Temptation of Adam and Eve in Book 9 of Paradise Lost

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      The central subject of Paradise Lost as its title makes clear, is the loss of Eden, or ‘Adam unparadised’. Book IX embodies the crisis of the epic—the Fall of Man because of his “first disobedience”.

      The Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve is a masterly narrative sequence, each incident proceeding naturally from the previous one. The doctrines that govern Milton's telling of the story are implicit throughout but it is the story itself that holds our attention.

The Scene is Set

      After a brief introduction, we turn to Adam and Eve and find them having a sweetly courteous difference of opinion about the propriety of Eve’s gardening alone in another part of Eden that morning for a change.

      When Adam consents to let Eve go, knowing that ‘thy stay, not free, absents thee more, they part reluctantly, and, as Eye slowly slides her hand out of her husband's, Milton uses the richest resources of classical mythology to dwell for the last time on her innocence and beauty.

      Adam charges her again and again to be back by noon, and again and again she promises that she will. But at noon Eve will be standing beneath the forbidden tree, the arguments of the cunning serpent reinforced by her own appetite; and the noontide repast that both she and her husband will eventually eat is the fetal apple. Milton’s lingering on this final moment when prelapsarian man and woman stand hand in hand for the fest time produces its own plangent emotion. We are made to realize fully than Eve, for all her promises, will never return, not this Eve, not the unfallen bride with her innocent display of her naked beauty.

      Before leaving the scene, however, let us read with care the words in which Adam, remembering the lessons of the Angel, returns again to the “faculty psychology”, since this is a passage we should remember when we come to the actual Temptation.

Within himself
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, and Reason He made right,
But bid her well beware, and still erect,
Lest by some fair-appearing good surprised,
She dictate false and misinform the will
To do what God expressly hath forbid. (Lines 348-356)

      Here, in little, is the “psychology” of one part of the Temptation. Eve has become an individual character, capable of acting on her own. This is the Eve who will fall to the wiles of the Serpent—confident, adventurous, argumentative, speculative, a little irked at moments by her inferior position: these are the proclivities Satan will play on so cunningly and surely. Secondly, the train of fatal events has been started without calling in question the innocence of Adam or Eve.

The Return of Satan

      Except for the account of the earlier warfare in Heaven, we have heard nothing of Satan since we saw him “squat like a toad” at Eve’s ear, then springing up to face Gabriel and the other angels. Having learned a lesson about the angelic guards who now surround Eden, he has ventured out only at night. “The space of seven continued nights he rode with darkness” considering closely all the animals, trying to decide which one would suit his purposes, settling finally upon the serpent.

      There is momentary regret for the Heaven he has lost, a faint flickering of the former angelic conscience at the idea of destroying the Paradise on earth. But the “fixed will” and “obdurate Pride” have hardened still more. Wherever Satan is there is Hell:

the more I see
Pleasures about me, so much more I feel
Tonnent within me, as from the hateful siege
Of contraries; all good to me becomes.
Bane, and in Heaven much worse would be my state. (Lines 118-123)

      Through Satan’s lips, Milton utters the theory of tragedy he shared with his classical predecessors and Elizabethan near-contemporaries, the tragic irony of a degeneration such as Satan’s:

O, foul descent; that I who erst contended
With gods to sit the highest, am now constrained
Into a beast, and mixed with bestial slime
This essence to incarnate and imbrute
That to the height of deity aspired:
But what will not ambition and revenge
Descend to? who aspires must down as low
As high he soared. (Lines 163-170)

      Descent from his once grand nature and stature to the baseness he has deliberately chosen is emphasized by the figures of speech in the passage. “Wrapped in mist” he has glided obscure, and pried in bush and brake to find the serpent. As the soliloquy ends, Milton comments:

Like a black mist low-creeping, he held on
His midnight search. (Lines 180-181)

      At last, finding the serpent, “in at his mouth, The Devil entered.”

