Consistently within people’s choices of the top five novels ever written, War and Peace follows the impetus and results of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, presenting events through their impact on the book’s characters and reinterpreting them according to the unnamed narrator’s metaphysics. Its breadth of cast, scale of scenes, and consistently near-perfect choice of analogy for the moment show Tolstoy as among the best at his craft, and the book rightly belongs on any list of necessary 19th-century reads.
Part of the Russian Naturalist-Realist school, Tolstoy eschewed the selectivity, emotion, and idealization of early 19th-century Romanticism for a presentation of life as it is. As such, Tolstoy’s depiction of life is brutally, even cynically, accurate: his presentation of his characters—with faults and all—undercuts their values and desires in a way that shows even the best characters as all too human. His multi-faceted depiction is not a painting that omits the accidents and highlights the essentials of the subject but a photograph that presents the subject as-is, depicting the warts as being as essential as any other quality. Thus, his style of representation conflicts with one of the central premises of the novelistic form, as such, and at several moments the book comes off more as a piece of journalistic history than a plot-based novel.
Nonetheless, the selectivity of the novelistic form breaks through: though the narrator’s external focus and refusal to speculate into the deeper psychology of his characters make it take a while, he does layer his characters through the book. However, because of the book’s core thesis—that human action is impotent in the face of a people’s collective history—War and Peace depicts less a “conflict-climax-resolution” plot than a “things happen to characters and they concede to change” progression. The fact that the climax of one of his main characters (only implicitly presented as the protagonist, though his being such is debatable), Pierre, involves conceding the impossibility of achieving one’s values is indicative of the work as a whole.
As a metaphysical novel, which seeks to give a complete understanding of human life, War and Peace moves between specific scenes of the lives of the characters and broad discourses on the philosophy of history. The latter explains the presentation of the former: because Tolstoy’s narrator sees human life not as a result of individual choice, values, and will, but of historical determinism, the individual values, desires, and choices of his characters do not influence where their lives lead. He more often presents his characters as passively reacting to things that happen to them, rather than actively achieving their values through consistent choice and integrity amidst unforeseen obstacles.
War and Peace was worth reading, though I wouldn’t include it in my top ten novels. Personally, I wouldn’t want to confuse length for profundity. While a broad view of life and a humble view of one’s own self and presumptions are good and worth fostering, Tolstoy’s didactic elaborations on historical philosophy are not only patronizing (all historians got it wrong, guys), but implicitly nihilistic, in that they argue that the characters, values, and choices he spends 1300+ pages describing (and, implicitly, the reader and their own values and choices) are ineffectual in the grand scheme of things.
The effect this has is not one of wisdom in the fact of historical determinism (which the narrator at several points calls God) but of nihilism. His characters cannot achieve their ideals because such a thing is not possible according to the book’s metaphysical assumptions. When a character does choose a value, the narrator presents them as implicitly naive—as if reality will teach them better. Frankly, I’ll never forgive him for how he treats his implicitly Romantic heroine, Natasha—not in how her life changes (notably because of a FAILURE to pull off a chosen course of action, itself a result of misplaced Romantic idealism on her part), but because of how he undercuts her even in her character’s climax. The narrator can allow no character to have a moment of aspiration that is not in some way tainted by some failing. Because of the book’s consistent assumption of determinism, the implicit capacity of humans to achieve virtue despite their natural deficiencies or vices—the central premise of the novelistic form—is not only absent but argued as being impossible.
Thus, for all its wonderful breadth, description, and narrative quality, War and Peace eschews the previous Romantic conception of mankind (that mankind’s essential nature inheres in our highest ideals and virtues, with deficiencies and mundanities being mere accidents) and presents the opposite view: that that which is low, imperfect, and impotent is the essential in man, with greatness being at best an anomalous illusion, at worst a pretext for and enabler of evil. Rather than being wisely accurate, the book’s perspective comes off as cynical and degrading, if not deeply vicious, in that the prescribed passivity before the impulses of collective history would, later in the century and early in the next, enable worse depredations than those Tolstoy depicts in his lampooning of Napoleon.
