Plan & Theme of Paradise Lost

Also Read

      When Dr. Johnson remarked, “We read Paradise Lost as a task—nobody ever wished it longer,” Lamb sneered, “Nor the moon rounder! Why, it is the perfectness and completeness of it which makes us imagine that a line could not be added to it, or diminished from it. Would we have a cubit added to the stature of Medicean Venus? Do we wish her taller?”

      Lamb admired the perfect plan of Paradise Lost. Raleigh asserts that the theme of Paradise Lost is grander than any handled by Milton’s predecessors. “It concerns itself with the fortunes, not of a city or an empire, but of the whole human race, and with that particular event in the history of the race, which has molded all its destinies. Around this event, the plucking of an apple, is ranged, according to the rules of the ancient epic, the histories of Heaven and Earth and Hell. The scene of action is universal space. The time represented is Eternity. The characters are God and His creatures. All these are exhibited in the clearest and most inevitable relation with the main event, so that there is not an incident, hardly a line of the poem, but leads backward or forwards to those central lines in the Ninth Book:

So saying her rash hand in evil hour
Fourth-reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat,
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost.


      The opening lines of Paradise Lost outline the scope of the poet’s plan. Man’s disobedience is the main theme, and the immediate result of his disobedience is the loss of Paradise. Satan is mentioned as the instrument of Man’s fall, and therefore Satan is described first.

First Movement

      Satan is in Hell, and so Hell and its inhabitants form the First Movement of the poem. In the first movement, we are shown Hell, its terrors and its hopelessness. The worst terror is inaction, and it is futile to fight against God. Satan is the dominant figure in Hell. He thinks of Man. Man and his habitation supply the hope and motive of the inhabitants of Hell. But Man is distant, dim and uncertain. The fallen angels shrink from the terrors of a journey through Chaos to the first glimmerings of heavenly light that penetrate Chaos. At this point ends the Second Book, and the first movement closes.

Second Movement

      The Second Movement begins with the invocation to light in Book III:

Hill holy light, offspring of Heaven first-born

      The description of Heaven and its inhabitants is the theme of the second movement. The picture of Heaven corresponds to that of Hell, and gains greatly in beauty by contrast. The poet describes divine glory, but more briefly than Hell’s misery. Far below on the Earth, Adam and Eve, dwelling in blissful ignorance, are the unconscious cause of debate and deliberation in Heaven, as they had been in Hell. In Hell, the subject of deliberation was Man’s fall, in Heaven, his redemption after fall. As in the Council of Hell, Satan alone accepts the perilous journey through Chaos, so in the Council of Fleaven, the Son (the Messiah) dares to sacrifice himself for the sake of Man’s redemption. Thus, Man is always the theme of activity both in Heaven and in Hell.

Third Movement

      The second movement closes in the Third Book, and we are taken back to Satan, who traverses the universe, deceives Uriel, and reaches the Earth. The fourth Book introduces the Third Movement—that of Paradise and its inhabitants; and it gains in importance as Hell and Heaven begin to fight over them. The battle begins when Satan in the form of a toad inspires Eve with an evil dream, and the Angels repel the Fiend’s first attack. Eve, when first tempted by Satan, is saved by heavenly help. Then there is the Episode of Raphael’s visit to Adam, in which Raphael describes the history of the revolt of the Angels and their fall. This description is necessary to explain the central theme of the epic—viz. the Fall of Man (which is brought about by the defeated Archangel.) Raphael’s description occupies four books of Paradise Lost. With Raphael’s departure, Heaven’s vigilance is withdrawn, and Man is left to his own resources. The stage is empty for three chief actors—Adam, Eve and Satan.


      The prologue to the Ninth Book is the finest of all prologues. It suggests the gathering of dark clouds, and takes the action from the Garden of Eden into its final scene the Mind of Man. It marks the entrance of the dramatic element, and of human passions into the poem. The conversations between Adam and Eve, and between Eve and the Serpent (Satan) are more dramatic than anything in the poem. In the Ninth Book, the climax is reached: Eve plucks and eats the fruit; Earth feels the wound and Nature sighs that all is lost.

Effects of the Fall

      There is something more to be done by the poet; he has to outline the scheme of the world to the end of time. He has to describe the effects of the fall of Hell, Heaven, Earth, and on the mind of Man. In the Tenth book are described the effects of the Fall. Hell is let loose and apparently triumphs. The triumph of Hell is more than counter-balanced by Grace in Heaven, and this divine Grace makes the destiny of Man better than in his days of ignorance. Thus the Fall has led to greater good than evil. The Earth is made subject to death, and Adam and Eve, to all the ills of humanity. But by the end of Book X, their hearts are filled with repentance. In book XI, God accepts their prayer, and we are assured that the world is not doomed to immediate destruction. And now Milton inserts the Second Episode: Michael’s narration of the history of mankind from Cain and Abel to the end of time. Thus, history is recorded to the end of time in relation to the Fall.

      Thus, we have the whole design of the poem. The action that started in Hell, shifts to Heaven, narrows to the Garden of Eden and its tenants, and again broaden to Earth; and then it comes to a close, showing us two minute human creatures, erring and uncertain, passing out of Paradise, and now all the world is before them:

They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.

Previous Post Next Post