Satan Finds Eve

      Laying in wait in the form of a serpent, Satan is overjoyed to catch sight of Eve alone. Satan realizes that he has been fortunate to find her without Adam, who would have proved a “foe not in formidable”. He appears before Eve in all the splendor a prelapsarian serpent might have possessed, not prone on the ground, but rising in towering folds; with burnished neck and eyes like carbuncles, “pleasing was his shape and lovely.” Eve, of course, has no reason to fear any of the animals. She is amazed but not frightened to find that this particular animal has the power of speech, but has no reason to doubt his circumstantial account of eating the fruit which conferred on him the power of reason and of speech.

The Temptation of Eve

      Compared to Adam’s, Eve’s Temptation and Fall are so complex that we must watch each step closely.

      The first step in Satan’s temptation of Eve is flattery. He calls her by titles, “Sovereign Mistress”, “Empress of this fair world, resplendent Eve,” a lofty language unfamiliar to her. He assures her that all living things “adore” her celestial beauty, and gaze at her “with ravishment” from afar. Such beauty, he flatters, deserves universal admiration; it should not be wasted, as it is, upon feasts and the one man who alone is privileged to see her. This is the language of ‘courtly love’ Eve, in her careless happiness, is also at her most vulnerable. She has already forgotten her brush with Adam, and forgotten his warning.

      The second step is hypocrisy, a sin over which Milton has passed more than once, a kind of hypocrisy which the innocent Eve, with her limited experience, could not possibly have detected.

      In reply to her questions the Serpent tells how he has attained to both speech and reason by eating of the fruit of a certain tree; and then, resuming his strain of courtly love, he tells her that, after considering all things in Earth and Heaven with ‘capacious mind’, he found nothing so good and fair as she, and was compelled to come and worship her. With pleased feminine dignity, Eve puts aside the adulation, but she is now urged by curiosity to behold the miraculous tree. She asks where the tree grows and ‘Wily Adder’ tells her it is quite nearby.

Lead then, said Eve. (Lines 631)

      Eve is quite willing to allow the serpent to lead her to the tree, the fruit of which has caused such a transformation. When she realizes that it is the forbidden tree, Eve’s first reaction is that of an entirely good and innocent person; it is impossible that she should touch the fruit. This is the moment at which Satan must use his best strategy.

      Now Satan becomes the skilled orator taking advantage of simplicity. Eve is ‘our credulous mother’, and she is fooled by the cunning Serpent.

      Satan’s (or the Serpent’s) final effort is significantly compared by Milton to the speech of ‘some Orator renowned. In Athens or free Rome’. If she had known more Eve would have been more suspicious of this plausible eloquence; but she could not know more without eating of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge; and so the paradox is emphasized. She was taken in by cunning lies, never having met with lies or cunning before.

      Satan’s opening speech is a brilliant feat of sophistry, proceeding from the lie, which Eve has no means of detecting, that he himself has tasted the fruit. His aim is to tempt her with the ambition to improve her lot, as he has improved his, through forbidden knowledge. In order to succeed he must remove her fear of disobeying God’s command; and this entails making her skeptical of the reality of death and evil and, above all, of a supreme and righteous Ruler. His arguments play bewildering in and out of each other.

He starts by assuring her, ‘Ye shall not die’:
look on mec,
Mee who have toucht and tasted, yet both live
And life more perfect have attained...

      Will God be angry at Eve’s doing likewise? Will he not rather praise Eve’s courage in risking death (‘whatever thing Death be’) in order to achieve a higher and happier life by knowledge of good and evil?

Of good, how just? of evil, 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 fear’d then, nor obey’d....
Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe,
Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,
His worshippers; he knows that in the day
Ye eat thereof your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Opened and clear’d, and ye shall be as Gods,
Knowing both Good and Evil as they know. (Lines 698-709)

      Perhaps that is all death means, putting off humanity for divinity. And what are the gods anyway, that man should not become as they? Because they existed before man they pretend to have created man and his world: ‘I question it’, says Satan, ‘for I see this world producing everything of Itself; they nothing.’ The way Satan shifts back and forth between one God and gods, illustrates his technique of confusing the issues.

