with Heaven’s entities, Milton crowns man with nobility—a nobility shared by all Heaven’s hosts, including the fallen ones. Though personifying wickedness in Satan, leader of Heaven’s revolt, the poet expands his character by investing him with virtues compellingly majestic, similar to man. As Satan’s splendor dawns on the reader, he begins to recognize an opposite effect in man: after the fall—no longer perfectly glorious—man reflects the depravity of Satan. As such, Milton challenges his reader to recognize the corruption shackling man’s glory through the mirroring of man and Satan in each other.
With discomfiting similarity, both man in his light and Satan despite his darkness glow with the beauty of royalty. Upon entering Eden, Satan espies “[two creatures] of far nobler shape”: Adam and Eve “Godlike erect… / In naked majesty, [appear] lords of all” (2771). Perfectly crafted after the image of their Creator, man is the pinnacle of beauty within creation. Moreover, his beauty signifies his authoritative hierarchy over the earth. Yet splendor dwells not only in innocent perfection but also nocent depravity. Fallen Satan towers over his hellish hosts in glorious form though not as bright as before but “as when the sun new-ris’n / Looks through the horizontal misty air / Shorn of its beams” (2751). Satan’s tarnished but lordly magnificence reminds the reader of his original station at the hand of God, an Archangel, for he too in superiority commanded legions in light luminescent and commands legions now in darkness obscure. Though Adam and Eve’s beauty may at first seem an adulation of man’s perfection, beauty garbs Satan’s corruption as well.
Besides majesty, man and Satan share the gift of reason and put it to use with eloquence. Explaining man’s vulnerability to temptation, Adam expounds “Within [man] / The danger lies, yet lies within his power; / against his will he can receive no harm. / But God left free the will; for what obeys / Reason is free” (2794-2795). Voiced with sharp clarity, his understanding of man’s nature clearly delineates a rational mind marked by contemplation. Eve too, searching for sin’s justification, convincingly argues, “[God’s] forbidding / Commends thee [the fruit] more, while it infers the good / By thee communicated, and our want / …[What] forbids he but … / …good[?] / Such prohibitions bind not” (2804). In her desperation, Eve accuses God of unjustly withholding blessing in the Tree of Knowledge—for, the very forbidding anticipates man’s natural desire for it, something undoubtedly pleasant as proved by the serpent. Despite her erroneous premise, Eve’s argument demonstrates a mind capable of logical and critical thought. Setting up Eve’s unsound conclusion, Satan deliberates, “[If] what is evil / Be real, why not known, since easier shunned? / God therefore cannot hurt ye and be just; / Not just, not God; not feared then, nor obeyed: / Your fear itself of death removes the fear” (2803). The Tempter maintains that God should reveal evil to man so that he can better avoid it, and if God does not, he is not just; because God cannot be unjust, he must not be God, and therefore man need not obey him. Presented with expert rationale and honeyed words, Satan’s compelling case nearly convinces the reader as well as Eve. Satan, then, like man possesses astounding analytical powers and rhetoric—capable of making lies appear as truth.
Satan’s pride condemns him to eternal death: likewise, Eve’s vanity brings about man’s demise. “[Aspiring] / To set himself in glory above his peers / [Satan] trusted to have equaled the Most High,” Milton recounts (2748). Satan leads his host of fallen angels to rebel against God, in arrogance believing himself deserving of heaven’s throne; nevertheless, his arrogance brings naught but banishment to hell. Appealing to her vanity, Satan promises Eve will become like a god after eating the forbidden fruit, and Eve reaches to take from the Tree of Knowledge. As the delicious first taste seeps through her being, Eve ponders “Shall I… /…keep the odds of knowledge in my power / Without copartner?… / And render me more equal, and perhaps / A thing not undesirable, sometime/ Superior [?]” (2805-2806). Simply by keeping Adam in his blissful ignorance she could ascend the skies alone; Eve’s imagination lifts her in godlike eminence over her husband and lord, and the image proves all to desirable. Usurping his crown, she could sit on earth’s worthy throne, pride hisses. Arrogance echoes across space from fall to fall, eating away at each heart: whereas Satan seeks to dispossess God of his kingship, Eve pictures divesting Adam of his leadership.
Nevertheless, Eve, fearing that she might indeed have eaten her damnation, envies Adam his innocence and like Satan with man decides to bring about his fall as well. Observing unblemished man, Satan plots vengeance “on him who next / [provokes] [his] envy, [the] new favorite / [of] Heaven” (2791). At one time, he too enjoyed God’s favor as an archangel forever in his presence—unstained in perfect glory. Watching man relish what he tossed away fans flames of jealousy, and Satan determines to abolish their bliss—for no one should enjoy what he cannot. In dismaying similarity, Eve cries after considering her possible death, “I shall be no more / And Adam… / Shall live… / A death to think [!] Confirmed then I resolve, / Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe” (2806). The thought of Adam in purity thriving without her by his side awakes such envy in Eve that she instantly decides to give her husband the forbidden fruit: because of possible damnation, not in spite of it, Eve concludes to lead her husband down the same path she has taken. Both Satan and Eve drag humanity down to death with them out of black resentment.
As Eve holds out the fruit, Adam gives in ignoring his better judgment just as Satan disregards God’s rightful claim to worship, both turning their backs on reason. Away from his nefarious followers, Satan exclaims in remorse, “[God] deserved no such return [rebellion] / From me, whom he created… / …nor was his service hard. / What could be less than to afford him praise [?] / …Yet… / …Lifted up so high / I’sdained subjection, and thought one step higher / Would set me highest” (2765). Despite his favored station, despite God’s right, Satan consciously decided to pursue his own ambition; whereas reason dictated that he magnify his Lord in accordance with all God is and all he has done, the fallen angel despised the evidence—nonsensically reaching for equality with the Unreachable. Adam, reflecting Satan’s rejection of reason, “[scruples] not to eat [the fruit] / Against his better knowledge, not deceived” (2812). With absolute intelligence of his crime against his Maker, Adam takes a bite from the forbidden fruit, chaining himself and humanity to bondage. He remembers God’s warning and recognizes the Serpents’ lies as well as his duty to obey; notwithstanding, Adam abandons freedom to follow his debased wife. Disowning understanding, Adam and Satan choose to fall.
Man’s glory is not as intact as he would hope, Milton suggests. Though indeed beautiful, indeed a royal race, indeed capable of intricate thoughts—like Adam and Eve—man cannot aspire to perfection. Rather, the fall has swallowed him in corruption. By the tasting of forbidden fruit, wickedness melts into the nature of man, blending with his splendor. Evil needs not absolute rule to take root: with resplendence it blackly weaves through man’s character. Evidenced by Satan’s tenebrous magnificence still admirable, depravity does not destroy the nobility in man but stains it darkly so. This tainted splendor of man Milton invites the reader to consider—to examine himself, to recognize in the creature of light divine deep, coursing crags of mortal darkness.
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Edited by Martin Puchner. Vol. 1, 9th ed. Norton, 2014, pp. 2746-2825.