The critic’s reading of Adam’s fall in “Paradise Lost” by John Milton is problematic and flawed; however, his very conceptualization that Adam’s actions represent the most important element of Milton’s narrative is even more troubling. The critic contends that Adam’s fall in”Paradise Lost” is the “crux of the poem, constitut[ing] the tragic predicament toward which the whole action of Paradise Lost has been building” (n.p.). Such a tragedy based reading, however, neglects at least three other crucial main characters in “Paradise Lost” and their actions, which are far more important to the overall thematic development of this expansive poem. First, Adam’s fall in “Paradise Lost” is only made possible by the fact that Eve succumbs to temptation. Without her transgression, it is unlikely that Adam would have even wanted to taste the fruit from the tree of knowledge in “Paradise Lost”, much less engage in a direct violation of God’s injunction. Second, Milton clearly explains that the main intention of his poem is to, as he says at the beginning in one of the important quotes from “Paradise Lost” to “justify the ways of God to men” (Book I, l. 26), even though the poet anticipates that his complicated poem will “fit audience find, though few” (Book 1, l. 31). While Adam’s and Eve’s transgressions are clearly important, they do not eclipse God’s actions, to which Milton ascribes precedence. Finally, the critic’s reading and privileging of Adam’s character fails to take the complicated and critical character of Satan into consideration. Satan is far more complex than Adam, and the frequency with which his character is involved in the development of the plot and its theme suggests he is more important than Adam and the fall. These three elements of Paradise Lost are all more significant than Adam’s character and his actions, rendering the critic’s interpretation of Adam’s importance as a limited reading of a text that is far more nuanced than it might appear.
Adam is certainly an important character in “Paradise Lost”, but he lacks the kind of significance and weight of the other major characters, Eve, God, and Satan. In fact, Adam seems to lack an identity of his own and does not function well without other more developed and strong characters around to guide him. For example, at the point when he is questioned by the Son of God whether he sampled a fruit from the tree of knowledge, Adam is initially ambivalent about how he will respond. He vacillates between the choice of accepting full responsibility for his own actions and blaming Eve, his “other self, the partner of my life” (Book 9, l. 128) for his transgression, which he presumably chose of his own free will. Adam settles for a compromise between the two options, reporting that Eve “gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (Book 9, l. 143). Adam and Eve are both punished, of course, but it is the character of Satan in “Paradise Lost”, in the guise of the serpent, for whom God’s most wrathful punishment is reserved and upon whom “His curse let fall” (Book 9, l. 174).
In fact, the problematic character of Satan assumes far more importance in “Paradise Lost” than the weak-willed and fallible Adam. Adam does play an important role, especially in earlier books, where his child-like curiosity about God and His creation are revealed in his conversations with the angel, Raphael, thus allowing Milton to engage with his goal of helping his readers better understand God. During this section of the poem when the angel is talking directly to him, Adam questions in one of the important quotes from “Paradise Lost” by Milton, “How first began this heaven which we behold/Distant so high…” (Book 7, ll. 86-87), and despite a response that spans several pages, he has more questions. Raphael becomes worried about Adam’s inquisitiveness, and cautions Adam against trying to know God’s motivations and designs for the world, which can only distract Adam from his own mortal purpose. Adam is the untainted version of Satan, who in his own curiosity fell from God’s grace. Adam’s own fall will only mimic the fall of Satan, who was once esteemed and loved by God and was once the gentle inquisitive son who was constantly questioning. In other words, given this juxtaposition between the two characters, by focusing only on Adam’s fall, the critic overlooks the crucial aspects of Satan’s character that give shape and meaning to the poem. Milton does not intend to rewrite the book of Genesis in Paradise Lost, and the reader who wants to focus on Adam’s fall would be better advised to return to the scripture for a more profound treatment of that subject. Rather, Milton is concerned with drawing more imaginative and analytic attention to the figures of God, Satan, and Eve, attempting to get at their underlying motives and a more profound development of their characters than that which is offered in the Bible.
