Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in Paradise Lost Book 9

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      The apple is, in itself; nothing. It is everything because God’s command has made it so. The trivial act of eating the forbidden fruit was the sign and token of man’s refusal to fulfill the prime end of his creation: to glorify God and enjoy his grace forever. The act was so universally significant that Milton could present it with no elaboration and no attempt to arouse in us any sense of horror. It is enough for him to say ‘she pluck’d, she eat’, and ‘he scrupl’d not to eat’.

      The consequence of eating the fruit is instantaneous. It is significant that Milton uses the words ‘greedily’ and ‘engorged’ and ‘satiate’ in connection with Eve’s eating of the fruit. Excess is the watchword in the lines:

Greedly she engorged without restraint
And knew not eating death. Satiate at length,
And heightened as with wine, jocund and boon,
Thus to herself she pleasingly began.... (Lines 791-794)

      Eve is more than a little drunk, and like many intoxicated persons, experiences, euphoria. She believes herself not only in complete control of the situation but entirely justified in all she has done and plans to do. She has suddenly become crafty and sly, like the serpent who tempted her. Ambition and aspiration have done their work. One most important question remains: shall she share her discovery with Adam or keep it to herself?

.....But keep the odds of knowledge in my power
Without copartner? so to add what wants
In female sex, the more to draw his love
And render me more equal and perhaps-
A thing not undesirable-sometimes
Superior? (Lines 819-825)

      Eve, first instinct, to keep the knowledge to herself, almost immediately gives way to another. Suppose it is true, as God said, that if you eat the fruit you shall surely die?

Then I shall be no more:
And Adam, wedded to another Eve,
Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct;
A death to think: Confirmed then I resolve
Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe.
So dear I love him that with him all deaths
I could endure, without him live no life. (Lines 827-833)

      Eve’s love at this moment is purely selfish. It is corrupted. She shows a sly streak. Eve’s temptation was complex; Adam’s is simple. His Reason is not clouded for a moment. His mind is entirely clear. He understands perfectly what has happened. But he also knows exactly what he intends to do:

I feel
The link of Nature draw me. Flesh of flesh
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe...
So forcible within my heart I feel
The bond of Nature draw me to my own
we are one,
One flesh: to lose thee were to lose myself (Lines 913-916; 955-959)

      The emphasis is upon physical not spiritual love, love of flesh for flesh.
Deliberately Adam permits Passion to triumph over Reason;

He scrupled not to eat,
Against his better knowledge, not deceived,
But fondly overcome with female charm. (Lines 996-999)

      Again the vocabulary changes. The words Milton chose to describe the effect of the fruit on Eve were words of excess in eating and drinking. The vocabulary now combines intoxication and gluttony with excess in sexual indulgence:

As with new wine intoxicated both
They swim in mirth
But that false fruit
For other operation first displayed,
Carnal desire inflaming. He on Eve
Began to cast lascivious eyes; she him
As wantonly repaid. In lust they bum:
Till Adam thus’ gan Eve to dalliance move.(Lines 1008-1016)

      The scene that follows is at the opposite pole from the earlier nuptial bower and the hymn to wedded love. Eve “inflames” Adam’s sense “with-ardor to enjoy,” he “forbore not glance or toy of amorous intent. Eve’s “eyes darted contagious fire.” They took “their fill of love and love’s disport”; they sealed “their naked guilt” with “amorous play”. When they wake from “grosser sleep”, innocence is gone. Their naked bodies now seem shameful-how unlike to that first “naked glory”. They go out to make themselves loincloths of fig-leaves. Not only have self-consciousness and shame come upon them, but “tears rained at their eyes’, tears happy man had not known except for those two idyllic ones Adam had kissed away from Eve’s eyes after her dream. Anger, hate, distrust, suspicion, discord enter into Eden.

      The nature and meaning of the Fall is portrayed through the effects on Adam and Eve on their relationship. These effects constitute spiritual as distinct from bodily death; spiritual death, by which is meant the loss of divine grace, and that of innate righteousness, wherein man in the beginning lived unto God, as Milton himself says. This death consists, first, in the loss, or at least in the obscuration to a great extent of that right reason which enabled man to discern the chief good, and in which consisted as it were the life of the understanding. It consists, secondly, in that deprivation of righteousness and liberty to do good, and in that slavish subjection to sin and the devil, which constitutes, as it were, the death of the will. Lastly, it is its own punishment, and produces, in its natural consequences, the death of the spiritual life; and more especially gross and habitual sin.

      The first effect of eating the fruit is that Adam and Eve are overcome by secular desire. Adam assumes the role of witty gallant, making fun of holy things; and Eve has become for him a woman to ‘enjoy’. Carnal desire is now valued and pursued for its own sake

With the words
‘Her hand he seiz’d
We recall the description of them as first seen in Paradise. (Book. IV, Lines 689-690):

      ‘Thus, taking hand in hand alone they passed on to their blissful bower.’ Having indulged their lust they wake to the consciousness of lost innocence. With innocence gone the dignity and confidence of innate goodness has been replaced by the confusion and weakness of shame. The degradation of guilty shame is summed up in the estrangement from God and Heaven, and in the desire to hide like a wounded animal. Adam says,

How shall I behold the face
Henceforth of God or Angel, erst with joy
And rapture so oft beheld?

      They fall to quarreling, and blame each other for what has happened. Adam first reproaches Eve:

Would thou hadst hearkend to my words, and stayd
With me, as I besought thee, when that strenge.... Desire of wandring this unhappie Morn,
I know not whence possessed thee.

      To which Eve, ‘soon mov’d with touch of blame’, retorts that it

might as ill have happend thou being by, Or to thy self perhaps.
In any case
Was I to have never parted from thy side? As good have grown still a liveless Rib.

      Then With feminine nimbleness she shifts ground for the home-thrust:

Being as I am, why didst not thou the Head
Command me absolutely not to go,
Going into such danger as thou saidst?
Too facile then thou didst not much gainsay,
Nay didst permit, approve, and fair dismiss. (Lines 1155-1159)

To whom then first incest Adam replied:
Is this the Love, is this the recompense
Of mine to thee, ingrateful Eve, exprest
Immutable when thou wert lost, not I......? (Lines 1163-1165)

      Their ‘sweet Converse and Love so dearly join’ has turned to hatred and recrimination.

      Sex becomes guilty now; images suggesting drunkenness and irresponsibility are rife in Mitlon’s account of the first post-lapsarian sexual act, and they awake from the restless sleep that follows with the new knowledge of shame. A new kind of self-consciousness is present, and it destroys all their satisfaction in their mutual relationship. Book IX thus ends in disillusion and bitterness.

University Questions

What is the effect of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? Discuss with illustrations from the text what transformation is wrought in Adam and Eve after the Fall?

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