The single most important question at the center of John Milton's Paradise Lost is the question of predestination. The poem hinges on the assertion that mankind has been created “sufficient to have stood, yet free to fall” (III.99); if we do not accept this assertion, and instead believe ourselves faced with a vision of mankind created insufficient and therefore destined to fall, Milton's entire theodicy dissolves, leaving us with only a cruel God, a doomed race, and a story more akin to a simple fable than a complex epic. However, even if we do accept this basic, somewhat paradoxical premise that mankind's sufficiency and free will can coexist, we are still a far cry from having “solved” the problem of the Fall itself. If mankind has been created sufficient, why do Adam and Eve eventually – and, despite all claims of sufficiency, seemingly inevitably – fall?
Though it is possible to extract from Paradise Lost a wide variety of answers to this question, the one Milton makes most readily available seems to fault Eve – and not just Eve, but Eve as a microcosmic example of the broader, problematic “effeminate slackness” (XI.634) on which Adam is quick to blame his own subsequent transgression. The next question, then, is the question of Eve's sufficiency: is Eve “sufficient to have stood,” on her own? Or is she doomed to fall the moment she separates from Adam, him being somehow more sufficient? An examination of Eve's questionable sufficiency proves impossible, I believe, without a simultaneous examination of gender differences in Paradise Lost. Laying blame on a specifically “effeminate slackness” suggests a direct causal relationship between feminine influence and the Fall. While many Feminist critics would posit that this suggestion is a rather blatant manifestation of Milton's misogynistic tendencies, others argue that these allegations are only superficially founded, and that Milton's rendering of gender difference as it impacts the Fall is a good deal more ambiguous than most Feminist criticism allows.
[...] Heav'n!” Adam exclaims, evil strait this day I stand / Before my Judge, either to undergo / Myself the total Crime, or to accuse / My other self (X.125-27) It is only after Adam acknowledges the tragic flaw of their union that he lays the blame on Eve, and that Eve accepts the blame onto herself. Gender differences have been obvious and pronounced throughout Paradise Lost, but it is not until Book X that these differences are articulated as problematic; Eve has been subordinate since her creation, but not until her division from Adam is her femininity cast in such a distinctly negative light. [...]
[...] This vision of prelapsarian unity is furthered by Eve herself, who refers to herself as “form'd flesh of [Adam's] flesh” (IV.441), and to Adam as her “other half” (IV.488). Book IV's introduction to the couple sets the stage for what evolves into a deeply conflicted relationship: while Milton portrays Adam and Eve as a united, utopian whole, he also takes great pains to explicitly demonstrate their difference and inequality. DiSalvo examines this conflict through a Psychoanalytic lens, citing the popular Freudian idea of a woman being defined by “what she lacks, i.e., a male organ which comes to account for all her female predilections: her alleged dependency narcissism, and inferiority.” DiSalvo writes: such suggestions go back to Genesis, and Milton, pondering [Eve's] emergence from Adam's rib, has Adam call her fair defect of nature.” But Milton, marvelously, always contradicts himself, always, that is, gives us the whole contradiction and not just his preferred stance on it, and so here threatens to subvert his own male supremacist views when Adam speculates upon his own fragmentary nature, unity defective,” seeking his completion in what appears to him a far more all-inclusive female being “that what seem'd fair in all the world, seem'd now / in her contain'd” (VIII.472-73). [...]
[...] Ed. Julia M. Walker. Chicago: University of Illinois Press 212-13. Stone, James W. "Man's Effeminate S(lack)ness: Androgyny and the Divided Unity of Adam and Eve.” Milton Quarterly 31.2 (1997): [...]
[...] Gender differences aside, I think one of the most poignantly human aspects of Paradise Lost is Milton's exploration of this first, fallen love, of the paradoxical “divided unity” of Adam and Eve's relationship, of the ancient desire to become one with another being, separate from oneself, on whom ones entire self seems at times terrifyingly dependent. Okay, I'm just a romantic. But perhaps my romantic reaction to the decidedly un-romantic text of Paradise Lost is a tribute to its transcendence, to the mighty accomplishment of a misogynistic writer still being able to reach a contemporary Feminist reader. [...]
[...] In each case, Adam advocates preservation of the union to which he credits any strength he and Eve may possess when it comes to resisting temptation. However, this union being infected with paradox, and Eve, perhaps, representing that paradox at its very core, she resists Adam's pleas, essentially arguing for her own independent sufficiency. Farwell cites Milton's own argument “against cloistered virtue” to explain both Eve's desire for independence and Adam's eventual acquiescence to his wife's wishes, suggesting that in spite of the reason which informs both points of view, the couple's debate quickly qualified by a recognition that trial unsought may be a source of virtue and that Eve must choose she must not be forced to stay.” Eve is perhaps most poignantly and completely divided from Adam when, “Intent now wholly on her taste, naught else / Regarded” (IX.786-87), she eats the forbidden fruit. [...]
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