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

Carol Barton cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Mon Sep 7 11:49:02 EDT 2009

So Jim--if I'm dieting, and eat the chocolate cake, I've given into 
temptation, and therefore "sinned"?

I think if you re-read the same lines with a somewhat ironic tone--the 
way someone who has discovered a major flaw in his opponent's argument 
in an important debate might respond--you'll see where the notion that 
Eve is bent on proving herself worthy comes from.

She wants to go off into the garden and work alone.

Adam doesn't want her to--and as John Leonard has pointed out, has 
insulted her sense of self-worth in his expression of disapproval.

In my reading her tone says, "Oh, so you think I can't handle it, huh? 
Well, I have news for you, buddy--I'm just as capable of withstanding 
the Adversary as you are!"

And what is Faith, Love, Vertue unassaid [9:335 ]
Alone, without exterior help sustaind?
Let us not then suspect our happie State
Left so imperfet by the Maker wise,
As not secure to single or combin'd.
Fraile is our happiness, if this be so, [ 340 ]
And Eden were no Eden thus expos'd.

This is also Milton's "answer" to Empson (and all of his predecessors) 
who, as Milton points out in _Areopagitica_ and CD, seek to blame God 
for Man's fall--and in principle, at least, Eve is right. She has the 
same right reason that Adam does, and like him, is armed with the same 
knowledge that Jesus will be in the desert: God said no. She 
demonstrates that a dozen or so times in Book IX when she says 
"Serpent, we might have spared our coming hither,
Fruitless to me, though fruit be here to excess . . ." and variations 
thereof (God said no). She also--tantalizingly--displays the 
intellectual capacity to resist, but not the fortitude to follow 
through, in a succession of bad judgments that earn her the epithet 
"our credulous Mother." The asterisks are mine, for emphasis:

So glozed the Tempter, and his proem tuned:
***Into the heart of Eve his words made way,***   [She accepts his 
flattery, rather than rejecting it as Jesus rejects the "old man's"]
Though at the voice much marvelling; at length,   [She knows there is 
something odd about this beast being able to speak--and flatter]
Not unamazed, she thus in answer spake.
What may this mean? language of man pronounced
By tongue of brute, and human sense expressed?
The first, at least, of these I thought denied
To beasts; whom God, on their creation-day,
Created mute to all articulate sound:                     [Her reason 
tells her that this shouldn't be possible--she's aware that the 
Adversary lurks--but she doesn't put this 2+2 together]

She even recognizes that "he doth protest too much":

So talked the spirited sly Snake; and Eve,
Yet more amazed, unwary thus replied.
Serpent, thy overpraising leaves in doubt
The virtue of that fruit, in thee first proved

And she knows that, no matter how "wondrous" the effect of the fruit, 

The credit of whose virtue rest with thee;
Wonderous indeed, if cause of such effects.
But of this tree we may not taste nor touch;
God so commanded, and left that command
Sole daughter of his voice; the rest, we live
Law to ourselves; our reason is our law.

God has not said any of the other creatures will die if they eat of 
the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge: only Adam and Eve--and he has said 
that "in the day ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die"--not at the 
precise second at which you swallow it, like someone served an arsenic 
cocktail in a horror movie. But "credulous," Eve lets her hunger for 
respect overcome her ability to think this through--and the Devil 
delivers the first of two fatal blows:

Queen of this universe! do not believe
Those rigid threats of death: ye shall not die:
How should you? by the fruit? it gives you life
To knowledge; by the threatener? look on me,
Me, who have touched and tasted; yet both live,
And life more perfect have attained than Fate
Meant me, by venturing higher than my lot.
Shall that be shut to Man, which to the Beast
Is open? or will God incense his ire
For such a petty trespass? and not praise
Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain
Of death denounced, whatever thing death be,
Deterred not from achieving what might lead
To happier life, knowledge of good and evil;
Of good, how just? of evil, if what is evil
Be real, why not known, since easier shunned.

Ah, fair lady, indeed: "And what is Faith, Love, Vertue unassaid / 
Alone, without exterior help sustaind?" And look--here's a way to 
ensure that your "dauntless virtue" needs no exterior help! Not only 
that, but

God therefore cannot hurt ye, and be just;
Not just, not God; not feared then, nor obeyed:
Your fear itself of death removes the fear.
Why then was this forbid? Why, but to awe;
Why, but to keep ye low and ignorant,
His worshippers? He knows that in the day
Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Opened and cleared, and ye shall be as Gods,
Knowing both good and evil, as they know.

This is where all the bells and whistles and sirens should go off--but 
at this point (I think, anyway), Eve is too absorbed in the idea of a 
"secret weapon" that will help prove her victorious in the forthcoming 
trial (think the Gawain and the magic kirtle) to pay conscious 
attention to the Serpent's blasphemy.

That ye shall be as Gods, since I as Man,
Internal Man, is but proportion meet;
I, of brute, human; ye, of human, Gods.
So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off
Human, to put on Gods; death to be wished,
Though threatened, which no worse than this can bring.

He has planted the seeds, but it is Eve herself who MISUSES her right 
reason to carry the argument to its logical (but blasphemous) 

Great are thy virtues, doubtless, best of fruits,
Though kept from man, and worthy to be admired;
Whose taste, too long forborn, at first assay
Gave elocution to the mute, and taught
The tongue not made for speech to speak thy praise:
Thy praise he also, who forbids thy use,
Conceals not from us, naming thee the tree
Of knowledge, knowledge both of good and evil;
Forbids us then to taste! ****but his forbidding
Commends thee more, while it infers the good
By thee communicated, and our want:**** [a startling perversion of 
"God said no"]
For good unknown sure is not had; or, had
And yet unknown, is as not had at all.  [Just as all of the arguments 
in this passage are perversions of "And what is Faith, Love, Vertue 
unassaid/ Alone, without exterior help sustaind?" because she reasons 
on the same model, but from false premises with faultier conclusions]

In plain then, what forbids he but to know,
Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise?
Such prohibitions bind not. But, if death
Bind us with after-bands, what profits then
Our inward freedom? In the day we eat
Of this fair fruit, our doom is, we shall die!
How dies the Serpent? he hath eaten and lives,
And knows, and speaks, and reasons, and discerns,
Irrational till then. For us alone
Was death invented? or to us denied
This intellectual food, for beasts reserved?
For beasts it seems: yet that one beast which first
Hath tasted envies not, but brings with joy
The good befallen him, ****author unsuspect, **** [Wasn't he "suspect" 
at the first moment of their encounter, only minutes ago?]
Friendly to man, far from deceit or guile. [but not from blasphemy]
What fear I then? rather, what know to fear
Under this ignorance of good and evil,
Of God or death, of law or penalty?

Despite appearances, I am not writing a dissertation here--but I think 
the evolution of Eve's responses in this scene reveals that she 
unquestionably has the **ability** to withstand temptation on her 
own--were her thirst for respect from and equality with Adam not so 
strong, just as he has the **ability** to withstand the temptation to 
join her in her sin, were his passion for her not so strong. Adam does 
not seek trial--or need to--but he fails as miserably when put to the 
test as she does, and contrary to historical arguments, it is HIS fall 
that damns all mankind--not hers. (If only Eve had eaten of the Fruit, 
only Eve would die.)

Complicated? Certainly. Why would we have loved it for nearly four 
centuries, if it weren't?

Best to all,

Carol Barton 

More information about the Milton-L mailing list