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Paradise Lost by John Milton - Barron's Booknotes
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LINES 494-790. THE TEMPTING OF EVE

This is the climax of Paradise Lost. In this dialog you see the tempter at his most subtle and Eve-representing woman-at her worst. It is a marvelously dramatic scene, with the tension increasing in every line. You begin to bite your nails with anxiety for Eve, wanting to shout at her that the serpent is getting at all her weakest points. By the end of the scene, it's all over. Everything in the world is downhill after this.

First the serpent gets Eve's attention by playing in front of her like all the other animals. Then he flatters her: every living thing adores your beauty, but they are all beasts and there is only one man to appreciate you. You should be a goddess because you are so beautiful.

Eve is a bit surprised that a serpent can talk, since speech was denied to animals at the creation. However, they often look and act like reasonable creatures. She asks the serpent to explain why he has suddenly become so friendly to her.



Watch how the serpent works on Eve's vanity. The serpent was the only animal who could reach the fruit of the tree, so there is something special about him. And then, after eating the fruit had made him wise and able to speak, his new wisdom made him appreciate Eve, "sovereign of creatures, universal dame." Is such flattery resistible? And is it a fair assumption that a woman always falls for it? Eve has no model of female behavior from which to learn or to compare herself with.

The serpent offers to show her the wonderful tree, and they set off together. An epic simile performs its usual function of intensifying the message: as the serpent leads Eve through the undergrowth, the jeweled crest on his head shines like those phosphorescent vapors which rise above bogs and marshes. People mistake them for lights and get drowned-exactly as Eve is going to be misled.

Eve is puzzled when she arrives with the serpent at the Tree of Knowledge. We can't touch this tree, she says. God commanded it. But notice carefully what she says next: except for this prohibition, we live according to the dictates of our reason, which is our law. The word "reason" is central to the serpent's argument with Eve's fatal decision. Reason is a fallible guide for mankind, who should trust God.

After Eve has reiterated God's prohibition (using the exact words of Genesis in lines 662 and 663), Satan seems to pull himself up and marshall all his forces like a classical orator preparing for a supreme speech. Satan's speech is a classic of persuasion.

The tree is the "mother of science," and he feels the power of knowledge within him. Eve-"Queen of the universe"- will not die. The fruit is life, knowledge-it cannot kill. Look at me: I ate it and here I am. Why does God deny to a man what a beast has tasted?

God must have prohibited the tree because he wanted no rivals. When a beast eats the fruit, he moves up the hierarchy and becomes human; so, logically, if a human eats the fruit, he will become a god. Using another logical argument, Satan asks what harm there is in man's having knowledge, since God has power over everything and will only give man knowledge of what he wills to. You need this fruit, Eve: "Goddess humane, reach then and freely taste."

And then Milton adds a stroke of genius that makes the story truly moving: Eve is already partly persuaded by those treacherous guides, logic and reason, but it's also lunchtime and she's hungry. You will sympathize with this-so often a tiny practical detail tips the balance when you're making a decision.

Eve's speech is full of logic and reason. If the tree protects the knowledge of good and evil, how can we know good without tasting the fruit? She raises the question which never receives a satisfactory answer: has God forbidden wisdom to man? The argument that convinces Eve is the sight of the serpent, obviously none the worse for having tasted the fruit. You will realize, as Eve does not, that the serpent is lying. He has never tasted the fruit. Do you think Eve even suspects that the serpent is really Satan in disguise?

Within two lines the deed is done: "she plucked, she ate." The earth shudders. The serpent slinks back to his cover while Eve gorges herself until she is drunk on the fruit.

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