(*Of course, my review should not be taken as an implicit endorsement of Napoleon, though I think Dostoevsky does a better job debunking the value of his legacy than does Tolstoy; to Tolstoy’s credit, the central conflict of War and Peace is contained in its first lines, with Napoleon being an antichrist figure and symbol of the European movements threatening to upend the values and social structure of Russia—which, nonetheless, are presented in collectively deterministic, not individual, terms).
We’ve all felt it—the mixed excitement and dread at hearing a beloved book is set to be made into a movie. They might do it right, capturing not only key plot events but also (and more importantly) how it feels to be swept up in the work as a whole; 2020’s Emma with Anya Taylor-Joy comes to my mind, most of all for the way it captures how someone who understands and loves Austen’s ubiquitous irony might feel when reading her work. However, they also might do it poorly; despite both 1974 and 2013 attempts’ being worth watching, I’ve yet to see a rendition of The Great Gatsby that captures the book’s plot and narrative tone in the right proportion (in my opinion, the 1974 version emphasizes the former but misses some of the latter, while parts of the 2013 version exaggerate the latter just to the border of parody). My readers have, no doubt, already imagined examples of works they’ve always wished could be faithfully put onto the screen and others they’d rather not be risked to the vicissitudes of translating from one medium to another.
The last decade has thankfully seen a growth in long-form, box-office quality productions that makes it more possible than ever to imagine longer works being produced without curtailing their lengthy plotlines—example, the BBC’s 2016 rendition of War and Peace. However, this leaves another, perhaps more important, hurdle to hazard: while live-action media can now faithfully follow the plots of the originals, there still remains the difficulty of conveying the tone and feel of the works, especially when different media necessarily have different capacities and limitations of representation. Though I’ve enjoyed productions that have been made, I don’t know that I would expect live-action renditions to reproduce the aesthetic impression of, say, Paradise Lost, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Crime and Punishment, and I worry that attempts to do so might mar more than measure up. The problem lies in the difficulty of translating characters’ inner experience—which is usually conveyed by a stylizing narrator—via the essentially externalistic medium of the camera eye.
While a live action movie or series might remain faithful to the selective events in a plot, the lack of an interpretive narrator removes a key element of what defines epic poems and novels. Paradoxically, the narrowing of perspective through a stylizing narrator allows the story to move from the limits of natural events into the limitlessness of human perception and interpretation. Voiceover narrators can provide thematic stylization in film, as well as essential plot coherence, but it is still primarily the camera that replaces the literary narrator as the means of conveyance. Furthermore, if too ubiquitous, voiceovers can separate the audience from the action, which is the focus of film. Film’s power inheres in its ability to place the audience in the midst of a plot, removing as many frames between the watcher and the story’s events as possible. However, this is also why books are so difficult to translate: motion pictures focus on events when the aesthetic experience of literature inheres in how characters and narrator experience said events.
The literary movement that focused most on the character’s experience (and, vicariously, ours) as the purpose of art was Romanticism. Romantic literature and poetry were less concerned about the subject matter than about their effect on the character’s emotions—in the sense that, from the generally Platonic metaphysics of the Romantics, the incidental reaches its fullest meaning by provoking an aesthetic experience far beyond it. From Hawthorne’s rose bush growing outside Salem’s prison, to Shelley’s second hand rumination on the ruined feet of Ozymandias, to Keats’s apostrophe to the Grecian urn, the Romantics showed how part of the reality of an object involves its significance to the observer, and it was the role of the Romantic narrator and speaker to draw out that effect for the reader.
It is this essential influence of the narrator and characters’ inner lives on the great works’ aesthetic experience that makes me skeptical of even the best acting, camera work, and post-production effects to sufficiently replace them. It may be possible, and, again, I have very much enjoyed some renditions. Furthermore, not wanting to be the audience member who misses the Shakespeare performance for the open copy of the play on their lap, I tend to watch movie adaptations as distinct works rather than in strict relation to the originals. However, this, itself, may be a concession to my hesitance to trust film to live up to the aesthetic experience of certain books. I would, however, trust anime to do so.
