Editor’s note: Madeleine Kearns writes a weekly column noting peculiar aspects of cultural, artistic, and natural marvels.
Art can add ambiguity to a familiar scene or story. But it can also remove it.
In the Book of Genesis, the account given of the Fall of Man is, in psychological terms, perplexing. We are told that Eve is approached by a serpent who contradicts God’s instructions, promising that she and Adam “shall be as gods” if they eat the forbidden fruit. We are told that the tree appeared, in Eve’s mind, “pleasant to the eyes” and desirable in lending her wisdom. We are told that Eve succumbed to temptation, ate the fruit first, and then gave it to Adam, who did the same. We are told that they realized their nakedness, felt shame, and confessed their sins:
And [God] said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?
And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.
And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.
There is an almost comical absurdity in that. The entire fate of human nature thrown off course — with thousands of years of murder, rape, and war to follow — and for no discernible reason. In Paradise Lost, 1667, John Milton addresses the question of why in a poem of 12,000 lines divided into twelve books. For Milton, the fall of man begins with the more interesting tale of the fall of woman. A double seduction: first, Eve by Satan; then, Adam by Eve.
After the battle of Heaven, Lucifer — since renamed as Satan — dwells in the “gloomy Deep” where there is “no light; but rather darkness visible.” He can never escape Hell, since it is more a spiritual state than a place. Nevertheless, he travels through night and chaos to earth, where he sneaks past an angel, into the garden, and approaches his target: Eve.
Eve is Adam’s intellectual and moral inferior. Yet Adam is “in delight / Both of [Eve’s] beauty, and submissive charms.” Later, while Eve is preparing a meal for Adam and an angel, he notes that “nothing lovelier can be found / In woman, than to study household good / And good workes in her husband to promote.” She is weak-willed and not to be trusted on her own.
We first find Eve staring into her own reflection in a pool of water. There she “pined with vain desire.” To Milton, this is a criticism of womanly vanity. But to others, it could relate to a fundamental distinction between men and women, once described by the art critic John Berger:
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
If Eve’s sense of purpose is in her desirability, it is no wonder that the dream Satan plants has an effect on her. Before tempting her with the fruit, he whispers into her subconscious that she is “Nature’s desire,” that all will seek to behold and gaze on her beauty. When Eve tells Adam of this dream, he tells her not to let her “Fancy” overcome her “Reason.” But how can she not be fanciful? Given that, as Berger put it, “a woman must continually watch herself”? (Incidentally, for further proof of Berger’s theory, please see Instagram.)
Fascinatingly, Satan also recognizes the beauty of Eve. When he approached her to tempt her, he saw her “veiled in a cloud of fragrance,” glowing, surrounded by flowers of which she is the “fairest.”
Such pleasure took the Serpent to behold
This flowery plat, the sweet recess of Eve
Thus early, thus alone: Her heavenly form
Angelic, but more soft, and feminine,
Her graceful innocence, her every air
Of gesture, or least action, overawed
His malice, and with rapine sweet bereaved
His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought:
That space the Evil-one abstracted stood
From his own evil, and for the time remained
Stupidly good; of enmity disarmed.
But his “stupidly good” state and “overawed malice” did not last. In Hell there’s “neither joy nor love, but fierce desire.” The “hot Hell” burned on and “soon ended his delight.” He did not want to enjoy her beauty. He wanted to possess it and, in doing so, destroy her.
Just as she disarmed him with beauty, so he had to disarm her with flattery. He approached her “fawning; and licked the ground whereon she trod,” and then addressed her with grand title such as “Sovran of creatures” and “universal Dame!” She responded the same way all seduced literary figures respond (see Anna Karenina or Don Giovanni), which is coyly. “Serpent, thy overpraising leaves in doubt / The virtue of that fruit, in thee first proved: / But say, where grows the tree? From hence how far?”
Satan then delivered one of the most impressive sophistic orations in the English canon, and “our credulous mother” believed him because she wanted to. Eve’s motivations were clear. She hoped that eating the fruit would “render [her] more equal; and perhaps, / A thing not undesirable, sometime / Superior; for, inferior, who is free.” She then seduced Adam for she couldn’t bear to think of him living with some other Eve after she had died. He dropped the garland he had made for her, “down dropt, and all the faded roses shed,” having realized that she was “defaced, deflowered, and now to death devote!” He then made up his mind to join her in sin and death. “Certain my resolution is to die: / How can I live without thee!”
In her essay about women writers, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf made passing reference to “Milton’s bogey.” One possible interpretation of this was that she meant that Milton’s Eve was not really about a woman at all, but about a man’s perception of a woman. Why did Eve take the fruit? Genesis doesn’t say. But in Milton’s version Eve was either excessively stupid or vain while Adam’s only sin was loving his wife too much (i.e., more than he loved God). It’s no wonder the feminists don’t like it.