Saturday, December 17, 2011

No Man Can Serve Two Masters: Adam as Depicted in Paradise Lost

John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost delves deeper into the Genesis story of the fall of man possibly more than any other written work.  Much like God breathed life into Adam, Milton breathes life into this all-important fable of the Christian world.  He gives the characters personality and voice.  Satan is no longer just a one-dimensional villain and Eve isn’t the stupid sinner we blame our troubles for.  And while many might focus on the characters of Satan or Eve, I found Milton’s portrayal of Adam to be most intriguing.  Adam is a man torn between two masters: one of them being God, the other being Eve.

For the most part, Adam is a stalwart example of righteousness and fiercely loyal to his God.  When Eve suggests that Eden is in fact imperfect because they must live in constant fear of being tempted, Adam is quick to defend God, saying, “O woman, best are all things as the will of God ordained them.”  He insists that God’s hand creates “nothing imperfect” and that even their reason “he made right” (Greenblatt, 1981, lines 343-352).

So obedient is he, that the very thought of sin frightens him.  He worries about Eve leaving his side for fear that Satan might get ahold of her.  “But other doubt possesses me,” he says to her, “lest harm befall thee severed from me; for thou know’st what hath been warned us, what malicious foe… seeks to work us woe and shame by sly assault; and somewhere nigh at hand watches” (Greenblatt, 1979, lines 251-257).  When Eve finally does sin, Adam reacts as to be expected:  he is horrified.  Milton writes, “Adam, soon as he heard the fatal trespass done by Eve, amazed, astonied stood and blank, while horror chill ran through his veins” (Greenblatt, 1992, lines 888-891).

So how did one so God-fearing and good-intentioned fall?  When Adam expressed his fear of what Satan might make them do, he said, “Whether his first design be to withdraw our fealty from God, or to disturb conjugal love, than which perhaps no bliss enjoyed by us excites his envy more” (Greenblatt, 1979, lines 261-264).  I feel this statement is more telling of Adam’s own struggle than Satan’s envy.  Adam clearly states what two things are important to him: his loyalty to God and the love he and Eve share.  Unfortunately in the end, his love for Eve won out.  He began to love the creation more than the creator.

“I also erred in overmuch admiring what seemed in thee so perfect,” Adam laments, “that I thought no evil durst attempt thee, but I rue that error now, which is become my crime, and thou th’ accuser” (Greenblatt, 1998, lines 1178-1182).  Adam’s greatest mistake was esteeming Eve to be as perfect as God.  Constantly throughout the text Adam praises Eve’s beauty and virtue.  “For nothing lovelier can be found in woman, than to study household good, and good works in her husband to promote” (Greenblatt, 1978, lines 232-234).  He even goes so far as to say that Eve made him a better man, saying, “I from the influence of thy looks receive access in every virtue, in thy sight more wise, more watchful, stronger” (Greenblatt, 1980, lines 309-311).

When Eve partakes of the forbidden fruit, Adam’s love for her is so strong that he has no other choice but to join her.  He doesn’t want God to make him another Eve.  He wants his Eve.  “And me with thee hath ruined,” he says to her, “for with thee certain my resolution is to die; how can I live without thee?”  (Greenblatt, 1992, lines 906-908).  He can live without God’s presence, but he can’t live without Eve.  The time came for Adam to choose, and his romantic side won out.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.  Print.

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