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  • Domestic Adam
  • Elisabeth Liebert

In the bitter aftermath of the Fall, accused by her husband of indulging an inexplicable wanderlust that precipitated their mutual misery, Eve attempts to defend herself by blaming him. The Fall, she suggests, resulted from her husband's lapse in domestic responsibility, from his permissive weakness. As her head and knowing her nature, he should have forbidden her "absolutely" to leave his side.1 Eve's accusation is significantly unsupported by other textual voices within the epic: rather than criticizing Adam, the narrator, so quick to trace discrepancies between Satan's rhetoric and inward truth, instead confirms Adam's "care / And matrimonial love" (9.318-19), while in book 10 the Son condemns Adam's choice to sin with Eve but not his earlier decision to allow her to work alone. Even Eve implicitly retracts her charge when, repentant, she promises Adam "I never from thy side henceforth [will] stray, / Where'er our day's work lies" (11.176-77). Invoking her freedom to choose a place beside her husband, Eve's words invest her former as well as her future actions with the weight of individual responsibility.

In his 1712 series of essays on Paradise Lost, Addison had no trouble recognizing the essential innocence of the debate in book 9, claiming, "It proceeds from a difference of judgment, not [End Page 41] of passion, and is managed with reason, not with heat. It is such a dispute as we may suppose might have happened in Paradise, had man continued happy and innocent."2 Modern readers, however, have often been less charitable, especially to Adam. While scholars such as Diane McColley have sensitively reappraised Eve's role in Eden, supporting her decision to work alone, Adam's behavior at this crucial juncture has been the target of frequent criticism.3 His failure absolutely to command his wife's obedience and his apparently unmotivated capitulation in the face of her persistence have been seen as the results of "his passion for Eve"4 or his "narcissistic dependency,"5 foreshadowing the fatal uxoriousness that would, short hours later, determine his fall. Having argued against the wisdom of separating, having urged the delight and edification he enjoys in his wife's company, Adam commits a "fatal blunder."6 Instead of "demand[ing] that Eve's love produce her obedience," in a sudden about-face he not only gives his permission but "virtually challenges her to leave," effectively "abrogat[ing] his husbandly authority by refusing to act as Eve's 'Guide and Head.'"7 While most readers who find fault with Adam side with Eve, a few condemn him for the opposite fault, suggesting that his attitude toward her reasonable suggestion that they work alone is cavalier. Thus, addressing her near the end of their discussion as "O woman," he "assumes the authoritative tone of superior, condescending patriarchy, exhorting Eve to obedience with a principle of wifely conduct of conspicuously unidentified authority."8

Is Adam too firm and fixed in his dissent, or is he not firm and fixed enough? And why, where Addison found only innocence, are modern readers inclined to apportion blame? Had Milton produced a series of treatises on marriage rather than on divorce in the early 1640s, the answers to such questions might be straightforward. Nevertheless, textual clues within the epic and their striking congruency with an ideal of marital behavior promoted in contemporary treatises direct the reader to a context that sheds light on Adam's behavior. I suggest that Milton's initial description of Adam and Eve in book 4 engages a paradox that troubled many seventeenth century discussions of marriage and establishes [End Page 42] a relational paradigm that succinctly recapitulates the ideal toward which readers of such discussions were urged to aspire. Despite the wide divergence of modern responses to the first couple's first debate, a reappraisal of Adam's behavior in this context absolves him of the charges of both weakness and patriarchal bluster, representing the titles he fashions for his wife and the advice he gives her as consonant with an ideal of rational, humane governance.

The paradox that Paradise Lost explores is the infinitesimal degree of hierarchical difference...


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