In order to be able to discover the relevance Milton and Paradise Lost still have today in a post-modernist society, I believe that it is imperative to first be able to understand and appreciate Milton in the context and times in which this epic, Paradise Lost was written. This essay will aim to uncover some of the most important and prevalent themes found in Paradise Lost, and to explain how and why these themes remain so relevant in a society which is so far removed from the era Paradise Lost was written in.
Some of the themes I will be discussing deal with important issues such as gender and colonialism. The issue of colonialism, which Milton deals with at great length, is very interesting in relation to the current times. Evans (1996) brings to the reader’s attention that during the time that Paradise Lost was written, the colonisation of America was well under way and publicized to the masses. Thus it is not surprising that the text of Paradise Lost is liberally sprinkled with references to the colonisation of America, (p. 11) such references are interesting still to today’s reader of Paradise Lost.
This is due to the fact that the world is still reeling from the effects of colonisation. Although such events took place so many years ago, ripples still have an effect on today’s society. One instance where we can se the detrimental effects of colonisation still taking place today is in Ireland. Milton, according to Achinstein (1999) “supported the colonisation of Ireland as he deemed the Irish as irredeemably barbaric, therefore undeserving of human rights. ” (p. 70). The Irish Catholics are still fighting with the English over a protestant colonisation which occurred centuries ago.
Milton, in his epic Paradise Lost deals with the theme of colonialism throughout the poem. As Evans (1996) brings to our attention, “those who journeyed into the new world were portrayed in early literature as being more ambitious, more energetic, and more daring than those who stayed behind. ” (p. 61) Evans (1996) also makes the point that Paradise lost “calls into question the character and motives of the early explorers and settlers. ” (p. 62); the same may be said about the current Iraq war and the motives of America.
The theme of colonisation begins right at the start of the poem as Satan in Book 1 says that “a fame in Heav’n” has spread stories of “new Worlds” (650-651) This new world at the time would be related back to America and the British colonisation. This colonisation is further explored in Books 2 and 3. As Evans (1996) brings to our attention, we accompany Satan on the “voyage” (2. 426, 919) across the “gulf” (2. 441) of chaos to “the coast of Earth” (3. 739) this theme of America’s colonialism and the native people found by the British is once again followed closely by Milton.
As has been discussed Eden in Paradise Lost is seen as the new world, and Adam and Eve are the natives of this colony of Gods. Evans (1996) brings to the readers attention that the colonists of America were presented with a problem of the natives descent. “According to the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were the original ancestors of the entire human race, yet the New World was populated by men and women who were separated from the old by a vast ocean, and who could not have descended from the first pair. ” (p. 6)
The conclusion it appears came in the form of John Donne, (as cited by Evans 1996, p. 87) who said that “as though man there, from Paradise so great a distance were, as yet the newes could not have arrived bee of Adams tasting the forbidden tree. ” Thus the speculation became that the Native Americans were free from the original sin, and like Adam and Eve before the fall, were unconscious of their bodies and freely walked about naked. This similarity is seen in Book 5, where Adam walks out to meet Raphael “without more train
Accompani’d than with his own complete Perfections; in himself was all his state… ” (5. 351-353) Stevens (1999) brings to our attention the very interesting point that the colonisation mentioned in Paradise Lost refers not to America, but to England. In fact he says that “Adam and Eve become Americas only at their most intense moment of shame. ” (p. 92) this refers to the moment after the fall in Book 9. “… to that first naked Glory. Such of late Columbus found th’ American so girt… ” (9. 115-6) This is in direct contrast to the argument made by Evans as previously mentioned where he believes the colonialism to refer to America. However in relation to the time Paradise Lost was written, it makes sense that the colonisation refers to England. This is due to the ‘Protestant colonisation’ which was taking place due to the disruption of the feudal system. I believe this to be a kind of colonisation as it was an era of new thought (particularly with respect to science. ), new ideas (Milton’s pamphlets on divorce as an example) as well as new leadership. (Cromwell).
Stevens (1999) makes the point that what Adam and Eve feel when they are excluded from the paradise made by God, is representative of the savages “most English colonialists on the edge of the civil world lived in fear of becoming. ” (p. 93) this relates to the theme carried out throughout Paradise Lost, where God is continuously warning Adam and Eve not to disobey Him and eat from the forbidden tree. It appears that this almost serves as a warning to the British people as to what may happen to them should they allow the ‘savages’ (for example the Irish) to continue in the way they have been.
Thus as previously mentioned, Milton, according to Achinstein (1999) “supported the colonisation of Ireland as he deemed the Irish as irredeemably barbaric, therefore undeserving of human rights. ” (p. 70). Another very interesting and I believe important theme which Milton deals with is the theme of individuality and free-will. These themes are central to Paradise Lost and are reiterated time and time again by Milton. This move toward individual characterization is common of in the modern epic, and is still common of style today.