While a history of Japanese manga and anime is beyond the scope of this piece (or my expertise), since choosing to explore the artform as a post-grad-school reward (or recovery—one can only stare at the sun that is Paradise Lost for so long) I’ve watched plenty of anime over the past ten years, and I have become convinced that it might serve as, at least, a middle ground when seeking to capture plot, narrative tone, and inner character experience in a motion medium. Anime is capable of handling virtually every story genre, and while it contains many of the same ridiculous hi-jinks and satire of Western cartoons and CG animation, it can also capture tragic pathos and sublime catharsis in ways that would be out of place in the vast majority of Western animation. This makes sense: originating in early 20th-century Japan, manga and anime were not subject to the same skepticism about artistic representations of transcendent value that characterized Western art after the move from 19th-century Romanticism and Realism to 20th-century modernism and postmodernism.
Of course, there have been exceptions; 20th-century Disney animation, or Marvel and DC Comics, were iconic because they attempted to be iconic—they unironically tried to depict in images those values and stories that are transcendent. However, even these were created predominantly with the child (or the childlike adult) in mind. Furthermore, while anime certainly has deserved elements of ambivalence, if not cynicism, and while there are many incredibly satirical and humorous series, anime as an artform is not implicitly dismissive of narrative trustworthiness and characters’ experience of the transcendent in the same way that much of Western motion art is. Rather, anime conventionally allows for the sublime heights and deepest horrors that previously characterized Romanticism, all of which it presents through the stylization of animation. This stylization is able to act as an interpretive medium just like a novel’s narrator, contextualizing events through the experience of those involved in a way often eschewed by, if not unavailable to, film.
For an example, I submit Kaguya-sama: Love is War (Japanese Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai – Tensai-tachi no Ren’ai Zunōsen, “Kaguya Wants to Make Them Confess: The Geniuses’ War of Hearts and Minds”). Though a romantic comedy in the Slice-of-Life genre, it exemplifies anime’s ability to convey the heights and depths of inner experience of the characters—here Kaguya and Miyuki, a pair of high school teenagers who, as student council president and vice president, compete to be top of their class while being secretly in love with each other and too proud to admit it. As the English title conveys, a running metaphor through the show is the bellicose subtext of their attempts to maneuver each other into confessing their love first and, thus, losing the war; think Beatrice and Benedick with the extremizing effect of teenage hormones and motifs of heavy artillery.
Plot-wise, Love is War follows a standard rom-com formula, with tropes recognizable to Western audiences: the pride and prejudices of the characters, the much ado about things that end up being really nothing, the presence of a mutual friend who acts as an oblivious catalyst and go-between in the relationship, etc. However, the show reinvigorates these tropes by portraying via hyperbolic narrator the deuteragonists’ experience of the episodes’ conflicts, bringing audience members into the all-consuming tension of how a teenager might see something as minor as whether to share an item from their lunch. The combination of chess and military metaphors conveys the inner conflicts of the initially cold but gradually warming characters (the “tsundere” character type common in such animes), and the consistency of such motifs creates a unified aesthetic that, due in large part to the disconnect between the over-the-top tone and, in reality, low-stakes subject matter, is hysterical. Another unique aspect about Love is War is that, due to its focus on the characters’ experience of the plot (all the better for being trivially mundane), it’s a technically Romantic romantic comedy.
Love is War is, of course, a low-stakes example of what modern anime can do, though it did score three awards, including Best Comedy, at the 2020 Crunchyroll Anime Awards. A more serious example, Death Note, similarly conveys much of its gravitas through voiceover—this time the first-person narration of protagonist Light Yagami, a high schooler who with the help of a book from the realm of the dead is able to kill anyone whose name and face he knows, and L, a mysterious and reclusive detective charged by Interpol to find him. Throughout the series—which employs similar, if non-parodic, attempts by characters to outwit each other as Love is War—Light and L articulate their planned maneuvers and the implications thereof through inner voiceover. Not only does the narration lay out elements of their battle of wits that the audience might have missed, but it conveys the growing tension the two experience—especially Light, who, as he amasses fame as both a menace and cult hero experiences a growing egotism and subsequent paranoia around the possibility of being found out.
