Eve is the primary representation of femininity in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. There are other feminine characters, such as Sin, as well as concepts or objects given feminine characterization, such as light and the earth. Given the Biblical account of creation and Milton’s historical and cultural context, there is little reason, literary or otherwise, for Paradise Lost to be written as a feminist text. However, feminist theorists such as Elspeth Graham still interpret Milton’s work through the lens of gender inequity, even going so far as to call him the “first masculinist.” On the other hand, Mary Nyquist makes the case for him as a “proto-feminist.” Whether the epic can be categorized as a “feminist” text or not, it is impossible to deny the significance of gender in the poem. Milton both recognizes and honors the feminine, whether Eve’s or otherwise.
Eve is not the only representation of the feminine in Paradise Lost. Notably, Wisdom “thy sister” (VII.9) and Reason, “For what obeys / Reason, is free, and reason he made right, / But bid her well beware and still erect” (IX.351-3) are characterized as female. Sin is introduced as female in Book II and alluded to in Book VII when Raphael says to Adam: “And govern well thy appetite lest Sin / Surprise thee and her black attendant Death” (VII.546-7). Even Eden itself is referred to using female pronouns: “Of Eden, where delicious Paradise, / Now nearer, Crowns with her enclosure green” (IV.132-3). Raphael notes another feminine entity in his account of creation to Adam and Eve: “The Earth was formed but in the womb as yet / Of waters…. Main ocean flowed not idle but with warm / Prolific humor, soft’ning all her globe, / Fermented the Great Mother to conceive” (VII.276-77,79-81). The Earth is personified as a human infant being formed in the waters of the womb, then becoming the Great Mother to nature. Eve, the first woman God created, becomes the Great Mother to all humanity: “Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 3.20 King James Version). In the Genesis account, Eve is not called by her name until after the fall, signifying that although she loses paradise, she is partially restored by her newfound identity as mother. Although Milton names Eve before the fall, her “seed” becomes important after the Fall, especially when Raphael describes the fate of Cain and Abel, and the rest of humanity. Through Eve’s punishment of labor, she is given the greatest gift: that, through her seed, the Son of God would take on human flesh and restore creation to its Creator. Although Eve (the female) fell, it is her ability to give birth (the act of creation given to the female by the original Creator) that restores humanity.
Eve, the feminine counterpart of mankind, fell first; she and Adam are expelled to the east, the origin of the feminine. Light is characterized as female, as well as eastern. “‘Let there be light’ said God, and forthwith light / Ethereal, first of things, quintessence pure, / Sprung from the deep and from her native east” (VII.242-45). The fact that light traces its origins from the east is proven significant when God commands Michael to dispossess Adam and Eve and inform Adam of mankind’s fate. God says to Michael:
To Adam what shall come in future days
As I shall thee enlighten. Intermix
My covenant in the woman’s seed renewed.
So send them forth—though sorrowing, yet in peace—
And on the east side of the garden place
Where entrance up from Eden easiest climbs,
Cherubic watch and a sword of flame. (emphasis added, XI.113-18)
The Bible does not specify the origins of light other than that God spoke it into existence in Genesis 1.3. Milton’s claim that light comes from the east refers to the sun, “great palace now of light” (VII.363), which rises in the east. The Bible does affirm that Adam and Eve were banished to the east of the garden. God “placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword” (Gen. 3.24). Though a small detail, the direction of paradise recurs after Eve’s son, Cain, kills his brother Abel. “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden” (Gen. 4:16). Milton made the genius decision to connect the dots: light, which, according to Milton, is feminine, comes from the east, and Adam and Eve are expelled to the east of Eden. God’s first creation (light) is feminine; upon defiling paradise, the whole of creation became unholy. Adam and Eve are sent forth in sorrow at the defiling of a creation that is, to an extent, feminine, and expelled in the direction of the feminine. However, they now have “a paradise within thee, happier far” (XII.587). Despite the sorrow of the “world destroyed” (XII.3), they go forth in peace due to the “world restored” (XII.3).
Although Paradise Lost is laden with femininity, whether the feminine is portrayed as light or Sin, the trait of the female is nevertheless subordinated. Adam, despite his love for Eve, relates to Raphael:
For well I understand in the prime end
Of nature her th’inferior, in the mind
And inward faculties, which most excel,
In outward also her resembling less
His image who made both, and less expressing
The character of that dominion giv’n. (VIII.540–545)
Not only does Adam view Eve as subordinate to himself, but created as less in the image of God. Adam is made in the image of God, and Eve in the image of Adam. She too resembles her Creator, but less so than His original creation of man. There is a certain level of difficulty in interpreting Adam’s theology; the reader must determine if he/she believes Adam is speaking for himself about his wife, or if he is a mouthpiece for Milton’s own theology of gender. Regardless of Milton’s personal theology, the subordination of the feminine, specifically by Adam, speaks loudly in Paradise Lost.
Given both the emphasis and subordination of femininity, Milton’s narrative of gender is somewhat ambiguous, leaving much of the conversation open to interpretation through the lens of critical and feminist theory. According to feminist theorist Elspeth Graham
The movement between straight masculine poise and the disrupting or creative incorporation of the wild, transgressive, identity-dissolving fluidity of unbounded states in Paradise Lost may have something useful to say to us about possibilities of new formations of gendered and sexual identities and relationships. Perhaps Milton, after all, might help those of us interested in the politics of the intimate to think about love’s different hues.
Graham pays homage to Milton’s ambiguity of gender in Eden, pointing out the fluidity and unbounded state of the feminine. Although following the Biblical narrative of creation relatively closely, Milton does take creative liberty with the portrayal of the feminine. For example, Nyquist points out “Milton is said to go way to offset the superiority associated with Adam in his naming of the animals by inventing an equivalent task for Eve: her naming the flowers.” Both Milton and Adam recognize a variety of differences between Adam and Eve, even to the point of seeing her as a lesser being, but still honor her contributions to paradise.
Although some positive aspects of femininity depicted in Eden are lost, some aspect of femininity is gained from the fall. Eve becomes the Great Mother, and her offspring will exist due to the fall. Mary (referred to in Book IV as a second Eve) and the Son incarnate will be born because Eve first gave birth. Whether or not this restoration was worth the fall is open to interpretation; St. Augustine would proclaim Felix Culpa, happy fault, whereas Milton might argue that to not eat the fruit was the better use of free will. Childbirth can be interpreted as a gift or a curse. For Sin, fertility is a curse: “Embraces forcible and foul / Engend’ring with me of that rape begot / These yelling monsters” (II.792-5). For Eve, fertility offers hope that “By me the promised Seed shall all restore” (XII.623). Although Eve is ultimately restored by her identity as mother of all living, and humanity was restored to the Father through the Son, it can be said with some level of certainty that an integral aspect of paradise, and by extension femininity, was lost in mankind’s (and womankind’s) loss of paradise.