'Sweet Compliance': Eve's Progression into Submission in Paradise Lost

Annie Bierman


            In the Western world, the Fall of humankind from the Garden of Eden is the foundational story of creation. In the 17th Century, John Milton rewrites the story of creation in epic form to flesh out the characters and actions leading to the Fall. In both the Bible and in Paradise Lost, Eve is to blame from humankind's exile for the Garden of Eden and for giving into Satan's temptation. Throughout the epic poem, Milton shows Eve's progression from an independent woman to a dependent woman to show that women are not born submissive. As Simone de Beauvoir asserts in The Second Sex, 'One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman' (de Beauvoir 267). Therefore, the patriarchal culture surrounding Eve in Paradise Lost, in fact, forces her into submission to the point where she internalizes it, making her 'become a woman.'

            Eve becomes more than just the mother of mankind and Adam's wife in Paradise Lost. Milton's revision of the biblical Eve changes the character from static in the Bible to dynamic in Paradise Lost, giving readers a different and initially more positive view of her. In the Bible, Eve is merely the wife of Adam who eats from the forbidden tree: 'she [Eve] shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man,' (Gen 2.24). Her main characteristic is that she was made from man.  Saying nothing more about her, the Bible fails to give readers any background to Eve's character. Eve, apt to make knowledgeable and informed decisions, becomes an individual, independent of anyone else in Milton's version.  Adam observes Eve's character in Paradise Lost:  

And in herself complete so well to know

 Her own that what she wills to do or say

Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best.

All higher knowledge in her presence falls

Degraded. Wisdom in discourse with her

Loses discount'nanced and like folly shows. (Milton 8.548-553) 

Eve, as Adam says, is intelligent, and arguably the most intelligent character in the epic for he also says, 'all higher knowledge in her presence falls / Degraded.' Critic Elisabeth Liebert asserts that Milton's Eve is different by saying, 'Her actions and discourse are perceived to be different to his [Adam's] own, the result of a different conceptual process and expressive of a different volition, not based upon 'higher knowledge' or 'Wisdom,' attributes which, exposed to her otherness, are 'discount'nanc't' (Liebert 154). 

            Indeed, Milton repositions Eve as a complex woman; she is no longer merely the woman who falls prey to Satan's seduction in the Bible. Indeed, critic Jeanie Moore supports this image of a dynamic Eve by saying,  'Despite the fact' that Milton was constrained by hierarchical cultural assumptions about women and marriage, his Eve is in some respects an emergent female figure in the seventeenth century' (Moore 1). Milton, in creating Eve, is revolutionary by defying the 'hierarchical cultural assumptions' even though the storyline does not differ very much from the Bible. Moreover, Eve's character in Paradise Lost surpasses that of Eve's character in the story of Genesis, for she has independence and intelligence, characteristics not mentioned in Genesis.

            Eve, as described by Milton, is also Adam's equal. When God molds Eve out of Adam's rib, God says to Adam, 'And they shall be one flesh, one heart, one soul' (Milton 8.499).  As 'one flesh, one heart, one soul' suggests, Eve is not inferior to Adam upon creation; she is actually equal to him for she is made from the same flesh as he. Therefore, they are 'one heart, one soul.'  Love, as Adam seems to say, unifies both the people involved.  In this rendering of the creation story, Adam and Eve only appear of equal intelligence. Indeed, Liebert in agreeing with this inequality, affirms, 'Although Milton maintains that she is capable of understanding (8.48-50), compared to Adam she is 'inferior in the mind / And inward faculties' (8.541-42), created in his image, formed from him and for him (4.440-41). The two are not equal' (Liebert 156). Moreover, as they are not actually equal, the perception of equality is a false veneer in which superiority and dominion over Eve hide.  

Similarly, Simone de Beauvoir suggests that the tensions Eve feels about her identity as a woman and as a female result from the fact that 'Woman is a female to the extent that she feels herself as such' (de Beauvoir 38).  Indeed, the woman has to make herself adapt to the norms of femininity to be female, as suggested by Adam as obedient and submissive. Indeed, de Beauvoir states, 'One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch' (de Beauvoir 267).  A woman, then is not a concrete person within society; she is more or less created by society rather than for society.

