Frailty, thy name is … Eve? A passage in search of a discussion for Year 13.

It seems a little unfair to equate Eve with Gertrude who is so strongly told off and used as a synecdoche for the entire female gender by Hamlet in the quotation bastardised above, yet I want to explore the presentation of Eve in the first 400 or so lines of Paradise Lost IX, a passage in which Milton is foreshadowing the fall, and more importantly, beginning to implicate Eve as the begetter of all that follows. To a heavily misogynistic readership and in a firmly patriarchal society such as his, it is convenient to place the blame for the Fall onto woman in general. We need to see whether Milton leaves open room for doubt in his telling of the story.

LL: 205 – 250:
After the calm glories of dawn, and still with the memory of Satan travelling to Earth and hiding himself in the snake fresh in our minds, Milton allows the couple to emerge onto the “stage” of his writing and begin their dialogue. (In an exam which requires comparison with drama, I find it useful to consider sections of PL as a drama – dialogue and often narratorial comment which tae the place of stage directions.). Eve speaks first with little fuss: “ Adam, well may we labour…”. At this stage there is no great exordium to introduce the argument in debate, but rather a plain request to share out labour. Furthermore, the rationale seems quite worthy: “…which intermits/ Our day’s work brought to little, though begun / Early…”. Eve seems to be suggesting a simple solution to a problem – that of the work not being completed and even seems to suggest that “supper comes unearned”, thus equating the right to relax with the achievement of hard work.
It is interesting though to look at the language which she uses in this speech. The garden is described as becoming “luxurious”, “wanton” or “wild”. IN short, her choice of lexis is suggestive of a sensuous or libidinous world. That this language is natural to her his further suggested by the flower imagery used: although Adam will engage with manly ideas such as providing strength and security in his work with the woodbine and the ivy, Eve will work in a “spring of roses intermixed, with myrtle”. Although Myrtle was generally considered to represent fidelity, roses are of a different plane, suggesting not only beauty of softness, but one which is shortlived and inclined to the decadent.

Adam treats Eve well in his response – his exordium suggesting a willingness to debate the point, though possibly also a sense that as the male, he does not expect to lose the debate. His hyperbolic opening: “Sole Eve, associate sole, to me beyond / Compare…” with its homophonic punning and deliberate playing on Eve’s willingness to be flattered seems rather extreme after the plainness of Eve’s opening. Adam moves into his argument only after a rather chauvinistic comment about how a woman should behave: “nothing lovelier can be found / In woman, than to study household good, / And good works in her husband to promote”. In short: thanks, but no thanks. He further suggests that since mankind has reason, and the ability to feel emotions comes from this source, then God intends them to be more than a mere working pair ( “not ot irksome toil…”) but a pair to share love. Before he moves to his second argument, however, he seems to backtrack on himself. Here it is Adam who seems ot be falling over himself not to seem too didactic or patriarchal. Suggesting possibly that he is aware that Eve does not share his attention span for conversation of this type, he offers the possibility of a “short absence” and is able to see the potential benefit of short separation on the relationship.

It is from here that he picks up his argument which foreshadows the rest of the book. Satan is near and will try to tempt them. He is clear that i) Satan wishes to come upon them individually and ii) Satan is jealous of their relationship and will seek to split them up and tempt them. He concludes by repeating the idea that it is safer and “seemliest” for a wife to remain beside her protector.

LL 270 – 290: Milton’s stage directions are clear: Eve, in her “virgin majesty” is offended by Adam’s heavy handed attempt to control the situation. Milton suggests that she replies with “austere composure”. I like this. She knows what she is doing here, and austerity does not immediately suggest someone relying on their femininity to win a point. Eve is intelligent and perfectly able to mix it in debate with Adam. In a short speech she responds first in a voice of injured pride – “I expected not to hear” – that Adam is not telling her anything she has not heard before and she goes on to point out that she and Adam need not fear any physical attack (being immortal) and so it is only Satan’s “fraud” which Adam is fearing. She is insulted, I think, that Adam clearly believes that her “firm faith and love / Can by his fraud be shaken or seduced”. Once again, Milton’s choice of language is powerful – alliterative fs abound, but Eve once again suggests a sensual weakness by her choice of the verb “seduced” which allows the physical sexuality of the moment to be recognized.

