14 May 2010
The Good, The Bad, and the Innocent: Outing Milton the FeministDespite religion’s efforts to classify Eve’s Fall as disobedience, closer scrutiny reveals that
her choice to ignore the dictates of a patriarchal ruler should be defined as the first act o Feminism. Ever since the “second wave of feminism,” there has been a penchant to analyze the literary canon with revisionist lenses. Initially, the charged atmosphere seemed to reverberate with echoes of the radical cry from the 1960s: ”Down with the man!”. Feminists may have been taking this too literally, since the synecdoche “The man” signifies the mainstream: political bureaucracy, big business and Big Brother. This does not deny that the literary canon did not consist of and was not established by men; however, in their eagerness to bring about change, feminist critics narrowed the lens through which they evaluated the literature. The stalwart classics and their authors were summarily dismissed as a part of the patriarchal hierarchy, rather than examined for their value and content. In addition, there was no consideration given to the era or genre in which they were composed. The “man”, in the literary sense, became men. The word misogynist got bandied about, and authors were tarnished and discredited. The Salem Witch Trials had come to Academia.
One of the primary targets of feminists has been John Milton. In 1980 Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar published their work, “The Madwoman in the Attic,” and with one short phrase, “Milton, despite his undeniable misogyny,” they labeled and libeled the poet (Gilbert 814). Their reputations were erected on the skeletal remains of the former literary giants, and many feminist critics jumped on the bandwagon to condemn Milton’s treatment of Eve in his epic poem Paradise Lost. However, in their exposition of the poem, most adversarial critics gazed through a lens that was colored by their own personal agenda. The purpose of this paper is to provide a dialogical discourse between the feminist and post feminist perspectives as a refutation to the criticism of Gilbert and Gubar. In this way, Milton will be recognized as one who takes a progressive outlook and situates himself in the feminist movement well before its formal existence. I will prove that Milton paints Eve as the heroic figure in Paradise Lost, and that her heroism is attained in part by her uprising against the control of a patriarchal God.
Ironically, these same critics who so quickly condemned Milton are now being judged in reference to their analysis of his work, since it “affords a valuable perspective on the history of reading and of interpretation, and what was allowably said of this poem, or …on what was being sidestepped or silenced” (Wittreich 503). “The Madwoman in the Attic” closes with the position that women authors in the eighteenth century were to be praised for the role that they had taken in rebellion against the female stereotypes set forth by a patriarchy. However, what the authors ignore and disregard, and who have no story for them are the supporters of Milton in the seventeenth century. Milton was immensely popular with female readership during his lifetime. He was widely read by young and old, rich and poor. Often, what is lost in contemporary criticism is the audience to which Milton was immediately accessible: the early modern English readership. Barbara Lewalski, who has devoted her studies to Milton, writes that the second wave of feminism has done the world a tremendous service by helping to uncover the writings by women that were ‘lost’ or disregarded until that time. However, Gilbert and Gubar make no mention of the reaction from those who were Milton’s contemporaries. In Milton, many who stood for women’s rights found not an antagonist, but a sympathizer and a compatriot. In contradiction to the belief that women authors were completely repressed during Milton’s age, there was an active outcry of feminists in response to a pejorative pamphlet written by Joseph Swetnam. After the publication of The Araignment of Leud, idle, froward, and unconstant women by Swetnam, female writers countered by overt and explicit retaliation in print. Authors who wrote under pen names, such as Constantia Munda,, Ester Sowerman and Rachel Speght, voiced their responses in pamphlets that responded to the accusation that women were inferior to men, alluding to the creation of woman from Adam‘s rib. Milton, who never backed away from controversial issues, would have been aware of this contention, and he would have relished using his epic as a way to enter the arena of debate. Although many men may have agreed with Swetnam, Milton would have taken the route that was less traveled and refrained from custom or tradition.
