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

alan horn alanshorn at gmail.com
Thu Sep 3 16:38:11 EDT 2009

I appreciate the contributions of Louis Schwartz and David Ainsworth
to this thread. I'm sorry that my own earlier remarks have been
understood as denying the points they make so well.

Nor did I entirely disagree with Beth Bradburn's original post. I only
wanted to question the implication that Milton's emphasis on the
gentleness of Adam's exercise of authority over Eve was some kind of
(anachronistic) proto-feminist gesture. In fact, the effect of this
idealized portrayal of patriarchal relations is not to qualify the
poem's defense of them, but to reinforce it. The most common way to
defend an oppressive institution is to depict it as harmonious and
humane, at least in theory or in the mythical past.

Schwartz and Ainsworth go some distance toward showing the subtlety
and depth with which Milton accomplishes this, as well as the many
ways this effort not incidentally intersects the poem's larger
political and religious concerns. As Ainsworth writes:

"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."

I take "their" in "their fallen states," I hope correctly, to refer to
the wives as well as the husbands. It is the fallen nature of humanity
as a whole, not merely of the tyrants personally, that makes the rule
of the latter necessary ("though to the tyrant thereby no excuse").
Likewise, presumably, postlapsarian women deserve their not-so-gentle
subjection. And so, as I wrote earlier in this thread, "if women's
oppression as actually practiced seems less humane than the mythical
ideal [Milton] depicts, the institution itself is not to blame."

In a couple of asides above I noted that the reality of the
patriarchal family is not as nice as the poem's ideal portrayal of it.
Jeffery Hodges and Louis Schwartz seem to think I was referring to the
latter and adduce evidence from the poem to refute my point. I hope
I've been able to clear up this confusion.

"Paradise Lost" is obviously a great deal more than an apology for
patriarchy, but that is a part of what it is, and what it is in
addition to that does not make it any less of one. In pointing that
out, I was not, as several people have thought, "leveling charges"
against the poem or passing "moral judgments" on it. I would consider
it absurd and ahistorical to do so.

Alan Horn

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