Just as Love is War is, in many ways, a parallel of Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth and Darcy, themselves, both being tsundere characters), Death Note’s focus on a young man who wishes to achieve greatness by killing those deserving of death and who subsequently develops a maddening neurosis is virtually the same as Crime and Punishment—however enormously their plots and endings differ (Crime and Punishment lacks an explicit demonic presence like Death Note’s Shinigami Ryuk, the Death Note’s otherworldly owner; Dostoevsky would not employ the spectre of a conversant devil until The Brothers Karamazov—yet another point of consanguinity between anime like Death Note and his writing). Regardless of their differing plots, the anime’s inclusion of the characters’ inner thoughts and imaginations convey an increasingly tense tone similar to how Dostoevsky steadily shows Raskalnikov’s moral unmooring, and the explanations and attempted self-justifications by both Light and L convey more than I think even the best cinema would be capable of showing.
I am not advocating that every narrative motif or figuration be included in page-to-screen renditions, nor that we cease trying to actively reinvigorate great works of art through judicious adaptations into new media. Yet, if the inner lives of teenagers—which are often exaggerated, if at times unnecessarily, to Romantic proportions—can be portrayed by anime to such comic and tragic effect, with the figuration and tone of the characters’ perceptions seamlessly paralleling the literal events without obscuring them, then I’d be interested to see what an anime Jane Eyre, The Alchemist, or Sula might look like. Based on the above examples, as well as anime heavyweights like Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Bebop, and, if one is not faint of heart, Berserk, all of which present events in some measure through the background and perspective of the main characters, I could imagine the works of Milton, Hugo, Austen, Dostoevsky, and others in anime form, with the aesthetic experience of the original narration intact.
Written in the 1660s, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is the type of book I imagine one could spend a lifetime mining for meaning and still be left with something to learn. Its being conceived as an English Epic that uses the poetic forms and conventions of Homeric and Ovidic antiquity to present a Christian subject, it yields as much to the student of literature as it does to students of history and politics, articulating in its retelling of the Fall many of the fundamental questions at work in the post-Civil-War body politic of the preceding decade (among many other things). Comparable with Dante’s Inferno in form, subject, and depth, Paradise Lost offers—and requires—much to and from readers, and it is one of the deepest and most complex works in the English canon. I thank God Milton did not live a half century earlier or write plays, else I might have to choose between him and Shakespeare—because I’d hesitate to simply pick Shakespeare.
One similarity between Milton and Shakespeare that has import to today’s broader discussion involves the question of whether they present their female characters fairly, believably, and admirably, or merely misogynistically. Being a Puritan Protestant from the 1600s writing an Epic verse version of Genesis 1-3, Milton must have relegated Eve to a place of silent submission, no? This was one of the questions I had when I first approached him in graduate school, and, as I had previously found when approaching Shakespeare and his heroines with the same query, I found that Milton understood deeply the gender politics of Adam and Eve, and he had a greater respect for his heroine than many current students might imagine.
I use “gender politics” intentionally, for it is through the different characterizations of Adam and Eve that Milton works out the developing conception of the citizen in an England that had recently executed its own king. As I’ve written in my discussion of Shakespeare’s history plays, justified or not, regicide has comprehensive effects. Thus, the beheading of Charles I on 30 January 1649 had implications for all 17th-century English citizens, many of which were subsequently written about by many like Margaret Cavendish and John Locke. At issue was the question of the individual’s relation to the monarch; does the citizen’s political identity inhere in the king or queen (Cavendish’s perspective), or does he or she exist as a separate entity (Locke’s)? Are they merely “subjects” in the sense of “the king’s subjects,” or are they “subjects” in the sense of being an active agent with an individual perspective that matters? Is it Divine Right, conferred on and descended from Adam, that makes a monarch, or is it the consent of the governed, of which Eve was arguably the first among mankind?
