For all that has been said about Milton creating a relatively sympathetic Satan in “Paradise Lost,” there is no question that Satan becomes less sympathetic as the poem progresses. In short, we have less sympathy for him as we get to know him. His lies become more transparent, for one thing. And he does his worst when he arrives in Eden, particularly to Eve.
The angels pursuing the fugitive find him at Eve’s bedside.
Him there they found
Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve;
Assaying by his devilish art to reach
The organs of her Fancy, and with them forge
Illusions as he list, phantasms and dreams,
Or if, inspiring venom, he might taint
Th’ animal spirits that from pure blood arise
Eve is essentially poisoned, drugged in her sleep.
When Satan is confronted about this by the angels who briefly detain him, he tells his most transparent lie:
The rest is true, they found me where they say;
But that implies not violence or harm.
Eve awoke with memories of a disturbing dream, in which Satan spoke to her.
He laid essentially four temptations in her, plying her first with flattery —
heav’n wakes with all his eyes,
Whom to behold but thee, Nature’s desire,
In whose sight all things joy, with ravishment
Attracted by thy beauty still to gaze.
then with fantasy —
Thyself a goddess, not to earth confined,
But sometimes in the air, as we, sometimes
Ascend to Heav’n, by merit thine, and see
What life the gods live there, and such live thou.
then with the flavor of a certain fruit, as we hear now, switching to Eve’s voice —
the pleasant savoury smell
So quickened appetite,
and finally with flight —
With him I flew, and underneath beheld
The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide
And various: wond’ring at my flight and change
To this high exaltation;
Satan is temporarily chased away from Eden, but when he returns he goes again to Eve. Now he presses the temptation of forbidden knowledge. He leaves her to contemplate her choices, and she begins addressing the object of her desire directly —
Till dieted by thee I grow mature
In knowledge, as the gods who all things know;
A con man has persuaded her that she can possess precious knowledge with speed and ease, and she falls.
At her bite,
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
I was surprised and moved by those lines, which are possibly more meaningful than ever.
Eve offers the fruit to Adam. He accepts it —
Against his better knowledge, not deceived,
But fondly overcome with female charm.
In Genesis, Adam is a passive figure who simply accepts the fruit, and we don’t know what he’s thinking. Here, he knows that what he’s doing is wrong but is fondly giving himself over to “female charm.” He has thus set things up in his mind, so that if this goes south, he will know where to direct the blame.
And though it’s correct to say that Milton’s Adam is “not deceived” in the sense that he knows that he’s doing something against God’s will, Adam has been deceived by Satan about this fruit, no less than his wife has been. They believe the serpent’s claim to have eaten the fruit, and this reinforces their hope that it will give higher knowledge and eternal life. Adam expresses this hope openly when offered the fruit.
And his hope for knowledge must be especially strong here, because Milton has depicted him specially as something of an astronomer who hungers to know everything about the cosmos.
Adam takes a bite, and Eve joins him:
while Adam took no thought,
Eating his fill, nor Eve to iterate
Her former trespass feared,
Ironically, seeking knowledge in this way, they’ve become thoughtless.
Meanwhile, ominous changes have begun all around them. Before long they see animals become predatory, and they watch as nature gradually turns dangerous, cold, comfortless.
The growing miseries, which Adam saw
Already in part
A slow and groaning semi-apocalypse, is what I felt they were witnessing.
Before their expulsion from Eden, they receive a visit from God’s Son that fortifies them. Without erasing their tragedy, Milton begins to give them a kind of resigned but hopeful faith.
First, Adam accepts hard work:
on me the curse aslope
Glanced on the ground; with labour I must earn
My bread; what harm? Idleness had been worse;
My labour will sustain me;
Then he says they will ask God to —
teach us further by what means to shun
Th’ inclement seasons, rain, ice, hail and snow,
and to teach them how,
by collision of two bodies grind
The air attrite to fire, as late the clouds
Justling or pushed with winds rude in their shock
Tine the slant lightning, whose thwart flame driv’n down
Kindles the gummy bark of fir or pine,
And sends a comfortable heat from far,
Which might supply the sun: such fire to use,
And what may else be remedy or cure
To evils which our own misdeeds have wrought,
He will instruct us praying, and of grace
Now they will be seeking knowledge the right way: not by grabbing for understanding in an object that cannot give it, but through hard work and trusting prayer.
Now let me step back a little for a wider picture. Knowledge may be a crucial issue in this poem, but Adam and Eve have had to face something more fundamental. They have had to decide how to live, indeed whether to live at all.
While in their early despair and confusion about what has happened, Adam and Eve debate what they might do. Briefly, Eve proposes two ways in which they might avoid bringing children into a punished existence: going childless for the rest of their natural lives, or ending their lives by their own hands immediately. They choose neither option, of course. Humbled, they make their way to the borders of Eden toward a life that is both diminished and newly open:
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
In a few brief lines Milton has evoked Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” and given it a new meaning. Hamlet, we recall, considered ending his own life, and was stopped by fear of the unknown. Who, he asked, would bear —
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Adam had had thoughts very similar to these, and to those of our old friend Job:
O miserable mankind, to what fall
Degraded, to what wretched state reserved!
Better end here unborn. Why is life given
To be thus wrested from us? rather, why
Obtruded on us thus? who, if we knew
What we receive, would either not accept
Life offered, or soon beg to lay it down;
Glad to be so dismissed in peace.
But Adam and Eve, though they fear what follows death, don’t mention this fear when they refuse suicide. It’s not fearful resignation that keeps them alive at the end of the poem. They choose undiscovered country, walking into a world and into the future.
This positive interpretation of Hamlet’s undiscovered country as the future was expressed memorably by that famous lover of Shakespeare, Chancellor Gorkon of the Klingon Empire. Desiring peaceful relations with the inhabitants of Earth after years of war, and now breaking bread with these former enemies, he makes a toast:
“To the undiscovered country. The future!”
Live long and prosper, Adam and Eve.