Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sandra M. Gilbert on Satan and the Serpentine Eve

Poet and Scholar

I'm still looking into ways in which John Milton depicts the fallen Eve as 'serpentine' in Paradise Lost. I'm not the only one who's ever thought about this, as yesterday's blog entry demonstrated. Today, I want to excerpt a passage by the feminist scholar Sandra M. Gilbert, from her article of 1978, "Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey," in which she argues that Milton assimilates Eve to Satan:
[E]ven the briefest reflection on Paradise Lost should remind us that, despite Eve's apparent passivity and domesticity, Milton himself seems deliberately to have sketched so many parallels between her and Satan that it is hard at times for the unwary reader to distinguish the sinfulness of one from that of the other. As Stanley Fish has pointed out, for instance, Eve's temptation speech to Adam in Book IX is "a tissue of Satanic echoes," with its central argument, "Look on me. / Do not believe," an exact duplicate of the antireligious empiricism embedded in Satan's earlier temptation speech to her. Moreover, where Adam falls out of uxorious "fondness," out of a self-sacrificing love for Eve, which, at least to the modern reader, seems quite noble, Milton's Eve falls for exactly the same reason that Satan does: because she wants to be "as Gods" and because, like him, she is secretly dissatisfied with her place, secretly preoccupied with questions of "equality." After his fall, Satan makes a pseudo-libertarian speech to his fellow angels in which he asks, "Who can in reason then or right assume / Monarchy over such as live by right / His equals, if in power and splendor less, / In freedom equal?" (V.794-97). After her fall, Eve considers the possibility of keeping the fruit to herself "so to add what wants / In Female Sex, the more to draw [Adam's] Love, / And render me more equal" (IX.821-23).

Again, just as Milton's Satan -- despite his pretensions to equality with the divine -- dwindles from an angel into a dreadful (though subtle) serpent, so Eve is gradually reduced from an angelic being to a monstrous and serpentine creature, listening sadly as Adam thunders, "Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name best/ Befits thee with him leagu'd, thyself as false / And hateful; nothing wants, but that thy shape, / Like his, and colour Serpentine may show / Thy inward fraud" (X.867-71). (Sandra M. Gilbert, "Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey," Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 93, No. 3 (May, 1978), page 372B)
I excerpted this passage from Gilbert's article after skimming the entire text, but I don't have time to deal with it fully this morning, and I'd first like to read the entire article carefully before commenting -- other than to observe that this looks interesting. Gilbert has noted various parallels in Paradise Lost between the falling and fallen Eve and the falling and fallen Satan, particularly in their reason for rebellion and their manner of tempting others.

More tomorrow, perhaps, but don't forget meantime that Adam is also partly assimilated to the serpentine Satan, as we have already seen in the fact that both are depicted as eating their fill.

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At 4:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


To each his own, but to respond to the equivocations of these middlebrows is boring; moreover, it lends credence to the absurd notion that "their ideas are important."

Ha, ha, ha.

Instead, why not instruct us on Milton's sense of humor, his anthropological insights, or the evolution of his political philosophy?

Really, everyone knows Eve is a hero, and moreover God is pulling everybody's strings anyway. And then there is the nature of the poem itself and the appropriate response to that poem. Milton is chiefly seeking to entertain highbrows of good taste, rather than provide middlebrow bureaucrats with an "obscure" text that somehow requires their ridiculous explanations.

In the end the answer is going to be, "Gilbert is as wrong as wearing Welly boots to the Glyndebourne." But go on if you must. I am listening....

At 5:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, this is how I do my research, so I need to look at scholarship on the issue of a 'Satanic' Eve.

My blog posts of this sort are how I work through my own ideas and prepare my articles.

You'll probably have to endure this for a while . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Granted, and point taken.

And I am listening. I'll endeavor to address the fine points of your dialectical concerns, and if at the end it turns up that in this activity we are shown to be as absurd as devils gathering on burning hilltops to discuss philosophy, as described in Book II, then so much the better. Mortals acting like devils in these matters gives Grace much to work upon, so sin boldly.

At 8:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Precisely as Luther might have said . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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