Before approaching such topics in Paradise Lost, Milton establishes the narrative framework of creation. After an initial prologue that does an homage to the classical invoking of the Muses even as it undercuts the pagan tradition and places it in an encompassing Christian theology (there are many such nuances and tensions throughout the work), Milton’s speaker introduces Satan, nee Lucifer, having just fallen with his third of heaven after rebelling against the lately announced Son. Thinking, as he does, that the Son is a contingent being like himself (rather than a non-contingent being coequal with the Father, as the Son is shown to be in Book III), Satan has failed to submit to a rulership he does not believe legitimate. He, thus, establishes one of the major themes of Paradise Lost: the tension between the individual’s will and God’s. Each character’s conflict inheres in whether or not they will choose to remain where God has placed them—which inerringly involves submitting to an authority that, from their limited perspective, they do not believe deserves their submission—or whether they will reject it and prefer their own apparently more rational interests. Before every major character—Satan, Adam, and Eve—is a choice between believing the superior good of God’s ordered plan and pursuing the seemingly superior option of their individual desires.
Before discussing Eve, it is worth looking at her unheavenly counterpart, Sin. In a prefiguration of the way Eve was formed out of Adam before the book’s events, Sin describes to Satan how she was formed Athena-style out of his head when he chose to rebel against God and the Son, simultaneously being impregnated by him and producing their son, Death. As such she and Satan stand as a parody not only of the parent-progeny-partner relationship of Adam-Eve but also of God and the Son. Describing her illicit role in Lucifer’s rebellion, Sin says that almost immediately after birth,
I pleased and with attractive graces won The most averse (thee chiefly) who full oft Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing Becam’st enamoured and such joy thou took’st With me in secret that my womb conceived A growing burden.
—Paradise Lost II.761-767
In here and other places, Sin shows that her whole identity is wrapped up in Satan, her father-mate. In fact, there is rarely any instance where she refers to herself without also referring to him for context or as a counterpoint. Lacking her own, private selfhood from which she is able to volitionally choose the source of her identity and meaning, Sin lives in a state of perpetual torment, constantly being impregnated and devoured by the serpents and hellhounds that grow out of her womb.
Sin’s existence provides a Dantean concretization of Satan’s rebellion, which is elsewhere presented as necessarily one of narcissistic solipsism—a greatness derived from ignoring knowledge that might contradict his supposed greatness. A victim of her father-mate’s “narcissincest” (a term I coined for her state in grad school), Sin is not only an example of the worst state possible for the later Eve, but also, according to many critics, of women in 17th-century England, both in relation to their fathers and husbands, privately, as well as to the monarch (considered by many the “father of the realm”), publically. Through this reading, we can see Milton investigating, through Sin, not only the theology of Lucifer’s fall, but also of an extreme brand of royalism assumed by many at the time. And yet, it is not merely a simple criticism of royalism, per se: though Milton, himself, wrote other works defending the execution of Charles I and eventually became a part of Cromwell’s government, it is with the vehicle of Lucifer’s rebellion and Sin—whose presumptions are necessarily suspect—that he investigates such things (not the last instance of his work being as complex as the issues it investigates).
After encountering the narcissincest of the Satan-Sin relationship in Book II we are treated to its opposite in the next: the reciprocative respect between the Father and the Son. In what is, unsurprisingly, one of the most theologically-packed passages in Western literature, Book III seeks to articulate the throneroom of God, and it stands as the fruit of Milton’s study of scripture, soteriology, and the mysteries of the Incarnation, offering, perhaps wisely, as many questions as answers for such a scene. Front and center is, of course, the relationship between the Son and Father, Whose thrones are surrounded by the remaining two thirds of the angels awaiting what They will say. The Son and Father proceed to narrate to Each Other the presence of Adam and Eve in Eden and Satan’s approach thereunto; They then discuss what will be Their course—how They will respond to what They, omniscient, already know will happen.
One major issue Milton faced in representing such a discussion is the fact that it is not really a discussion—at least, not dialectically. Because of the triune nature of Their relationship, the Son already knows what the Father is thinking; indeed, how can He do anything but share His Father’s thoughts? And yet, the distance between the justice and foresight of the Father (in no ways lacking in the Son) and the mercy and love of the Son (no less shown in the words of the Father) is managed by the frequent use of the rhetorical question. Seeing Satan leave Hell and the chaos that separates it from the earth, the Father asks:
Only begotten Son, seest thou what rage Transports our Adversary whom no bounds Prescribed, no bars…can hold, so bent he seems On desperate revenge that shall redound Upon his own rebellious head?
