John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a peculiar blend of religious fantasy and Christian mythology. In it, the classic Sunday school tale of the temptation of Adam and Eve is fleshed out, and Milton makes an attempt to “justify the ways of God to men” (1.26) through the actions of biblical characters, which he personifies with his own dialogue and motivations. Adam in particular is a character that is tied to the sin of all mankind. What we are to take from the fall of Adam is that none of the evil that exists in the world is of God, but rather an offshoot of the single temptation by Satan of Eve. In understanding the actions of Adam, one can see the root of sin for all mankind, and also justification for the punishment that God administers to all men after the fall.
After God discovers that his proudest creations have eaten from the tree of life, he decrees to Eve: “Thy sorrow will I greatly multiply/ By thy conception; children thou shalt bring/In sorrow forth” (10.193-5) as well as “to thy husband’s will/ Thine shall submit, he over thee shall rule” (10.195-6). He then says to Adam: “Cursed is the ground for thy sake… thou shalt eat th’ herb of the field,/ In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (10.201-5). To both of them, he pronounces his final judgment: “For dust thou art, and shalt to dust return” (10.208). The direction of these punishments to one or the other is purposeful, as Danielson points out, because there is not one fall of man, but rather two; Eve’s fall and Adam’s fall (148). ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ directly translate to ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ so the implications of the punishments that befall Adam and Eve and the responsibility for earning those punishments are clear; that Eve (women) are responsible for certain actions and thus receive certain punishments, and Adam (men) are responsible for other actions and thus receive different punishments.
The first of God’s punishments is also the easiest to explain. Adam and Eve can no longer reside in the Garden of Eden, because it is a place of perfection, a beautiful place, as stated in the bible, with “all kinds of trees… that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Gen. 2.9). Because the pair have sinned and are no longer perfect, they no longer may exist in a perfect place, so God casts them out to the imperfect world beyond, where they shall befall the rest of their sorrows. Their perfection tainted, they also gain the shackles of mortality – Adam’s statement that the two are “not capable of death or pain” (9.283) is no longer true.
The rest of the punishments can be directly related to the actions of Adam. Firstly, when Adam knowingly partakes of the fruit of the tree of knowledge after learning that Eve does so, he takes responsibility away from Eve and onto himself. Grace states that this paints Adam as something of a romantic hero, shouldering his love’s burden of sin and very possible death (75). This could be one possible reason for God’s punishment of making wives submissive to their husbands; God seeing that Adam is not willing to let Eve suffer alone, thus making him and all husbands after him the more dominant of the two. Grace also points out further evidence to support this claim, making it clear that when Eve suggests that she and Adam split up to finish the work faster, she exposes herself to danger (74). Although he allows Eve to go off on her own, Adam has misgivings, expressing that “other doubt possesses me, lest harm/ Befall thee severed from me” (9.251-2), for he knows the enemy that they were warned about is still looming. God may have looked upon this and imparted the punishment of male dominance onto humankind as a defensive measure, so that husbands and wives don’t split up and expose one another to danger, but rather work as a team with one subordinate to another.
Another of God’s punishments is that husbands, in return for their dominance, must take responsibility for the feeding of their family and toil in the fields to grow food from the ground. This may be one of the more ironic of God’s judgments – if Eve cannot choose the right food, then Adam will just have all of the responsibility of providing food for her. It is interesting that both in Milton’s work and the bible it is said that only Eve suffers under domination from her husband, when it is clear that Adam suffers also as the more dominant of the two, tasked with working to provide for them both. The element of protection is also implied; as Adam says himself, before the banishment from the garden: “The wife, where danger or dishonor lurks,/ Safest and seemliest by her husband stays,/ Who guards her, or with her the worst endures” (9.267-9).
It is seemingly an incongruity to note that Adam and Eve share all of the punishments that God gives to them but one: painful childbirth. Eve alone carries the actual pain, but it is important to note that she would not be punished in this way if Adam had refused the fruit that she gave to him. Adam took the apple from the tree of knowledge so he wouldn’t have to live without Eve, saying to his wife, “if death/ Consort with thee, death is to me as life” (9.953-4). Ironically, however, Adam only created the possibility of Eve dying in childbirth – making childbirth even more painful to Adam if Eve expired during labor. They share the burden of painful childbirth, though in different ways. The pain of childbirth is a requirement of being mortal – now that they lust after one another, the only thing that stops them from overpopulating the earth with their offspring is the pain and difficulty resulting from their union.
God’s punishments are justified in that they all are given with the good of mankind in mind – so that husbands and wives can keep one another safe, so that food is provided for the family, and so that the earth will not be flooded with more humans that it can naturally handle. Though Eve is the first to commit the sin and fall from grace, the actions that Adam takes are ultimately responsible for the way God gives out his punishment. Thus, Milton uses Adam in Paradise Lost to effectively justify God’s actions to the people of the earth.
Danielson, Dennis. The Cambridge Companion to Milton. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Grace, William J. Ideas in Milton. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The Norton Anthology: English Literature. Ed. Abrams et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000. 1817-2044.