LL291 -342: In this sequence, Adam’s comparative weakness is clear. Whether he is weak in the face of Eve’s beauty or her intellect is open to discussion. There is an absence of overtly flirty or flattering speech from Eve, and she seems to take some control of the scene for this point. Adam, in “healing words” (again the stage direction points the reader towards a clear understanding of the characters) offers more argument, though the material is weak: first he suggests that he is worried that Eve will be discredited by the attempt alone, and then that Satan is wish to attack him, being the stronger, since greater kudos will come to Satan as a result. He does suggest, however, that he gain strength from Eve’s presence and that he shall be driven to his “utmost vigour” by “you looking on”. He goes on to suggest that his vigour will help typo unite them.

In this passage, Adam is described both as “domestic” and as possessing “matrimonial love”. Eve is not impressed and Milton seems to be pushing us to see her as the home breaker here. She is offended still by the suggestion that she might be seduced and replies in accents “sweet” – presumably an ironic comment due to an enforced politeness. Certainly her response is swift in its attack on Adam’s ideas – she is in control of this debate and raises the essential question: “How are we happy, still in fear of harm?”. This, together with “What is faith, love, virtue unassayed / Alone, without exterior help sustained?” show a clear train of thought or reason here – there is no real life for the pair if they are in constant fear. There is also a hint at the pride to come in her idea that he and she will gain “double honour” by overcoming Satan. She sees no stigma from his attack and is focused solely on the glory of overcoming him. She challenges Adam to rethink his ideas concerning God’s gift of Eden – “frail is our happiness” she cries and forces Adam to respond “fervently”. It is as though he finally realizes that he will not win this argument based on logic and has to engage with his emotional response to God.

LL343 – 400: It is hard to see “Oh Woman” as anything other than a put-down. Certainly it is neither hyperbolic in grandeur nor expressive of love. It suggests that it is time for the Man to educate the Woman about God and his ways. Adam tries to explain Free Will and Reason, suggesting that God wants mankind to use reason but also to “beware…lest by some fair appearing Good surprised / she dictate false…” He offers a crumb of comfort by suggesting that he is not mistrusting her, but engaging in the sort of mutual support that will allow them to use Reason, yet not be deceived. His speech becomes rich with imperatives and he seems to be moving into the ascendancy until in Line 370 he offers another sharp contradiction: “Go, for the stay, not free, absents thee more”. It is hard to work out what Adam is doing here. The two obvious possibilities are i) that he is allowing Eve to use her Reason and will not seek to impose his will upon her, or that ii) he is actively pushing her away. I see no reason for ii. The effect tof the passage is that the decision to leave and therefore the beginning of the sequence leading to the fall either has to be seen as Eve’s choice following the options, or as Adam’s failure in that he pushes Eve away.

The next lines show Eve leaving. She is clear that she has heeded Adam’s most recent warning and clearly understands the risks, even though she does not believe that Satan will attack her. Here she seems to be offering Adam a sop. She has bested him in debate, but has no wish to seem overproud as she leaves. And she is the instigator of the farewell – “from her husband’s hand her hand / Soft she withdrew” and it is she who breaks the clear symbol of marital unity before leaving Adam he “pursued” her with “ardent eye”. She seems to be much the more reasoned of the two. Even at this stage Adam seems to be emotionally affected in a way we do not see in Eve. Far from being weak and driven by emotion, the Woman here is in full control of herself. Milton undercuts this by his choice of Simile and Classical allusion. Each of the nymphs mentioned will end up being seduced. We can understand that despite her victory in the debate, she will not return for “noontide repast, or afternoon’s repose”.

Her midmorning snack will put an end to this calm repose forever.