—Paradise Lost III.80-86
The Father does not ask the question to mediate the Son’s apparent lack of knowledge, since, divine like the Father, the Son can presumably see what He sees. Spoken in part for the sake of those angels (and readers) who do not share Their omniscience, the rhetorical questions between the Father and Son assume knowledge even while they posit different ideas. Contrary to the solipsism and lack of sympathy between Sin and Satan (who at first does not even recognize his daughter-mate), Book III shows the mutual respect and knowledge of the rhetorical questions between the Father and Son—who spend much of the scene describing Each Other and Their motives (which, again, are shared).
The two scenes between father figures and their offspring in Books II and III provide a backdrop for the main father-offspring-partner relationship of Paradise Lost: that of Adam and Eve—with the focus, in my opinion, on Eve. Eve’s origin story is unique in Paradise Lost: while she was made out of Adam and derives much of her joy from him, she was not initially aware of him at her nativity, and she is, thus, the only character who has experienced and can remember (even imagine) existence independent of a source.
Book IV opens on Satan reaching Eden, where he observes Adam and Eve and plans how to best ruin them. Listening to their conversation, he hears them describe their relationship and their respective origins. Similar to the way the Father and Son foreground their thoughts in adulatory terms, Eve addresses Adam as, “thou for whom | And from whom I was formed flesh of thy flesh | and without whom am to no end, my guide | And head” (IV.440-443). While those intent on finding sexism in the poem will, no doubt, jump at such lines, Eve’s words are significantly different from Sin’s. Unlike Sin’s assertion of her being a secondary “perfect image” of Satan (wherein she lacks positive subjectivity), Eve establishes her identity as being reciprocative of Adam’s in her being “formed flesh,” though still originating in “thy flesh.” She is not a mere picture of Adam, but a co-equal part of his substance. Also, Eve diverges from Sin’s origin-focused account by relating her need of Adam for her future, being “to no end” without Adam; Eve’s is a chosen reliance of practicality, not an unchosen one of identity.
Almost immediately after describing their relationship, Eve recounts her choice of being with Adam—which necessarily involves remembering his absence at her nativity. Hinting that were they to be separated Adam would be just as lost, if not more, than she (an idea inconceivable between Sin and Satan, and foreshadowing Eve’s justification in Book IX for sharing the fruit with Adam, who finds himself in an Eve-less state), she continues her earlier allusion to being separated from Adam, stating that, though she has been made “for” Adam, he a “Like consort to [himself] canst nowhere find” (IV.447-48). Eve then remembers her awakening to consciousness:
That day I oft remember when from sleep I first awaked and found myself reposed Under a shade on flow’rs, much wond’ring where And what I was, whence thither brought and how.
—Paradise Lost IV.449-452
Notably seeing her origin as one not of flesh but of consciousness, she highlights that she was alone. That is, her subjective awareness preexisted her understanding of objective context. She was born, to use a phrase by another writer of Milton’s time, tabula rasa, without either previous knowledge or a mediator to grant her an identity. Indeed, perhaps undercutting her initial praise of Adam, she remembers it “oft”; were this not an image of the pre-Fall marriage, one might imagine the first wife wishing she could take a break from her beau—the subject of many critical interpretations! Furthermore, Milton’s enjambment allows a dual reading of “from sleep,” as if Eve remembers that day as often as she is kept from slumber—very different from Sin’s inability to forget her origin due to the perpetual generation and gnashing of the hellhounds and serpents below her waist. The privacy of Eve’s nativity so differs from Sin’s public birth before all the angels in heaven that Adam—her own father-mate—is not even present; thus, Eve is able to consider herself without reference to any other. Of the interrogative words with which she describes her post-natal thoughts— “where…what…whence”—she does not question “who,” further showing her initial isolation, which is so defined that she initially cannot conceive of another separate entity.
