Satan: Character in Paradise Lost Book 9

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      According to a critic, “Milton throws himself personally into the struggle against Satan, and from the reading of Paradise Lost one derives two inevitable impressions: the greatness of Satan and the greatness of Milton. Hence the lyricism which occasionally explodes through the stiff conventionalism of the epic. Milton brings his own self into the poem just as he did into the pamphlets: in both cases he is one of the duellists; he has a personal share in the fighting. He it is, and not God or the son, that overcomes Satan. He follows him in all his enterprises, stigmatizes them with one adjective, one line. He exposes Satan so passionately that he forgets Satan’s national enemies; he takes their place before the Enemy. What need has Milton of a hero in his poem? He is his own hero.”

      Satan is a fallen Archangel who retains his grandeur and magnificence, his greatness and dignity, his intellectual vigor and emotional intensity even in his fall. Even his adversaries admire him because his fall and depravity are of such an exalted order. He is so great and magnificent and evil that far from hating him we marvel at him. Even in his fall, he is great, strong in his weakness, honorable in his dishonor, bold and indomitable in his misadventure, and anguished but refusing to admit his defeat.

      Some readers, especially of Book I and II are tempted to regard Satan as the hero of the poem because of his dynamic energy and colorful splendor. Milton presents the character of Satan in a partly dramatic form with the help of his various soliloquies and places Satan in a situation which invites introspective self-examination. His introspection are marked with a tinge of unhealthiness because they reveal Satan’s concern with things only in relation to himself Thus, he may be said to have a multifarious personality. He is an epic hero, stage villain, trickster, classical orator, tempter, accuser, devil and angel all rolled into one.

His Soliloquy

      Satan’s soliloquy reveals his envy, his hatred and his burning passion for revenge. He is jealous that Man created from base earth, has been exalted to the status of angels and has been blessed with the delights which were till then the special privilege of angels. He is unable to enjoy the beauties of Paradise because of the opposition between the pleasures outside him and the pain within. Since it is impossible for him to take his revenge upon God directly, he decides to avenge him by hurting his favorite creature, Man. One tends to admire Satan’s courage, intelligence and determination, but all these powers are applied for a cause that is not only unworthy but hateful. Satan is much aware of this as he himself says:

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,
Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my good;

Heroic Qualities

      The most important of Satan’s qualities are strength and courage which cannot be suppressed even by the Almighty himself. He reveals the strongest will to resist or to endure though he is the greatest power that has been overthrown. Satan, no doubt is the ‘central figure’ and thus can certainly lay a claim to being the hero of book. Thus, while reading through the subsequent books of Paradise lost it is difficult to push Satan’s heroic qualities to the extreme back of our mind and only consider his degenerated character.

His Gradual Deterioration

      In spite of the grandeur and majesty in his character. Satan is not truly the hero of the epic. In spite of all his power and unyielding defiance to God, he is intellectually condemned by Milton, and in the end he himself realizes his impotence and inner helplessness. In fact, Satan himself is conscious of his decline and depravity:

Abashed the Devil stood,
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Virtue in her shape how lovely - saw, and pined
His loss: but chiefly to find here observed
His lustre visibly impaired.

      Our admiration of Satan of earlier books loses its intensity by Book IX where he ultimately enters the body of the serpent, ‘subtlest beast of all the field’ to carry out his successful temptation of Eve. God punishes him for this evil deed by making him a serpent for ever. Thus, in the end, he is not only defeated but disgraced and damned.

As a Trickster

      Satan is lucky in finding Eve alone for it would have been much more difficult to seduce her, if Adam was there to protect her. Now Satan changes from a great war-leader to a successful, smooth tongued politician. Having revived his fierce hatred, Satan, in the guise of a serpent, boldly moved towards Eve. He advances false and perverted arguments to overcome Eve’s scruples and confuse her. He totally bewilders her with his cunning, guileful logic.

Ye shall not die
How shall you? By the fruit? It gives you life,
To know. By the threatener? Look on me,
Me who have touched and tasted, yet both love
And life more perfect have attained than fate
Meant me, by venturing higher than my lot.

      By such false logic freely interspersed with blatant flattery Satan tempts and seduces Eve who in turn Seduces Adam. His cunningness has been described thus:

...Now more bold
The tempter, but with show of zeal and love
To man, and indignation at his wrong,
New part puts on, and as to passion moved,
Fluctuates disturbed, yet comely and intact
Raised, as of some great matter to begin

      Thus, Satan’s character is marked with fierce but defeated pride, jealousy and hatred, and a mad desire for revenge which he is eager to execute through deception and fraud even though the immediate object of it i.e. Eve arouses both his pity and admiration.


      Satan is one of the most tragic figures, and with all one of the most sublime figures in world literature. His ‘Glorious Enterprize’ began ‘In dubious Battle on the Plains of Heav’n’. It begins with an assault on ‘The Tyranny of Heav’n and degenerates into a meaningless attack on two innocent and harmless victims, though it is neither to bring him any profit nor to alleviate his own sufferings. In the words of Lesslie Abercrombie: “It is surely the simple fact that Paradise Lost exists only for one figure, that is Satan, just as the Iliad exists for Achilles, and the Odyssey for Odysseus. It is in the figure of Satan that the imperishable significance of Paradise Lost is centered, his vast unyielding agony symbolizes the profound antimony of modem consciousness.”

University Questions

How does Book IX depict the deterioration in Satan’s character in Paradise Lost?
In Book I, Satan is a creature of dynamic energy and colourful glory and splendor. How is his gradual degeneration brought about? Write with special reference to Book IX of Paradise Lost.
“The most exalted and most depraved being”-Addison. How far is this statement true with regard to the character of Satan in Paradise Lost?

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