The theme of individuality is made clear to the reader in the way that Milton characterises and gives personalities to characters in the poem. The most obvious example of this can be seen in the character of Satan. Milner (1981) brings to our attention the “obvious character development and structure of individual personality in Satan. ” Brought to our attention is the interesting idea that the Council in Hell in Book 2 “is a real debate between real individuals; Moloch, Belial, Mammon and Beelzebub are living personalities. ” (p. 53) Together with Milton’s idea of hierarchy the reader becomes aware of the makings of capitalism, an ideal which is the cornerstone of today’s Western society. I say this because as Milner (1981) points out “Milton believed in a meritocratic hierarchy of achieved, rather than ascribed, statuses. ” (p. 156)
Milner (1981) also brings to our attention that “the world of Paradise Lost is then a world of rational individuals, each in possession of free-will, which is hierarchically ordered according to the principle of promotion according to merit, with the exception of God. ” (p. 56) These notions of hierarchy by merit, individualism and free-will as mentioned by Milner (1981) are the beginnings of capitalism, as people can achieve through merit no matter what their social standing, people through free-will are able to make their own choices with regard to career and life choices. Individuality also enables them to have the freedom to explore particular talents and interests. All three aspects combined ensure that people will aim to achieve higher goals.
At the time Paradise Lost was written this was now more possible due to the fact that there was no longer a King and people were ‘more equal. Hart (http://www. leaderu. com/orgs/cdf/ff/chap09. html) says that “capitalism and Puritanism fed off each other. Both developments placed responsibility on individual initiative; and both involved clean breaks from the paternalistic and static feudal order. ” This reiterates the point that the destruction of the feudal society by the Protestants gave people the opportunity to take the initiative and change their social status, once again emphasizing the issue of free-will and individuality which Milton stresses in Paradise Lost.
These notions of capitalism are still relevant in today’s society where society is built upon the themes of Milton’s capitalism. Individualism is encouraged; people are able to rise to positions of power through merit and not social standing. One of the most interesting themes that Milton deals with in relation to today’s post-modernist world is the issue of gender. Milton’s portrayal of Eve in Paradise Lost holds many significant connotations and social interactions between male and female even in today’s society. Eve is characterized as being narcissistic and subservient to Adam.
This is relevant to us today as we can find many similarities between the ways women are viewed in society and the way in which women are portrayed Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost Milton goes to great lengths to emphasise the importance of family, as well as the function of the family to serve love. Knoppers (1991) brings to our attention that “seventeenth century English domestic handbooks and marriage sermons extol the virtues of the Protestant household ruled by husbandly wisdom and love characterised by companionship, content and voluntary wifely submission. ” (p. 48)
I find this idea relevant to today’s society as this “voluntary submission” is still in use in many societies today. Although violence against women is condoned, as it was in the seventeenth century by the Protestants. Knoppers (1991) says that “domestic handbooks speak out against wife-beating and the use of physical force by the husband. ” (p. 548) Violence against women is still rife in today’s world and very relevant to our society. In Paradise Lost this idea of love amongst a family is apparent in the relationship between Adam and Eve, as well as the relationship between Adam and God.
However Eve still remains subservient to Adam, even if it is “voluntary”. This is seen as Eve is not allowed to witness the talks between Raphael and Adam in Book 5. Eve instead provides food for Adam and Raphael. Another way in which we see the power Adam has over Eve is the power that God gives him. Froula (1983) explains that God is the personification of this patriarchal power, and Adam is created in His image. ” (p. 313) However Froula (1983) goes on to explain that Eve does in fact have some perceived power over Adam, as Eve was created in Gods image and has the maternal power which Adam lacks.
However this is more of a perceived hierarchy as Adam is given power over Eve when he is allowed by God to name woman and the animals. By allowing Adam to name Eve and the animals God institutes male dominance over language, nature and women. (Froula, 1983). This dominance over women is a factor which women have tried over the ages to break. In today’s post-modernist society the gender relations between male and female appear to have come long way. However there are many non-Westernised countries, as well as certain religions, where women are still suppressed and have far fewer rights than the men of the community.
It is in such communities that the issue of “voluntary subservience” (Knoppers, 1991) comes into play because the question of how voluntary it really is, is debatable. Woods (1988) brings to our attention that although Milton’s seemingly misogynistic views of women due to the way in which he presents Eve to the reader in Paradise Lost, “Milton was in fact ahead of his time in granting women a dignity and responsibility rarely conceded in the seventeenth century. (p. 15).
Milton during this era wrote pamphlets promoting divorce. According to Aers and Hodge (1979) “Milton argued that the grounds for divorce should be extended to include non-physical disabilities. ” (p. 16) Although Milton was ahead of time, particularly seen as he promotes divorce, he was, as Woods (1988) points out “locked into his culture’s assumptions of women’s inferior position” (p. 16). This is relative to today’s society as we also are the victims of cultural norms and expectations.
Although in Western society women take a more active role in society and not only in the family, there are still certain stereotypes and cultural expectations which we often are not aware of. Such cultural norms take place in such things as in home cleaning or appliance advertisements they are almost always characterised by a woman. This shows us that although women are more accepted into society, their main role is still as the home-maker.
Corum (1988) makes the connection between Eve being a “colonial territory,” he goes on to say that “woman only becomes valuable when she is transformed into an ideal space for the imperial male, whether for procreation, caring, support or profit for him as a father, monarch or deity. “(p. 123). This I believe is relevant to us today, as often woman are merely seen as something to conquer and own. Women are viewed as objects in many cases and not individuals. This is apparent in the sense of ‘trophy wives’. One of the interesting ways in which Milton characterises Eve is the way in which Milton deals with the issues of knowledge and education.