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  • From Law To Love:Young Adulthood in Milton's Paradise Lost
  • Richard H. Fulmer

"Families have always had problems. Adam and Eve disobeyed the landlord's rules and were evicted from their lovely estate."

—Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick, The Expanded Family Life Cycle

Milton's Paradise Lost (1674) is usually read as a moral tale, with the crisis turning on Adam and Eve's disobedience to God's law. This reading is justified on its own terms, but the poem may also be read as a story of the development of love in a family and the shifting attachments between its characters. When the epic is read solely as a story of disobedience, it is difficult to escape the contradiction between Milton's avowed purpose to "justify the ways of God to men" (I.26) and the impression that his God seems tiresome and his Satan heroic.1 The same contradiction appears in Milton's personal life. He was a devout Christian, but also a proponent of regicide, someone who would never favor in the literal world the hierarchy he imposes on Heaven in his poem. When Paradise Lost is read as a story of development, these contradictions can be understood as the consequences of both Milton's authorial ambivalence and the interpersonal conflicts among his characters as they experience the losses and gains of maturation. What is more, the difference between seeing disobedience as the single decisive event and seeing it as one of several stages in a story of developing relationships mirrors the divergence between an older classical and a more contemporary relational psychoanalysis. [End Page 25]

The prolonged dispute between those readers who have felt that Milton favored God and those who felt he favored Satan has been dubbed "the Milton Controversy" (Fish 1997, x). Among those taking the view that Milton intended the epic as an argument for traditional Christian belief are C. S. Lewis (1942) and Douglas Bush (1949). Those who have seen Paradise Lost as a subversive poem meant to dramatize the complexities of the human condition and showing sympathies at variance with Christian dogma include William Blake (1794) and William Empson (1961). Stanley Fish (1997) tried to resolve the difference between these two groups by arguing that Milton first seduced his readers with Satanically beautiful poetry, then corrected and instructed them with God's morality. He too ends up on the angelic side, but he gets there without brushing off Milton's sympathy for the devil.

Whether the critics are on the angelic side or the demonic, they all agree that Milton makes God appear arbitrary and unsympathetic at times, and Satan more interesting. Of course, Milton must regard God as without internal conflict, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. But by developing him as a character in the story (Empson 1961, 94), he also ascribes to God the qualities of a human parent. Thus, God, even as One, can be divided, ambivalent about his children's maturation and their consequent wish (which is itself ambivalent) to separate from Him. Peter Rudnytsky (1988) characterizes these two points of view as the "theological" and the "narrative," asserting that because Milton wrote from both angles, both are necessary in understanding his work.

In this essay, I shall consider all the beings whom God creates (Christ, angels, Adam and Eve) as part of his extended family system. This premise again raises "theological vs. narrative" concerns. Because he is already present when God "begets" Christ, Satan is seen here as an elder sibling. Theologically, of course, Christ is part of the Trinity and shares God's omnipresence, thereby preceding Satan in existence.

The question of the Trinity, for Milton, leads to a further dimension of complexity. For more than 150 years, Milton's readers considered him to be faithful to Christian orthodoxy in believing Christ to be equal to God as a member of the Trinity (Patrides 1966, 15). Only after the manuscript of Milton's [End Page 26] theological treatise, De doctrina christiana (1643), was found in the first quarter of the nineteenth century did scholars realize that he espoused the heretical idea that Christ was subordinate to God the Father. Milton wrote, for instance, that God...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1085-7931
Print ISSN
0065-860X
Pages
pp. 25-56
Launched on MUSE
2006-04-05
Open Access
No
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