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Paradise in Early Modern Literature

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Published: 27th May 2021 in Literature

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Paradise in Early Modern Literature

2. ‘She so prevails, that her blind Lord at last,                                                                                                     A  morsel of the sharp-sweet fruit doth taste.’

(Sylvester’s translation of Du Bartas)

Write an essay which establishes a detailed contrast between what is in your view a generally condemnatory and exonerative account of Eve.

Adaptation and expansion of the story of man’s creation and fall in Genesis has provided a difference of interpretation in Eve’s motivation in the original sin. This essay will establish the contrast between John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as an exonerative account of Eve and John Sylvester’s translation of Du Bartas’ ‘His Divine Weekes and Workes’  as a condemnation of Eve.

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A generally condemnatory account of Eve can be found in Du Bartas’ hexameral literature ‘His Divine Weekes and Workes’. Du Bartas condemns Eve in her ignorant role in both her own and Adam’s fall through the comparison of the Fall as being comparative to that of falling off a mountain. Describing Eve as ‘Our Mother’ cleverly plays on the universal interpretation of a maternal figure as someone who is protective and careful. The ironic utilisation of ‘Our Mother, falling’ highlights the carelessness of her actions and the overwhelming sense of responsibility for the Fall of humankind. The choice of language in this line is significant as Du Bartas is careful to provide causality of Adam’s fall to Eve as she ‘hales her Spouse anon’. Use of the word ‘hale’ is illustrative of Du Bartas’ sense of Eve’s dragging of Adam down to her position in loss of grace, avoiding the possibility of compounding Adam to responsibility of the Fall through his eating of the forbidden fruit. The description of Eve as ‘cunningly’, aligns her intentions with the serpent as Du Bartas suggests a selfish motivation behind her actions to associate Adam with her transgression. Eve’s described qualities of her ‘witty speech’ and ‘pretty countenances’ highlights the inevitability of Adam’s fall as he is subverted to the dangerousness of her female provocation. Depicting Eve in this way emphasises the transgression of the dangerous woman and the tragic implication of her temptation – a gynomorphic interpretation of the serpent. Detailing Eve’s prevalence over ‘her blind Lord at last’ implies her winning of an unspoken competition between Adam and Eve for control; Du Bartas suggests that ‘at last’ Eve has been able to gain some sense of twisted power over Adam through her manipulation. Placing Adam in a position of both dominance and submission, the description of him as ‘her blind Lord’ provides him hierarchal status but physical vulnerability. The suggestion of this description gives Adam a position of systematic power but removes him of complete autonomy through his vulnerability to Eve’s femininity. Attempting to provide Adam with a sustained level of control over Eve, Du Bartas describes him as only tasting a ‘morsel’ of the forbidden fruit that Eve has tempted him with. The condemnation of Eve is clear through the depiction of her as being responsible for Adam tasting the fruit as even though his role compounds the Fall of man it is as a result of Eve’s actions. [1]

Despite being double the length of ‘Paradise Lost’ Du Bartas spends a minimal amount of time on Eve’s motivations or thought process in her temptation of the forbidden fruit. The lack of focus on prelapsarian Eve in comparison to the dedication given to Adam in prelapsarian Eden  illustrates his absence of desire to justify or understand her actions. An attempt to justify Eve’s actions would be to provide a sense of exoneration which he takes importance in not affirming. Du Bartas’ illustration of Eve’s engagement with the serpent suggests complacency towards God through her questioning of Him and His motives. Du Bartas’ own beliefs of the irresponsibility of questioning God illustrates his condemnation of Eve as her pondering as to why ‘alas! I wote not why’ they are forbidden from eating the fruit highlights her complacency to God. To question God is to challenge God. Appearing to ridicule Eve through her ability to believe that she could ‘even equal Gods to him’. The belief that she could be of equal status to God is emphasised through ‘not fear the threat of an uncertain God-head’ which results in her being tempted by the serpent to eat the fruit; Eve’s fall is a result of her seeing herself as God’s equal. The anti-feminist discourse of the text is highlighted in the depiction of ‘Eve’s frail breast’ allowing her to be easily manipulated by the serpent through her lack of masculine strength. The suggestion of feminine frailty emphasises her passive role as well as her vulnerable and naive nature. This is furthered by the temperamentality of Eve’s disposition as ‘she would, she would not; glad, sad; comes and goes’ suggests the indecisiveness of her desires and lack of strong will. Du Bartas emphasises the fact that Eve is ruled by a battle of ‘Passions’ which sees her succumb to her carnal desires of the forbidden fruit. Re-affirming his condemnation of Eve, Du Bartas illustrates to the reader that the Fall was a result of falling to temptation of desires instead of staying obedient to God.

Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ offers a generally exonerative account of Eve’s actions in Eden. Ensuring to illustrate Eve’s lack of motivation in tempting Adam to eat the fruit offers a more sympathetic outlook in comparison to Du Bartas’ suggestion of greed fuelled manipulation. Described as not eating ‘against his better knowledge, not deceived, But fondly overcome with female charm’ Adam is depicted as being vulnerable only to the devotion of his wife. Greenblatt suggests in ‘Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve’ that Adam was ‘not deceived by the serpent or by his wife but “he was deceived as to the judgement which would be passed on his apology”. Presumably, he did not predict the death sentence for what he thought was a venial sin’. This argument of Adam’s interpretation of sin exonerates Eve of her actions as it affirms the lack of motivated manipulation of her husband[2]. Milton affirms Eve’s lack of manipulation and illustrates her desire to share with her husband rather than an attempt to undermine his devotion to God[3]. Both are depicted as being passive and victim to their innate sensibilities; neither Adam nor Eve can be held solely accountable for the Fall. The moment that determines the inevitability of the Fall can be assigned to the separation scene when ‘soft she withdrew’ from Adam. The mythological references of Eve’s ‘Goddess-like deport’ removes her into pagan sin. Eve’s physical separation from Adam represents her metaphorical deviation from God and religion – inevitable that she should succumb to the temptation of Satan. Foreshadowing the duality of Eve’s prelapsarian and postlapsarian disposition is the reference to her as both goddess Pales, which affirms her pastoral innocence, and allusion to goddess Venus, which represents her pagan carnality. The significance of Milton’s reference to these mythological gods is to symbolise Adam’s elevation of Eve to the position of goddess. Milton aims to illustrate to the reader the creation of Eve as a False God in Adam’s eyes and the irresponsibility of his enthralled worship of her. Milton’s exoneration of Eve can be illustrated through his suggestion that Adam is ‘for God only, she for God in him’ as Eve defies only Adam in eating the forbidden fruit whereas, Adam directly defies God; Adam compounds Eve’s crime through his actions.

Moving away from Du Bartas’ suggestion of motivated greed, Milton depicts Eve as seeing in the fruit a ‘cure’ for the want of knowledge and a desire for understanding. The desire for knowledge is something that God ought not to deny man which provides a level of exoneration for Eve as her actions are a result of her innate curiosity given to her by God. In contrast to Du Bartas’ condemning depiction of Eve as attempting to elevate herself to a position above Adam or equal to God, Milton suggests her desire for an egalitarian relationship. Dependent on whether postlapsarian Eve can be trusted in her speech that her actions were to ‘render me more equal, and perhaps, a thing not undesirable’ she can be believed that she was less impelled by the satanic idea of becoming a God figure than that of equalling herself to Adam. Justification can be provided to this interpretation of Eve’s actions through Milton’s use of foreshadowing when Eve’s understanding of their ‘sex not equal seemed’ is illustrated by her pleading of Adam to not have his ‘judgement’ altered by Archangel Raphael. Deborah A. Interdonato notes that ‘in the prelapsarian Eden, Adam and Eve assume the traditional postlapsarian gender roles of superiority and inferiority, respectively’. Milton’s depiction of Eve’s desires to remove herself from these constraints of not being a truly equal partner to Adam provides an exoneration as they are not unfounded.

Milton provides a generally exonerative account of Eve in ‘Paradise Lost’ considering the fixed points of interpretation that he was unavoidably compelled to work with. Unable to deviate too far away from what was considered to be factual history that is dictated in the story of Genesis and the re-interpretation in the New Testament[4]. Milton provides an exoneration of Eve through his depiction of her lack of cunning motivation as described by Du Bartas.

Bibliography

  1. John Milton, ‘Paradise Lost’, London (2000).
  2. Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, John Sylvester translation, ‘His Divine Weekes and Workes’
  3. Deborah A. Interdonato, ‘Render Me More Equal: Gender Inequality and the Fall in "Paradise Lost"’, Vol. 29, No.4 (1995), pp. 95-106.
  4. Arnold Williams, ‘The Common Expositor: An Account of the Commentaries on Genesis’, 1948.
  5.   Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, 2017.
  6.   David Williams, Milton’s Leveller God, 2017.
  7.   Anne Ferry, ‘Milton’s Creation of Eve: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900’ Vol. 28, No. 1, (1988), pp. 113-132.

Word Count: 1,552


[1] Arnold Williams, ‘The Common Expositor: An Account of the Commentaries on Genesis’, 1948.

[2] Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, 2017.

[3] David Williams, Milton’s Leveller God, 2017.

[4] Anne Ferry, ‘Milton’s Creation of Eve: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900’ Vol. 28, No. 1, The English Renaissance (1988), pp. 113-132.

 

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