The curse that God lets fall upon the serpent is more serious than the punishment that Adam receives. The serpent is told that he will be “accursed/Above all cattle, each beast of the field,” (Book 9, ll. 175-176) and that he will be resigned to spend his life “Upon thy belly groveling” and eating dust, which clearly has no nutritive value (Book 9, l. 177). By comparison, Adam gets off the hook as is concurrent with one of manythemes in “Paradise Lost”. Although he is told that “Cursed is the ground for thy sake” (Book 9, l. 201) and his immortality has been rescinded, Satan and Eve bear the brunt of God’s wrath; Eve, for her part, has been informed that her “sorrow I will greatly multiply/By thy conception” (Book 9, ll. 193-194), and that she will spend perpetuity subject to her “husband’s will” (Book 9, l. 195), despite the fact that his judgment is neither stronger nor more carefully considered than hers. For these reasons, Adam is the least compelling among Milton’s cast of characters. He is lacking in depth and complexity; though he is an adult, he acts more like a child. He rarely applies his own critical faculties to a careful consideration of creation, and he makes decisions based on emotions and impulse rather than sound judgment.
The critic contends that by choosing to eat from the tree of knowledge, Adam struggles with his conscience because the decision forces him to choose between his loyalty to Eve and his loyalty to God, or, as the critic states, between “obedience to God and love of Eve—a choice between two such goods as are beyond easy conception” (n.p.). Is this really the choice that Adam was allegedly forced to make? Why does the critic conceptualize, as facilely as Adam does, that the act of transgression is an act of love? Even Eve realizes how hollow this argument is. The critic avoids addressing Adam’s process of deliberation, as related to the reader by the narrator in Book 8, but Eve tackles the subject head on. Again, Adam’s shallowness of character is revealed. Having chosen, of his own free will, to eat from the tree of knowledge in “Paradise Lost”, Adam becomes frightened and immediately shifts responsibility to Eve and accuses her of not being worthy of his actions. Eve questions why Adam, as the “head” (Book 8, l. 1155) of the couple, did not “command me absolutely not to go [to the tree]” (Book 8, l. 1156). Eve goes on to accuse Adam of being spineless; he was not “firm and fix’d in thy dissent” (Book 8, l. 1160). Adam responds with a characteristic childishness, asking “Is this the love, is this the recompense/Of mine to thee, ingrateful Eve…?” (Book 8, ll. 1162-1163). Both Adam and the critic fail to acknowledge that an immature decision to engage in an act that one knows is wrong is not true love; it is, quite simply, poor judgment and even poorer decision making.
The tragic predicament of Paradise Lost, then, is not Adam’s fall, though his fall is lamentable. The real tragic predicament of Milton’s masterful poem is that all of the characters are frustrated from achieving true connection with one another, and the distance between them, which they are constantly attempting to bridge, grows wider and wider because of their desperate, misguided efforts. Satan wants to reconnect with God, but is driven farther away from Him because he cannot understand the concept of a wrathful God. Adam wants to connect with Eve, but does so impulsively and childishly, rather than in a mature assertion of his beliefs and the commitment to act responsibly. God wants to connect with all of the characters, but His need to preserve the greater order of society requires him to sacrifice the quality of individual relationships when His divine law is disobeyed. Although the critic offers a compelling reading of Paradise Lost, his analysis is revealed to lack the depth that a work of this scope merits. Adam’s fall is not simply the result of a decision between being obedient to God and choosing to love Eve. His fall is not even the most important action that occurs in the text. Rather, it is the complex negotiation of relationships among all of the characters and their failure to ever achieve connection that signify the most important elements of a poem that has endured for almost four centuries.
Other essays articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : The Forbidden Quest for Knowledge in Doctor Faustus and Paradise Lost • Character Analysis of Satan in Paradise Lost Against Similar Literary Characters • Paradise Lost by Milton : Is Satan as an Epic Hero?
Milton, John. Paradise Lost, Oxford World’s Classics edition. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.