         Indeed, Milton creates an illusion of equality, rather than a reality of equality. Similarly, later in the same dialogue, where God says Adam and Eve are equal, he also says about Adam:  'His image who made both and less expressing/ The character of that dominion giv'n/ O'er other creatures' (Milton 8.544-546). Contradictory to the equality he spoke of, God asserts in Genesis Adam's 'dominion' over all living creatures, including Eve.  It says, 'in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee' (Gen 3.16).  God, in telling Eve of her duties, does not allow her to make her own decisions and actually belittles her by saying that her husband 'shall rule over thee.' Therefore, equality, though stated, is not actually enforced. Within four lines, Adam hypocritically denies the equality he asserted earlier:

Those thousand decencies that daily flow

From all her words and actions mixed with love

And sweet compliance, which declare unfeigned

Union of mind or in us both one soul (Milton 8.601-604)

Therefore, Eve's 'sweet compliance' to Adam means that they are 'both one soul' and have an 'unfeigned union of mind.' Compliance, however, means agreeing with his every statement. The 'sweet' compliance negatively characterizes the manner in which she will comply. Namely, if she is going to comply, it will be in a 'sweet,' passively yielding manner. Ironically, her 'sweet compliance' as Adams says, contradicts what he said just fifty lines previously that 'All higher knowledge in her presence falls.' Critic Douglas Anderson, questions this change: 'Adam and Eve engage for the most part in the same labor, possess an identical range of intellectual curiosity, speak with the same poetic authority. They are one soul. Why then retain the language of subordination?' (Anderson 141). Moreover, Adam and Eve's equality only works if she is compliant to him at all times, remains passive in his presence, and continuously subjects herself to him.

            Eve, feeling the lack of gender equality, asserts her individuality by separating from Adam and eating the apple for her own benefit. Though she is 'wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best' according to Adam, Adam later tells her that she is unable or unsafe without his protection further pushes her to exert her independence anyway that she can, even if it is misguided or rash. When Eve suggests that she and Adam work separately, Adam immediately rejects the idea by saying: 'The wife where danger or dishonor lurks / Safest and seemliest be her husband stays / Who guards her or with her the worst endures' (Milton 9.267-269). Adam, exerting his position as a protector, tells her that she would be safest nearest him. This not only denies Eve her independence, but also tells Eve that she is in need of protecting. Jeanie Grant Liebert says, 'She was not privileged with an opportunity for self-exploration or prompted to identify and express the 'spirit within' her' (Liebert 161).  Moreover, triggered by the dichotomy of ruler and ruled, Eve displays her agency by rebelling against her ruler: Adam.

            Likewise, Adam tells Eve in Book 9 when arguing about the separation, 'for nothing lovelier can be found / in woman than to study household good / And good works in her husband to promote' (Milton 9.232-234). Using guilt as a persuasive tool, Adam tries to convince Eve that 'good works in her husband to promote' is of high importance for a woman as well as 'to study household good.'  He wants to make her adhere to Robert Crowley's guide for women entitled, 'The Womans Lesson' in which he says: 'Now when thou arte become a wife / And hast an housbande to thy minde / Se thou provoke him not to stryfe' (qtd. in Hull 54). Both the 'household good' and the 'good works' to promote' and the 'se thou provoke him not to stryfe' make Eve into an introverted woman in her relationship with Adam. Continuing to argue her point, though, readers see that she does not want to be passive; she instead would like to be active by doing things for herself.

            Though a decision with devastating effects, Eve's choice to eat the apple is strictly her own, an independent decision not influenced by Adam.  Confirming her reasoning and rationale, Eve tells Satan: 'The rest we live / Law to ourselves: our reason is our law' (Milton 9.653-654). Eve's firm belief that 'our reason is our law' justifies her actions as uniquely hers, not deemed correct by Adam, God, or even Satan. In the Bible, Genesis describes the seduction of Eve as, 'And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat' (Gen 3.6). Milton, however, shows Eve's seduction as a fight between two intelligent minds. Therefore, Eve is much more than a foolish, vane woman who resisted quickly to temptation.  Her vanity, though alluded to in the text, is not an accurate cause for why she ate the apple.  Indeed, Mandy Green, author of the essay, "The Virgin in the Garden: Milton's Ovidian Eve," says, 'Satan plays upon Eve's desire for individual distinction by presenting the eating of the apple as a heroic deed by which she will snatch a great destiny for herself and for mankind' (918). As Green concludes, Satan actually appeals to Eve's personal quest to make her own decisions; he does not appeal to how 'pleasant to the eyes' the fruit is like in the Bible, it is the desire to find knowledge that drives her. Her reasoning for eating the apple is that, '[God] Forbids us then to taste, but His forbidding/ Commends thee more while it infers the good/ By thee communicated and our want' (Milton 9.753-755).

