[Milton-L] Eve's curls (reply to William Moeck)

David Ainsworth dainsworth at bama.ua.edu
Thu Sep 3 11:24:02 EDT 2009

I thought Louis' lengthy and thoughtful post deserved a response, even 
though what I have to offer borders on the obvious.  And I'll not 
volunteer which side of the border...

I think the poem partly reflects tensions preexisting in the Genesis 
story, as well as its Christian interpretation.  The Genesis account 
could arguably be said to endorse a patriarchal structure more 
resoundingly than the entirety of the New Testament, though at the same 
time sections of the New Testament generate a more comprehensive 
patriarchy than God's judgment on Eve offers.  What interests me, 
though, is how Milton then leverages existing scriptural tensions to 
generate his own reading--a reading both drawn from scripture and yet, 
inevitably, representing a reworking of it.

I think Louis' suggestion about how Eve might legitimately resist Adam's 
authority in Book IX, had he chosen to exert it, can be fully supported 
by the text.  Lines 376-7:  "So spake the patriarch of mankind, but 
Eve/Persisted, yet submiss, though last, replied:"

The context:  Adam has just delivered a convincing argument that he 
wants Eve to stay with him out of love, not doubt, and that she would do 
best to obey as proof of her constancy, but then concluded that she had 
better leave than stay, "not free."  Calling him "patriarch of mankind" 
here would seem to endorse his position (and the patriarchy), but what's 
being endorsed is Adam's refusal to compel Eve--even to order her, 
really--to remain with him against her will, which would seem to be an 
uncommon version of patriarchal authority.  What's more, the text 
stresses Eve's submission even though she's acting against Adam's advice 
to her.   She submits to his direction, which is a conditional order to 
go if she believes that the better course.

To unpack:  Adam believes that Eve would do better to stay UNLESS Eve 
believes she would do better to go, in which case her staying in 
accordance with his order but against her will would be WORSE than if 
she simply left.

All of which is my clumsy way of substantiating what Louis suggests. 
The patriarchy on display here is of a rare sort, as is the submission 
Eve offers.  Then again, Milton's God wants Adam to argue for a fit 
companion in Book VIII and praises him for his judgment as well as 
"expressing well the spirit within [him] free" (440).  Eve's display of 
her own free spirit looks parallel to me to Adam's earlier display; the 
freedom Adam grants her demonstrates the justice of his authority, 
exercised in the image of God the Father.  Later human tyrants depart 
from this model; if husbands rule wives tyrannically, it is in 
consequence of their fallen states, not of the prelapsarian patriarchy.

A further interesting complication to the situation generally and Louis' 
reading, specifically:  Louis floats the idea that Eve might be 
justified in resisting with lethal force if Adam were to so abandon his 
own nature as to compel her by force to obey him.  In effect, Satan 
argues the same principle later in the book when he suggests that the 
threat of death proves God a tyrant, not God, and thus not justly 
followed.  (That God is therefore justly resisted follows from Satan's 
reasoning.)  Should we take Satan's argument seriously?  Is it simply 
his false premise (that the statement, "if you eat of the tree, you will 
die" equates to a tyrannical threat of force) that invalidates his 
argument, leaving the rest sustained in both places?  Do we instead grow 
uneasy about the prospect of Eve's resistance to authority in both 
places as a result of the parallel?  Do we experience both responses 
together in some measure?


