Why Does Eve Eat the Forbidden Fruit in Milton's Paradise Lost?


The Biblical story (Genesis 3:6) reads,

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

Eve's eating of the 'forbidden' fruit and giving it to Adam has been interpreted and reinterpreted over centuries and extensively criticised — by annoying, yet persistent critics — on 'moral' grounds.

Conventional readings of the event have concluded that it is the inherent weakness in Eve — being a woman and all — that makes her vulnerable to Satan's attack. Her sense of reason — being a woman and all — can never be at par with that of her husband. She is the 'temptress' who leads Adam to commit the Original Sin.

John Milton disagrees or, at least, feminist readings of Paradise Lost (1667) do. How does Milton's Eve navigate the epic world of the poem that takes for its subject "all our woe"?

Out of Adam's 'Crooked Rib'

Paradise Lost Book IX marks an important departure from the Biblical fall and how it has been conventionally read. Before we get to that, let's briefly look at Eve's perceived inferior status. Eve is born 'inferior', they say, shaped out of Adam's 'crooked rib'.

Milton is inconsistent (perhaps knowingly) when it comes to Eve's 'inferiority' as Adam asks God in Paradise Lost Book VIII for a fellowship based on equal footing. However, later, in Book IX, he firmly establishes his authority and Eve's 'place' in the scheme of things,

...for nothing lovelier can be found
In woman, than to study household good,
And good works in her husband to promote.

What Marital Bliss?

Now, before Satan can 'beguile' Eve into eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, an important episode does much damage to this hierarchy between Adam and Eve. The episode has been termed as the 'marital debate' by some critics and roughly comprises lines 205-403 of Book IX.

This is the first time in the poem that Eve speaks before Adam and addresses him as 'Adam' — no fancy epithets involved. During her long 'rant' about the extent of their duties in Eden, she asks some of the most fundamental questions about labour and efficiency, arguing that they should work separately to ensure more is done and their supper, at the end of it, is well-earned.

For while so near each other thus all day...
Our day's work brought to little, though begun
Early, and th' hour of supper comes unearned.

In the same lines, she questions the notion of happiness or 'marital bliss' that is easily threatened by the fear of 'the lurking enemy'.

Frail is our happiness, if this be so,
And Eden were no Eden thus exposed.

 Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, in "Paradise Lost and Milton's Politics", writes that the marital debate reflects on the "creative tensions between autonomy and interdependence." Though it is Adam who advocates reason — being a man and all — it is Eve who bases her arguments in reason.

For Inferior Who Is Free?

To say that Eve falls into Satan's trap because of her inherent irrationality, then, is unfair and only leads us to an uncritical moral judgement. Milton's Satan is a skilled rhetorician, yes. But his praise of Eve — "Fairest resemblance of thy Maker fair" — only gets him so far in convincing her.

He has to provide empirical proof of the power of the fruit to make the suspicious and ever-questioning Eve sold on the idea. He says,

...look on me,
Me who have touched and tasted, yet both live,
And life more perfect have attained than Fate
Meant me, by vent'ring higher than my lot.

And that's not it. Satan also appeals to the ideas that are already present in Eve's mind, some of which find mention in the marital debate itself — the most important being that of equality. Eve says,

...so to add what wants
In female sex, the more to draw his [Adam's] love,
And render me more equal, and perhaps,
A thing not undesirable, sometime
Superior...
 
The choice that Milton's Eve makes in eating the fruit from The Tree of Knowledge, then, is a rational one — her sense of self grows ("I grow mature / In knowledge") with the fall, inhibited previously by unequal patriarchal marital structures.

In Eve's own words from Book IX, "For inferior who is free?"
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FEATURED IMAGE SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, ALTERED BY THE LITERARY EDIT

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