      Eve knows that it is her duty to follow Reason, but subtly and deftly, step by crafty step, Satan confuses her Reason by apparently irrefutable logic, the fallacies of which she is incapable of detecting. Satan’s technique is very similar to Belias when he suavely reduced Moloch’s proposal to ashes by logical hairsplitting. Eve grows more and more confused as Satan seems to show the logical weaknesses of God’s prohibition, particularly since he does so hypocritically— “With show of zeal and love To man and indignation at his wrong.” A much more acute disputant than Eve might well have been deceived, particularly because the experience of the Serpent seems proof-positive that eating the fruit of the tree was not mortal, but had caused the serpent to rise in the chain of being and become in part man.

      First flattery, then hypocrisy, then confusion of Eve’s Reason by specious though seemingly convincing logic about the nature of man and the nature of God, step by step the temptation mounts. It is possible that Eve might still have withstood had the temptation occurred at any other time of day. As it is,

Meanwhile the hour of noon are on, and waked
An eager appetite, raised by the smell
So savory of that fruit. (Lines 739-741)

      Appetite, it has often been pointed out, only comes in as an incentive after her mind has succumbed; the temptation has been entirely mental. It is nevertheless significant that appetite, sensual desire, should assail her just at this point, when reason has surrendered. Before she plucks the fruit she does indeed pause to reason with herself, but only to justify what she is intent on doing. Her reasoning shows her mind entirely dominated by Satan’s: her arguments merely echo his. Her train of thought leads her on not only to deny God but to accept the Serpent as her benefactor: he, unlike God,

envies not, but brings with joy
The good befall’n him....
She has turned Satanist.
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she picked, she eat.

      Earth trembles in agony and Nature gives sighs of woe at the act. All was lost. The ‘mysterious’ prohibition of eating the fruit, meaning that it is beyond reasonable explanation, is a religious prohibition. This is why Satan cannot understand it and thinks the whole affair ludicrous. The uneaten apple is the pledge and sign of man’s obedience to God, the token that all is His. The command that is transgressed must be an irrational one in order that it may be purely religious. Eve understands this perfectly well. This command is ‘sole Daughter of his voice’:

The rest, we live
Law to our selves, our Reason is our Law. (Lines 653-654)

      All other actions they may weigh and consider, choosing by the light of reason between what is right and wrong. This one act cannot be argued over. There are no reasons for or against eating the fruit, the act is in itself morally neutral. Satan’s skill lies in suggesting to Eve that the matter can be argued over, that there are reasons why she eat which are better than the reasons why she should not.

      The effect of eating the fruit is instantaneous. Even after the Fall Eve remains an attractive figure. But the poet nevertheless has to show how her mind and nature, and her relationship to Adam, have been altered by sin. After paying her devotions to the Tree and mocking at God in a manner Satan has taught her, Adam comes into her thoughts for the first time since she left him: shall she share her good fortune with him or ‘keep the odds of knowledge in my power’ But what if ‘God have seen and Death ensue?’ Then Eve shall be no more. Her fear is—

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’, says Eve that without him she could not live. ‘So dear I Love him’ is genuine; and we must remember that her love not only brings about Adam’s fall but in the end brings about their reconciliation to each other and to God. Nevertheless, all her thoughts at the moment are self-regarding; it is what she will gain or lose that occupies her. This selfishness in love is a direct and unavoidable effect of the situation created by her fall; her love can now act in only one of two ways, by giving up Adam or by betraying him. Adam will be faced with a similar dilemma. The human situation has been corrupted: that is the fact to remember as we come to Adam’s ordeal.