Diane McColley recognizes the allure and motivation in condemning or condoning Milton in print: “One measure of the power of Milton’s poetry is that readers so often either love it or hate it, and that those who hate it nevertheless go on writing about it” (McColley 147). For centuries, the tide of acceptance and abhorrence has ebbed and flowed in shifting patterns. The work of Milton in Paradise Lost is heady, esoteric, and paradoxical. This technique is typical of the Renaissance writers who use the Bible as their paradigm. Authors intentionally include statements and ideas that are contradictory; their mission is to have the reader use powers of reason to discern “the truth” contained within (Pruitt). Without fully evaluating the sources on which Milton draws, the truth is difficult, if not impossible, to discern. Although he leans heavily on the ideology that had been previously published in his political, educational, and sociological treatises, Milton creates a pastiche from Greek and Roman myth, the Torah, the Christian Bible, his own prose, and revolutionary flights of fancy. Paradise Lost is also recognized as incorporating the views of St. Augustine, but Gilbert and Gubar find fault with this. Subsequently, they define Milton as one who is “descending from Patristic misogynists like Tertullian and St. Augustine” (Gilbert 821). They provide no clarification to indicate what part of Augustine’s theological position they are referencing. However, by pairing St. Augustine and Tertullian together, the assumption is that the reference alludes to the controversy over the source matter for creation. Here, Milton actually turns away from the theology of Tertullian and Augustine, creatio ex nihilo, and favors that of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Cambridge Platonists, creatio ex Deo (Campbell 108). Since the critique does not clarify the exact exegesis to which they refer, the reader must make an assumption in order to confirm or reject this position. The authors are remiss in not elaborating on their position.
St. Augustine does have clearly defined statements on the culpability in the Fall. The importance in St. Augustine’s interpretation of the events in the Fall stem from his theological analysis of Adam’s motivation. According to Augustine, Adam falls from his own choice, not by deception. Some have painted the deception of Eve as the worse possible scenario; however, it is the intent of Adam that condemns his action, even more than the act itself. When Adam consciously decides to disobey God‘s directive, he makes a deliberate choice to remain with Eve. Adam does not fall; he leaps. Milton uses God’s words to express his own sentiments that original sin is repairable for man, but that God remains intolerant of Satan and his cohorts: “they themselves ordained their Fall./ The first sort by their own suggestion fell /Self-tempted, self-depraved. Man falls deceived /By th‘other first: Man therefore shall find grace, The other none” (III.128-132). The defining difference between mankind and Satan exists because Satan has the intention of sinning, not through deception. Man is only forgiven for the Fall because of the deception. However, this can only relate to Eve, since she is the one deceived, and St. Augustine clearly states this premise, “Adam transgressed the law of God, not because he was deceived into believing that the lie was true, but because in obedience to a social compulsion he yielded to Eve, as husband to wife, as the only man in the world to the only woman. Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived” (Chambers 121). Therefore, mankind is saved from eternal punishment because Adam and Eve are sentenced as a couple. “Deceive by Satan, Eve eats of the forbidden fruit in the mistaken belief that her action is right;” she saves Adam from eternal damnation, since to sin by deception is not as egregious as deliberate and premeditated disobedience (Chambers 118). In a sense, Adam is given a free ride on the Eve’s coattails, .
Eve may fall by deception, but what is clear to her is her goal: increased knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge, as Milton makes it clear from his own experiences as well as his writings, is noble and praiseworthy. As Milton’s imaginative extrapolation asserts, Eve is allowed to emerge as the savior of man and thus, mankind. However, Eve is willing to sacrifice more for the unborn generations of her progeny. She suggests to Adam that they remain celibate for their lives, and if Adam does not possess the fortitude and strength to follow through, they should commit suicide. In this way, they can deprive Sin and Death of the unlimited amount of souls they hope to conquer in the future. Thus, like God the Son, Eve offers herself as a martyr, a sacrificial lamb in order to deny Satan and his minions. In this flight of fancy, Milton makes it clear who matches his expectations of a hero. There is no escaping the basic framework of the story, Eve must “fall” and God the Son must become incarnate to redeem mankind. However, within this criteria, he portrays Eve as the most admirable character: she is nothing less than heroic.