Eve describes how, hearing a stream, she discovered a pool “Pure as th’ expanse of heav’n” (IV.456), which she subsequently approached and, Narcissus-like, looked down into.
As I bent down to look, just opposite A shape within the wat’ry gleam appeared Bending to look on me. I started back, It started back, but pleased I soon returned, Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks Of sympathy and love.
—Paradise Lost IV.460-465
When she discovers the possibility that another person might exist, it is, ironically, her own image in the pool. In Eve, rather than in Sin or Adam, we are given an image of self-awareness, without reference to any preceding structural identity. Notably, she is still the only person described in the experience—as she consistently refers to the “shape” as “it.” Eve’s description of the scene contains the actions of two personalities with only one actor; that is, despite there being correspondence in the bending, starting, and returning, and in the conveyance of pleasure, sympathy, and love, there is only one identity present. Thus, rather than referring to herself as an image of another, as does Sin, it is Eve who is here the original, with the reflection being the image, inseparable from herself though it be. Indeed, Eve’s nativity thematically resembles the interaction between the Father and the Son, who, though sharing the same omniscient divinity, converse from seemingly different perspectives. Like the Father Who instigates interaction with His Son, His “radiant image” (III.63), in her first experience Eve has all the agency.
As the only instance in the poem when Eve has the preeminence of being another’s source (if only a reflection), this scene invests her interactions with Adam with special meaning. Having experienced this private moment of positive identity before following the Voice that leads her to her husband, Eve is unique in having the capacity to agree or disagree with her seemingly new status in relation to Adam, having remembered a time when it was not—a volition unavailable to Sin and impossible (and unnecessary) to the Son.
And yet, this is the crux of Eve’s conflict: will she continue to heed the direction of the Voice that interrupted her Narcissus-like fixation at the pool and submit herself to Adam? The ambivalence of her description of how she would have “fixed | Mine eyes till now and pined with vain desire,” over her image had the Voice not come is nearly as telling as is her confession that, though she first recognized Adam as “fair indeed, and tall!” she thought him “less fair, | Less winning soft, less amiably mild | Than that smooth wat’ry image” (IV.465-480). After turning away from Adam to return to the pool and being subsequently chased and caught by Adam, who explained the nature of their relation—how “To give thee being I lent | Out of my side to thee, nearest my heart, | Substantial life to have thee by my side”—she “yielded, and from that time see | How beauty is excelled by manly grace | And wisdom which alone is truly fair” (IV. 483-491). One can read these lines at face value, hearing no undertones in her words, which are, after all, generally accurate, Biblically speaking. However, despite the nuptial language that follows her recounting of her nativity, it is hard for me not to read a subtle irony in the words, whether verbal or dramatic. That may be the point—that she is not an automaton without a will, but a woman choosing to submit, whatever be her personal opinion of her husband.
Of course, the whole work must be read in reference to the Fall—not merely as the climax which is foreshadowed throughout, but also as a condition necessarily affecting the writing and reading of the work, it being, from Milton’s Puritan Protestant perspective, impossible to correctly interpret pre-Fall events from a post-Fall state due to the noetic effects of sin. Nonetheless, in keeping with the generally Arminian tenor of the book—that every character must have a choice between submission and rebellion for their submission to be valid, and that the grace promised in Book III is “Freely vouchsafed” and not based on election (III.175)—I find it necessary to keep in mind, as Eve seems to, the Adam-less space that accompanied her nativity. Though one need not read all of her interaction with Adam as sarcastic, in most of her speech one can read a subtextual pull back to the pool, where she might look at herself, alone. In Eve we see the fullest picture of what is, essentially, every key character’s (indeed, from Milton’s view, every human’s) conflict: to choose to submit to an assigned subordinacy or abstinence against the draw of a seemingly more attractive alternative, often concretized in what Northrop Frye calls a “provoking object”—the Son being Satan’s, the Tree Adam’s, and the reflection (and private self it symbolizes, along with an implicit alternative hierarchy with her in prime place) Eve’s. In this way, the very private consciousness that gives Eve agency is that which threatens to destroy it; though Sin lacks the private selfhood possessed by Eve, the perpetual self-consumption of her and Satan’s incestuous family allegorizes the impotent and illusory self-returning that would characterize Eve’s existence if she were to return to the pool. Though she might not think so, anyone who knows the myth that hers parallels knows that, far from limiting her freedom, the Voice that called Eve from her first sight of herself rescued her from certain death (though not for long).