Schwartz, Louis wrote:
> The following was posted by Alan Horn in response to Beth Bradburn:
> /"M. is not approving automatic 'subjection,' but 'subjection' earned — 
> earned by being 'required WITH GENTLE SWAY.'"/
> / /
> */In the passage in question, Eve's subordination is justified by her 
> natural inferiority ("not equal, as their sex not equal seemed"),which 
> is backed up by reference to divine purpose (God made her for Adam). It 
> is not freely given and Adam does not have to win it by being a good 
> master. He is a good master, but that's not the grounds for his authority./*
> / /
> /"If gentleness fails, the kind of subjection M. endorses is out of the 
> question. M. does not give Adam carte blanche to fall back on ungentle 
> 'sway'"/
> / /
> Where does it say any of this in the passage? Where is the "appropriate 
> background evidence" to suggest that Milton or any writer of his period 
> thought that men had no right to enforce the obedience of their female 
> dependents "if gentleness failed"?
> / /
> /"'subjection' and tyranny are two quite different things."/
> / /
> */That's right. Tyranny is illegitimate rule over another. For Milton 
> patriarchy was natural and divinely ordered. Women's liberation was not 
> on the agenda for seventeenth-century bourgeois revolutionaries like him./*
> I think that perhaps the strong feelings behind Allen’s remarks have 
> made him, in the above, inattentive to some important details and 
> nuances.  1) Beth Bradburn did not say that Adam, according to the poem 
> “had no right to enforce” Eve’s obedience, only that he did not have 
> “carte blanche” to do so.  In other words, he cannot, according to the 
> poem, exercise /arbitrary/ authority.  2) Alan’s comment also fails to 
> note that the passage itself, in some of the lines he himself refers to, 
> provides at least some of the “background evidence” he asks for.  It 
> does so, for example (according to Campbell, in the essay I mentioned in 
> an earlier post), a few lines earlier in the description of “filial 
> freedom” and “true authority.” Campbell also suggests that the 
> separation scene and the scene of Adam’s fall offer together a pretty 
> full gloss on what limits Adam’s exercise of whatever authority he 
> derives from the shape of his forehead and etc. (and this insight is 
> supported by Jeffery Hodges’ suggestion about the importance of Adam’s 
> more self-justifying rehearsal of what happened on the morning of the 
> fall at 9.1171-4).  According to Campbell’s argument, “true authority” 
>  is expressed in the image of God that appears in both genders and in 
> the filial freedom that all human individuals have been granted by that 
> God.  This image expresses both freedom and an obligation, and it’s one 
> that cannot be defaced legitimately by any human command.  In fact, it 
> works to delegitimize any human command that contradicts the higher 
> dictates of the freedom it expresses.  
> This may not be enough to clear the poem entirely of the charge Alan has 
> leveled at it (and of course he’s not alone in doing that).  The passage 
> does, after all, go on to note inequalities (or perhaps it would be more 
> exact to say that it notes characteristics or differences that it claims 
> are or seem to be marks of inequality).  And it also bases its sense of 
> a hierarchy on its reading of those differences.  But it also clearly 
> roots Adam’s “true authority” over Eve in his obligations to God, not in 
> what makes him either different from Eve or seemingly superior to her 
> when it comes to commanding.  And this suggests, importantly, that some 
> of these obligations will require him to defer not only to God, but to 
> her as well.  The key, for Campbell, is that Eve’s argument on the 
> morning of the fall itself constitutes or articulates a command, that 
> this command is based on an authority higher than Adam’s manly whatever, 
> and that Adam himself must obey it.  All of this suggests, in turn, that 
> as far as the poem is concerned there are legitimate and illegitimate 
> forms of authority (that would be the poem’s way of distinguishing 
> between what it calls “subjection,” on the one hand, and “tyranny” –or 
> what we would call oppression—on the other).  It also suggests that 
> masculinity is not an absolute guarantor of legitimate authority.
> A poem that tells its story this way may not necessarily be a tract in 
> favor of the liberation of women from patriarchy, but it is certainly 
> one that has got something at little more complicated to say about 
> gender hierarchy than simply that men have a natural “right to enforce 
> the obedience of their female dependents.”
> In other words, Paradise Lost does fail to prosecute a full-blown 
> critique, but it’s also important that it’s not a text that represents 
> an Adam who had the right to coerce Eve in order to make her stay on the 
> morning of the fall.  It is entirely possible that in some other 
> instance Adam would have been justified (in the poem’s terms) in 
> coercing Eve to follow his commands.  It’s hard to say because the poem 
> never depicts such a situation, even as a matter of future speculation, 
> but that doesn’t mean it somehow disallows it as a possibility.  On the 
> other hand—and this may seem strange and a little unsettling to say—the 
> poem does offer, in the separation scene and in its various passages 
> about political tyranny, some very strong indications that Eve would 
> have had the right to resist Adam by force if he had tried to make her 
> stay by force on the day of the fall against her will.  If his coercions 
> got bad enough, she might have even had the right to kill him, although 
> it’s hard to imagine Adam behaving that tyrannically before the fall.  
> That’s at least a reading I’d like to float out there to see how it 
> might fly.
> I’m aware that this kind of reading is complicated, in turn, by things 
> like the bald reinforcement of patriarchy that comes with the sentence 
> the Son pronounces on Eve in Book 10.  I suppose that the last part of 
> any argument about these issues has to consider the status and the 
> meaning of the Edenic state in the structure of the poem.  If we’re 
> meant to emulate and restore it, one sense of the poem’s purpose 
> follows.  If we are to see that state as irretrievably lost and replaced 
> by a new regimen appropriate to the fallen state, then I suppose it’s 
> possible to argue that the curse places women under “absolute rule” and 
> suggests that this is exactly how they should stay.   Hard to see how 
> that would line up with the political arguments about liberty on offer 
> in the poem and elsewhere in Milton’s work, but in the end it seems to 
> me that the arguments these works offer on the issue of gender hierarchy 
> are simply incomplete, and their conclusions are perhaps for that reason 
> ambiguous. 
> In any case, I don’t think that a text that saw patriarchy as 
> unproblematically rooted in “natural” or “created” differences— as well 
> as some fixed divine purpose—would have bothered to complicate Adam’s 
> authority in the ways that I think the passages in Books 4 and 9 do 
> complicate it.  And I agree with those who see the portrayal of gender 
> hierarchy as to some extent fluid and unstable precisely because of what 
> the poem presents as a more fundamental sameness in Adam and Eve:  the 
> filial freedom that they share and that is expressed in the image that 
> shines in “their looks divine.”  I think it’s also reasonable to say 
> that this sameness is, for the poem, expressive of a higher divine 
> purpose than the one expressed in the gender differences themselves 
> (although they have their complicated purposes, too—and not all of those 
> have to do with hierarchy).
> Even if the portrayal fails to fully criticize and reject what it ought 
> to see as oppressive, I don’t think it simply offers, even in this 
> incomplete and ambiguous form, an apology that seeks to make a bad thing 
> look good.  It does articulate important limitations by complicating any 
> easy connection between physical differences, fixed hierarchies, and 
> divine purposes, and it may even have, at least, some revolutionary 
> implications.  A fuller critique was clearly possible, and some were 
> mounted in the period.  It makes sense to compare the poem to those 
> other texts, and it’s reasonable to find it wanting.  But I don’t see 
> what’s gained by reducing what it does argue to apologetics.
> Louis

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