Many critics of Milton have been discredited by scholars, since they relied on a “maneuver that first disengages the poem from the context of Milton’s prose writings with which it enjoys an elaborate and meaningful intertextuality” (Wittreich 503). For those who have an extensive knowledge of Milton and his works, there is no fair assessment that can be made of his poetry unless it is examined under the auspices of his prose. This concept stands in opposition to Gilbert and Gubar, who state: “male writers traditionally praise the simplicity of the dove, …assertiveness, aggressiveness - all characteristics of a male life of “significant action” - are “monstrous” in women precisely because “unfeminine” and therefore unsuited to a gentle life of “contemplative purity” (Gilber 819). They add to this claim later in the piece when they state that “a life of female rebellion, of ‘significant action’ is a life that must be silenced’” (Gilbert 824). However, Milton does have Eve does rebel, and she does take action. This is a noble trait that Milton has made clear in the Second Defense of the English People. Milton is highly critical of those who fail to take action when the result is an improvement of the situation at hand. Certainly for Eve to engage in an act that would bring her increased knowledge, possibly even put her into an enlightened and altered state of being, would be considered as a positive choice. To fail to act on this opportunity would be a weakness in Milton’s eyes.
When Eve thinks that she, like the serpent, will be elevated in position, it is in part because both she and Adam have already been conditioned to believe this by Raphael. The angel seems to be channeling the thoughts of Milton, who holds the belief that “all creation aspires upward through the orders of being[; c]hange is a goal and a duty. God created mankind to dwell initially on earth” (Creaser 165). This is overtly stated in the poem: ‘Not here [in heaven], till by degrees of merit raised/ They open to themselves at length the way/ Up hither, under long obedience tried, /And earth be changed to heaven, and heaven to earth” (Milton VII. 157-160). Adam and Eve expect that will eventually transcend their present state. In the theory of the Great Chain of Being, one step up, and man becomes angels; two rungs up is God. Eve believes that she will gain knowledge to make her, at the very least, an equal partner to Adam. Since Eve feels that she is not on equal footing with Adam, and she wants that changed. She desires and expects equality as a minimum; she hopes for and anticipates superiority at the best. When Milton incorporates this attitude into his epic, he hearkens back to his stance in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Milton makes it clear that unless a partner is fit intellectually, the relationship is not idyllic. What Milton also does, simultaneously, is to make the same argument that feminists, such as Gilbert and Gubar make: when the minority or “the other” is positioned into a placement of inferiority and/or subjugation, they will desire equality and ultimately they will rebel. However, the feminists fall into the trap that many have succumbed to, “Milton’s image of the Garden of Paradise and his presentation of the State of Innocence have proved especially susceptible to unconscious distortion” (Lewalski 86).
Part of the reason that Eve partakes in the fruit is that her identity is based on her feeling that she is inferior to Adam. This attribute also exemplifies a crucial difference between Eve and Satan. Satan is horrified at the suggestion of change. This is an underlying factor in his continued degradation and degeneration throughout the text. He emerges as a paradox. who is “the poem’s most dynamic character and yet throughout shows himself to be trapped in his rigidity of pride. Indeed, much of his dramatic power comes from the conflict between his capacity for change and his insistence on fixity” (Creaser 162). In contrast, Eve gives voice to the fact that she relishes the changes she sees in nature: “All seasons and their change, all please alike” (IV. 640).
Eve may feel as though she is not on par with Adam, but Milton supports her equality through Adam’s request to God for a companion. To show that woman is the equal of man, not his inferior, Milton creates a dialogue between Adam and God. When Adam asks for a companion, Adam makes it clear that he wants an equal: “Among unequals what society /Can sort, what harmony or true delight?/ Which must be mutual, in proportion due/Given and received; but, in disparity/ The one intense, the other still remiss/ Cannot well suit with either, but soon prove/ Tedious alike: of fellowship I speak /Such as I seek, fit to participate all rational delight…(VIII. 383-391). Milton’s “Eden is an opportunity to grow in wisdom, virtue, and perfection, and normally Adam and Eve must take the initiative interpreting what happens to them and in seeking new knowledge and experience. Normally, too, they respond to a new situation by one or two false starts” (Lewalski 101). Strangely, the omnipotent God gives Eve only one chance in her direct confrontation with Satan, even though both Adam and Eve have exhibited that they seldom succeed the first time. Eve mistakes her own reflection for another entity; Adam tries to talk to the animals, and he does not understand the relationship between Eden and the universe. A misconception that his more dire circumstances is his interpretation of Eve’s dream.
