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Miltonic Marriage and the Challenge to History in Paradise Lost
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Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46.1 (2004) 20-48

In book 5 of Paradise Lost, Milton's Eve is visited in sleep by "one shaped and winged like one of those from heaven" (5.55): Satan. She is brought before the forbidden tree, its fruit waved in her face. Reporting her dream to Adam after she awakes, she says "The pleasant savoury smell / So quickened appetite, that I, methought, / Could not but taste" (5.84-86). (The actual event of tasting is elided, replaced by a thought.) At the conclusion of her dream, Eve takes flight with Satan:

  Forthwith up to the clouds
With him I flew, and underneath beheld
The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide
And various: wondering at my flight and change
To this high exaltation (5.86-90)

Eve seems both thrilled and horrified by her aerial ride. Her main feeling, though, is relief. "Suddenly," she says,

My guide was gone, and I, methought, sunk down,
And fell asleep; but O how glad I waked
To find this but a dream! (5.90-93)

During their morning-after conversation about this dream, Eve gains an interpretive guide: Adam. He first dismisses the dream as "wild work," a mere mismatching of shapes produced by fancy, and then decides that the dream means that Eve will avoid the disobedience they have been warned about. He says hopefully, and mistakenly, "What in sleep thou didst abhor to dream, / Waking thou never wilt consent to do" (5.120-21).

Eve in her dream feels trouble; Adam explains it (and tries to explain it away). "Abhor," his word for her reaction to the dream-flight, does not capture the depth and strangeness of her feeling. She sees a "prospect wide / and various," at once exhilarating and frightening. Adam, submitting her confused apprehension to theory, informs her about, first, the way dreams are constructed, and then what this dream might signify.

In the episode of Eve's dream, Paradise Lost seems to be suggesting that the difference between this husband and this wife is, at least in part, the gap between Eve's vulnerable, troubled enjoyment and Adam's effort to make sense of this enjoyment by warding off its immediacy, by giving a theory of it that reduces its bewildering impact. This moment in book 5 suggests that Adam and Eve might stand for two ways in which we read Paradise Lost. On the one hand, we follow Eve in her bold susceptibility to experience. On the other, we ally ourselves to Adam's wariness about experience, and his guarded loyalty to God's commands. (In book 9 Eve will, disastrously, out-argue Adam, as she makes the case for the goodness of experiential trial.) Taking a close look at the distinction between Eve and Adam will enable us to understand Miltonic marriage as it has not been understood before. In Paradise Lost married union is based on a crucial impossibility, the permanent difference between our first parents that makes up their bond.

The image of Edenic marriage in Milton—more specifically, the way that this marriage depends on the elusive character of Eve—is a way of resisting history. New historicists characteristically want to see poetic meaning as a response to historical circumstances, so that the union of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost becomes, in their hands, a statement about the development of bourgeois marriage. This essay tries to open a path beyond the historicist imprisoning of Milton's work. I argue that the creative impulse in Milton embodies en avant an argument against the critical tradition that constrains, and sometimes distorts, a character like Eve by reducing her to historical significance. I begin with some discussion of recent Milton criticism as it bears on my theme. I will then return to Milton's text and consider a series of episodes in Paradise Lost, beginning with the conversation between Adam and the angel Raphael in book 8, and ending with the separation scene in book 9.

My aim is to formulate a challenge to historicist readings, in the interest of being true to Milton. I see Milton's project as antihistorical: as one that gives us, in...

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