The Fall of Adam

      Eve falls through credulity; Adam falls because he does not realize that the duty of an unfallen man who wants to help a fallen beloved is not to share her sin, and so render them both helpless, but to intercede for her while he is yet sinless, 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 913-16; 955-59)

      Adam is not deceived, though he finds sophisticated arguments, once his mind is made up, to suggest that the offence is less grave or that punishment may not follow. He knows that the act is sin. He eats because he cannot bear to be parted from Eve. ‘The Bond of Nature’ draws him.

      Milton thus places in stark opposition the Bond of Nature and the claim of God. Accepting, and expecting us to accept, that obedience to God is an absolute, Milton, in consonance with his whole treatment of his subject, makes Adam fall away from his Creator, the highest human good, and spurn the Giver for the most precious of all his temporal gifts.

      His decision taken, Adam recovers from the stupor of shock and can think again:

Bold deed thou hast presum’d adventrous Eve, And peril great provok’t,
But past who can recall, or don undoe? Not God omnipotent, nor Fate,

      This is the cold truth, but he tries to reassure Eve and himself by arguing away the consequences of her deed. Perhaps she will not die; perhaps her offense was not so heinous since the fruit had already been profaned by the Serpent; in Case the Serpent has not died but attained to higher life, and so perhaps may they.

Nor can I think that God, Creator wise,
Though threatening, will in earnest so destroy
Us his prime Creatures........
Triumph and say; Fickle their State whom God
Most favours, who can please him long? (Lines 937-949)

      These desperate reasonings show where Adam’s resolve has placed him, for they are the same that Satan had used to tempt Eve, and he ends on a note of Satanic mockery of God. He is, however, far from convinced by this attempt to talk himself out of the situation: he is ‘not deceive’d’. This is apparent from his abruptly dismissing all such speculations as irrelevant to his purpose, which is that he will not allow Eve to face the consequences alone. So when,

She gave him of that fair enticing Fruit
With liberal hand: he scrupl’d not to eat
Against his better knowledge, not deceiv’d,
But fondly overcome with Female charm.

      ‘Female charm’ is the seemingly preternatural, the irresistible power Eve exercises over him; and as he had told Raphael, this is a matter not only of her physical attractions but of all she means to him as the companion of his life—all that is expressed again in those two passages of passionate refusal to desert her. From the humanistic standpoint this may be ‘love as human beings know it at its best’; but it is not for Milton the kind of love that leads up to heavenly love. Adam prefers his love of Eve to love of God, and the immediate consequence is the corruption of the love he prizes so highly. As he eats the fruit he, like Eve before him, is all sensual appetite, and the immediate sequel is lust.

The Implications of the Fall

      After the Fall there is no wooing and, of course, no prayer. Adam instead ‘forbore not glance or toy of amorous intent’, and Eve’s eye ‘darted contagious Fire’;

Her hand he seis’d, and to a shadie band,
Thick overhead with verdant roof imbowr’d
He led her nothing loath.

      Before the Fall it is the pleasure of touch that Milton insists on. After the Fall it is the roving lascivious eye, the nobler intellectual sense of sight, that reigns and incites to lust. The enjoyment of touch and taste and smell, the purely sensuous senses, is the mark of Paradise and the state of innocence. The effect of eating the fruit constitutes spiritual as distinct from bodily death. This death consists, as Milton himself explains elsewhere 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, sin is its own punishment, and produces, in its natural consequences, the death of the spiritual life; and more especially gross and habitual sin.

University Questions

“Satan seduces Eve, and Eve seduces Adam”. Discuss.
Or
Write a critical appreciation of the temptation of Adam and Eve as depicted in Book IX of Paradise Lost.
Or
What are the various devices used by Satan to tempt Eve?
Or
Book IX of Paradise Lost is mainly concerned with the Fall of Man and Nature—a tragedy that has been dramatically depicted by Milton. Discuss.

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