Adam is not the only one who suffers from confusion. Adam clarifies statements that Raphael has misunderstood. When Raphael suggests that Adam is only attracted by Eve’s beauty, Adam is quick to correct this false impression. An inconsistency has been pointed out by Mary Wollstonecraft, where she first condemns Milton for having Eve say, “ My author and Disposer, what thou bidst/ Unargued I obey, so God ordains; God is thy law, thou mine; to know no more/ Is Woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise,” and then citing the speech of Adam that is quoted above. (Wollstonecraft 587). However, the difference of the Eve who makes the statement cited, and the Eve who longs for intellectual equality and takes agency to have this occur have undergone a growth period. Wollstonecraft is right in this inconsistency, but she fails to take into account that Eve, though born a woman is but a newborn. The reader sees the growth of Eve throughout the text. Her development is the epitome of bildungsroman. To borrow Gilbert and Gubar’s allusion, she has been seeing “through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now [she knows] in part; but then shall [she] know even as also [she is] known (I Corinthians 13:12). At the moment when Eve decides to eat of the fruit, she has looked into the looking glass clearly. She has come to terms with her own sense of identity, and she sees herself as strong and capable. She thinks ahead to the consequences and devises a plan of action. Milton does not feel he created a monster when Eve eats the apple. This is supported by William Empson, when he quotes E.M.W. Tillyard with the insight that “if Milton had been in the Garden, he would have eaten the apple at once and written a pamphlet to prove that it was his duty”( Empson 172).
However, what is just as important as what she does is to whom is Eve, according to Milton, being rebellious. This God has been suggested by authors such as William Empson in Milton’s God and Michael Bryson in Tyranny in Heaven. In the latter work, Bryson suggests that Milton’s ‘great task-master’ is not a figure of unconditional love, but is, rather, a maker of demands, a setter of standards, a white-gloved inspector looking for dust in the corners of his creatures’ souls. Such a God must be dealt with, accounted for, and struggled with, but he is not a figure who inspires love, loyalty, or even admiration. A God imagined as a ‘task-master is to be feared” (Bryson 12).
This is reminiscent of the portrait that Gilbert and Gubar paint of Milton. They suggest that he is dogmatic and relentless in his willingness to subjugate women. God, however, carries no such gender discrimination. Milton paints a very different image of prelapsarian Eden than most artists. Rather than draw an image of Adam and Eve at the moment of the Fall, Milton shows them as industrious, working side by side. Both are required to perform certain tasks each day in order to keep the vegetation trimmed. There is an irony to this scenario: God seems to put artificial constraints on everything and everyone. Nothing seems to be able to grow to its own maximum potential without violating the perimeters/parameters that God has ordained. It has been questioned how Satan is able to violate the defenses God has put into place, and the question of predestination or actually adhering to God’s plan, rather than rebelling against it, is the main factor in the actions that take place in the Garden. Leon Howard makes a connection between the principals in the scenario:
The summary of this analysis of the operation of the efficient cause in the major argument of Paradise Lost is by no means complete, but sufficient to show that each of the characters in the drama of man’s first disobedience occupies a role of deception set forth in Milton’s conception of that cause as set forth in his Art of Logic. God is the remote first cause, who moves so mysterious way that human reason can find a force for teaching only in those more approximate causes with which he works. Adam, impelled by a deficience of nature within him, was the principal cause of “all our woe.” Eve provided the occasion of his first disobedience. And Satan was the instrument by which the catastrophe was brought about (Howard).
Although he provides a road map that makes an argument for the complicity of God as an active participant in the events that unfold, the point is that Eve takes agency in her attempt to excel and find fulfillment, thus she should be praised. Needless to say, the first cause in the epic is Milton, and it is ultimately Milton who makes the decision about how he fills in the gaps of the creation story he relates. He chooses to make Eve as the hero. Richard Ohmann claims that devising a canon of literature always entails a “struggle for dominance” based on “cultural hegemony” (Ohmann 1880). To exclude Milton from serious and impartial consideration is to privilege some works over others as a emblem of power, rather than discernment. Milton, who consistently addressed the insidious dangers of tyranny would be amused to see that he is, through his work, still embroiled in the same battle.
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