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Humans have instincts. However, some are often suppressed and viewed by society as immoral and unnatural because not all of them have pure intentions. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Milton retells the story of Adam and Eve and their fall from Eden, exploring the minds of each. As a result of her struggle between having a strong desire for wisdom, her vanity, and wanting to obey, Eve experiences inner torment that portrays her as a flawed and, most importantly, human character, which Milton uses to comment on human vulnerability and the sometimes irresistible and great temptation of sin.
Though she is forbidden, Eve pines for knowledge, claiming that “…wisdom, which alone is truly fair” (4.491) in comparison to “How beauty is excelled by manly grace” (4.490). She immediately inflates the magnitude and greatness of wisdom by arguing that its appeal and importance can not be rivaled, even with that of Adam’s appearance. Her open comments about the wisdom she is forbidden to obtain through the Tree of Knowledge illustrate this uncertainty that plagues Eve’s mind about whether or not she should act on her instinctual longing to obtain something she can not have. especially because she has been told. Her rationalization of her ambition for wisdom that “For good unknown sure is not had, or had / And yet unknown, is as not had at all” (9.756-757), or that being “good” but not having the knowledge of what “good” really is as if not having it at all, emphasizes her lust for wisdom. With this natural tendency to have strong curiosities and yearning for something unattainable, Eve’s character is more realistic and humanistic because it is more relatable, as it is a universal instinct. Because it is more relatable, it creates a connection to Eve that, when she is tempted by Satan to act on her desires for wisdom despite her restrictions, there is an empathetic response which emphasizes the strength of temptation and exposes a vulnerability in humans to such temptation.
While Eve’s urge to seek out wisdom torments her with her doubts and second guesses, her vanity illustrates that she is not a perfect, goddess-like figure. When she awakens for the first time, she first discovers her reflection in a lake, to which “Of sympathy and love; there [she] had fixed / [Her] eyes till now, and pined with vain desire…” (4.465-466). Even when she discovers Adam, Eve finds him “…less amiably mild, / Than that smooth watery image” (4.479-480). Her fixation with her own reflection and appearance and inability to create one for the man she is supposed to be with indicates a flaw, and this flaw, again, encourages a connection to her character, making her more humanlike and less goddess-like. Because Satan uses this flaw against Eve as a way of persuading her to disobey by calling her “ Goddess among Gods, adored and served / By Angels numberless, thy daily train” (9.547-548), it causes her to debate her obedience, adding to her conflicting thoughts and desires for wisdom. This inner torment as a result of this flaw also aids in creating an understanding that Eve’s fall from Paradise is not intentional and that her vulnerability is taken advantage of, based on the constant battle she has with herself.
The debates Eve has with herself would not exist without the initial desire to obey that she does hold. With Adam, in the case of sex, “…nor Eve the rites / Mysterious of connubial love refused;…” (4.742-763), exhibiting her submission and recognition of obligation. This submission exemplifies that she is willing to obey Adam, as well as God, evident in her acknowledgment that “In the day we eat / Of this fair fruit, our doom is we shall die” (9.762-763). Acknowledging the consequences of forbidden actions depicts Eve as knowing and feeling obligated to obey, yet, still questioning it because she seems to have to repeat the consequences to herself in order to remind her what they are. Her questioning becomes more apparent following her reminder of the consequences, wondering that, since Satan claims to have eaten the fruit, “How dies the Serpent?” (9.764) and wondering about their consequence and the validity and fairness of it if, “For [them] alone / Was death invented?” (9.766-767). Eve’s argument with herself between wanting to obey but questioning why and falling into temptation emphasizes the power of sin because, while most will claim to do the “right” thing when prompted, it is not always so clear of a choice and temptation is difficult to overcome.
In summation, Eve’s inner torment as a result of her longing for wisdom because it something she has been told she can not have, her tragic flaw of vanity because it is inevitably her downfall, and her debate of obedience causes her to be a more relatable, humanistic character that is easier to understand and empathize with. With this, Milton uses Eve to comment on the vulnerability and susceptibility of humans to fall into temptations, as sin is far more persuasive than realized, because Eve is not merely a perfect character. She is more human, and humans have instincts, no matter if they are pure or not because nothing can ever be such a clear one thing over another.
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