The way Eve’s subjectivity affords her a special volition connects with the biggest questions of Milton’s time. Eve’s possessing a private consciousness from which she can consensually submit to Adam parallels John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Civil Government” of the same century, wherein he articulates how the consent of the governed precedes all claims of authority. Not in Adam but in Eve does Milton show that monarchy—even one as divine, legitimate, and absolute as God’s—relies on the volition of the governed, at least as far as the governed’s subjective perception is concerned. Though she cannot reject God’s authority without consequence, Eve is nonetheless able to agree or disagree with it, and through her Milton presents the reality that outward submission does not eliminate inward subjectivity and personhood (applicable as much to marriages as to monarchs, the two being considered parallel both in the poem and at the time of its writing); indeed, the inalienable presence of the latter is what gives value to the former and separates it from the agency-less state pitifully experienced by Sin.
And yet, Eve’s story (to say nothing of Satan’s) also stands as a caution against simply taking on the power of self-government without circumspection. Unrepentant revolutionary though he was, Milton was no stranger to the dangers of a quickly and simply thrown-off government, nor of an authority misused, and his nuancing of the archetype of all subsequent rebellions shows that he did not advocate rebellion as such. While Paradise Lost has influenced many revolutions (political in the 18th-century revolutions, artistic in the 19th-century Romantics, cultural in the 20th-century New Left), it nonetheless has an anti-revolutionary current. Satan’s presumptions and their later effects on Eve shows the self-blinding that is possible to those who, simply trusting their own limited perception, push for an autonomy they believe will liberate them to an unfettered reason but which will, in reality, condemn them to a solipsistic ignorance.
By treating Eve, not Adam, as the everyman character who, like the character of a morality play, represents the psychological state of the tempted individual—that is, as the character with whom the audience is most intended to sympathize—Milton elevates her to the highest status in the poem. Moreover—and of special import to Americans like myself—as an articulation of an individual citizen who does not derive the relation to an authority without consent, Eve stands as a prototype of the post-17th-century conception of the citizen that would lead not only to further changes between the British Crown and Parliament but also a war for independence in the colonies. Far from relegating Eve to a secondary place of slavish submission, Milton arguably makes her the most human character in humanity’s first story; wouldn’t that make her its protagonist? As always, let this stimulate you to read it for yourself and decide. Because it integrates so many elements—many of which might defy new readers’ expectations in their complexity and nuance—Paradise Lost belongs as much on the bookshelf and the syllabus as Shakespeare’s Complete Works, and it presents a trove for those seeking to study the intersection not only of art, history, and theology, but also of politics and gender roles in a culture experiencing a fundamental change.
For further critical reading, readers are encouraged to look into the authors from whom I’ve benefitted and who have influenced the interpretations above:
J. E. Browning—“Sin, Eve, and Circe: Paradise Lost and the Ovidian Circe Tradition.” Milton Studies 26 (1991).
N. Frye—“The Breaking of the Music.” The Return of Eden (1965).
J. G. Halkett—“Ideal Marriage.” Milton and the Idea of Matrimony (1970).
R. S. Ide—“On the Begetting of the Son in Paradise Lost.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 24.1 (1984).
M. Jooma—“The Alimentary Structures of Incest in Paradise Lost.” ELH 63.1 (1996).
E. Murphy—“Paradise Lost and the Politics of ‘Begetting.’” Milton Quarterly 45.1 (2011).
M. Nyquist, Mary—“The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity in the Divorce Tracts and in Paradise Lost.” Re-Membering Milton (1988); “Gynesis, Genesis, Exegesis, and the Formation of Milton’s Eve.” Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce (1987).
S. S. Zimmerman—“Milton’s Paradise Lost: Eve’s Struggle for Identity.” American Imago 38.3 (1981).