Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Reynolds Price: Eve as 'Hero' of Paradise Lost?

Reynolds Price
Teacher of Milton
(Image from Duke Magazine)

Novelist, poet, and Miltonist Reynolds Price has written a short, personal piece of his experience of teaching Milton at Duke University since 1958, and in the penultimate paragraph, he makes an intriguing suggestion:
A majority of my students today lack certainty about the literal truth of the Genesis story of a fall or the scar of original sin, but I think I convince many of them of the gravity with which Milton advances the old story and his conviction of our ongoing guilt as the children of Adam and Eve. And in recent years, I've found my own answer to the long-unsolved question of the identity of Milton's hero in the poem -- is it Satan (as so many believe), Adam, or the Son of God Himself? Surely, though, we gradually learn that the hero of the poem is Eve, when she concludes that salvation for herself, and the husband whom she has cheated, lies in her falling suppliant and imploring Adam's forgiveness. Milton sees that the human race could literally not have continued without her generous gesture. (Reynolds Price, "Teaching Milton," Duke Magazine, Volume 94, No. 6, November-December 2008)
Perhaps we should take a look at the scene, which follows Milton's depiction of the lowest depths to which Adam and Eve have fallen in their postlapsarian corruption, a state in which they have spent fruitless hours in mutual accusation, neither one self-condemning, in a vain contest that appears to have no end (PL 9.1187-89) . . . but it does have an end, for at their lowest point, where Adam calls Eve a "Serpent" and thrusts her away, Eve acknowledges her own guilt:
Forsake me not thus, Adam, witness Heav'n
What love sincere, and reverence in my heart [ 915 ]
I beare thee, and unweeting have offended,
Unhappilie deceav'd; thy suppliant
I beg, and clasp thy knees; bereave me not,
Whereon I live, thy gentle looks, thy aid,
Thy counsel in this uttermost distress, [ 920 ]
My onely strength and stay: forlorn of thee,
Whither shall I betake me, where subsist?
While yet we live, scarse one short hour perhaps,
Between us two let there be peace, both joyning,
As joyn'd in injuries, one enmitie [ 925 ]
Against a Foe by doom express assign'd us,
That cruel Serpent: On me exercise not
Thy hatred for this miserie befall'n,
On me alreadie lost, mee then thy self
More miserable; both have sin'd, but thou [ 930 ]
Against God onely, I against God and thee,
And to the place of judgment will return,
There with my cries importune Heaven, that all
The sentence from thy head remov'd may light
On me, sole cause to thee of all this woe, [ 935 ]
Mee mee onely just object of his ire.

She ended weeping, and her lowlie plight,
Immovable till peace obtain'd from fault
Acknowledg'd and deplor'd, in Adam wraught
Commiseration; soon his heart relented [ 940 ]
Towards her, his life so late and sole delight,
Now at his feet submissive in distress,
Creature so faire his reconcilement seeking,
His counsel whom she had displeas'd, his aide;
As one disarm'd, his anger all he lost, [ 945 ]
And thus with peaceful words uprais'd her soon. (
PL 10.914-45)

(Thomas H. Luxon, ed.
The Milton Reading Room, March, 2008.)
Of this scene, Price observes, "The scene of Eve's begging and Adam's raising her to upright forgiveness is as moving as any in Shakespeare's tragedies." Perhaps it is, though the degree to which it moves a reader depends on subjective response, but Price's suggestion that Eve is the 'hero' has opened up a way of looking at the poem that I had never before noticed.

Let me briefly explain. By the time that Milton wrote Paradise Lost, he was no longer a Calvinist and is generally considered an Arminian -- the difference being that the former emphasized divine predestination but the latter human choice. Arminius had broken with Calvinism on this issue, and Milton's soteriology generally agrees with that of Arminius.

Yet, there is a subtle difference . . . I think. Arminius believes that God grants to human beings a grace prior to saving grace, and the earlier grace is called "prevenient grace." Without this prevenient grace, human beings would not be capable of seeking forgiveness, for they would be as "totally depraved" as Calvinist anthropology claims. Prevenient grace restores human free will and is -- in Arminian theology -- extended to all humans. Where Milton seems to differ even from Arminius is in the fact that Eve is capable of freely offering herself as the one alone on whom God's condemnation should fall, for her generous act takes place prior to God's gift of prevenient grace, which takes place only subsequent to this (PL 11.1-8).

This implies that even prior to the gift of prevenient grace, Adam and Eve were not "totally depraved" but retained some degree of freedom, perhaps by virtue of having been made in God's image . . . but I am simply speculating on this point.

Perhaps this is worth investigating.

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At 7:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an interesting line, but not a new one. Back in the 1980s, feminist Miltonists, notably Davies, had argued convincingly that Milton's Eve was connected to Neo-Platonism and the female rites of Eleusis, thus making her a "hero"/source of regeneration in Paradise Lost.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I guess that I need to look into that feminist scholarship.

I'd be especially interested in seeing how the argument engages with the debate in Milton studies over Calvinist and Arminian aspects of Paradise Lost.

Jeffery Hodges

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