             As Eve rationalizes her decision in Paradise Lost, she wishes to acquire knowledge and it is her 'want' that drives her to believe that she was making the right decision. Indeed, Jeanie Grant Liebert says, 'She was not privileged with an opportunity for self-exploration or prompted to identify and express the 'spririt within' her' (Liebert 161).  Moreover, triggered by the desire to know or self-explore, as Liebert asserts, Eve rationalizes her actions to be based on what she says earlier, 'our reason is our law.' Indeed, when Satan appeals to her vanity:  'who shoulds't be seen/ A goddess among gods adored and served/ By angels numberless thy daily train' (Milton 9.546-548), she does not flinch.  When he appeals to her individuality and agency, she finally relents and eats the apple. Moreover, Eve's folly in eating the apple is both positive and negative for her, positive in the fact that she asserts her agency in choosing to eat it but negative because of the repercussions.

            Before Book 12, however, Eve's actions and thus interactions foreshadow her coming submission. When Adam tells Eve he is going to meet with Raphael, the angel, in Book 11, Adam says to Eve, 'With reverence I must meet and thou retire' (Milton 11.237). Directly telling her what to do rather than asking her what she wants to do further illustrates the male superiority complex building around Eve. Leaving her at home translates into his lack of trust for her. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, author of Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, complements this by describing what happens when social order is disrupted, like when Eve made the decision for herself and Adam. Wiesner-Hanks asserts, 'Women or men who stepped outside their prescribed roles' were seen as threatening not only the relations between the sexes but also the operation of the entire social order' (Wiesner-Hanks 296). Social order, to the early modern audience, holds the order in which the society survives. Indeed, lack of compliance to the social order puts society, as a whole, in a state of chaos.

            Therefore, since Eve threatens social order, she is now excluded from instances, like Adam's conversation with Raphael, where Adam discusses issues of importance. Namely, in the last conversation all three characters had together, Raphael berated and belittled Eve while she had to be silent and listen:

Or was she made thy guide

Superior, or but equal, that to her

Though didst resign they manhood and the place

Wherein God set thee 'bove her, made of thee

And for thee, whose perfection far excelled

Hers in all real dignity?' (Milton 10.146-151).

As she had to sit and listen, readers can see her slow progression into submission. Because she is internalizing sexism from all sources, more particularly all male sources, she is beginning to believe what they are saying to her. For example, when she begins to answer Raphael, the narrator notes about Eve, 'To whom sad Eve with shame nigh overwhelmed / Confessing soon, yet not before her Judge / Bold or loquacious, thus abashed replied' (Milton 10.159-162). Milton's choices of words such as 'shame' and 'abashed' reduce Eve to a pitiful and self-sacrificing state in which she believes she is fully to blame for everything. Indeed, sex is much more than the dichotomy between man and woman, it is a dichotomy between superior and inferior, ruler and ruled. Even later within the same book, Eve acknowledges, 'How little weight my words with thee can find, / Found so erroneous, thence by just event / Found so unfortunate' (Milton 10.967-970). In the books after the Fall and before her final submission to patriarchy, Eve's confidence and agency gradually diminishes, leaving her to find just 'how little weight my words with thee can find.'

         In the final book of Paradise Lost, Eve loses her independence and submits to the dominating patriarchal society. As the scapegoat, she internalizes her supposed inferiority to man. This internalized sexism seizes Eve; in resignation, she takes the blame for the Fall of mankind: 'Who for my willful crime art banished hence' (Milton 12.303), even though both she and Adam ate from the Forbidden Tree. Similarly, de Beauvoir suggests that the tension Eve feels about her identity as a woman and as a female result from the fact that 'Woman is a female to the extent that she feels herself as such' (de Beauvoir 38).  Indeed, the woman has to make herself adapt to the norms of femininity, as suggested by Adam as obedient and submissive, to be female. As de Beauvoir states, one 'becomes a woman,' Adam's, God's, and Raphael's criticism of and dominion over Eve make her 'become a woman.' Specifically about the story of Genesis and the Fall, de Beauvoir asserts, Eve 'was a conscious being, but naturally submissive. And therein lies the wondrous hope that man has often put in woman: he hopes to fulfill himself as being by carnally possessing a being, but at the same time confirming his sense of freedom through the docility of a free person' (de Beauvoir 141). Therefore, Adam's possession and dominance of Eve throughout the epic by constantly reminding her of her position and criticizing her for being independent result from a subconscious need for him to dominate another person. Moreover, Eve as a woman is biologically a woman, but without the help of God or Adam, she is not female.

             When she took the blame, Adam said nothing to comfort or even thank her for admitting sole responsibility for the apple, the narrator notes: 'So spake our mother Eve and Adam heard/ Well pleased but answered not' (Milton 12.624-625).  Adam's silence in her grand gesture confirms his approval for her admittance and his 'pleased' mind in knowing that they are 'in us both one soul.' Therefore, Eve internalizes sexism because, as de Beauvoir concludes, 'Woman can be defined by her consciousness of her own femininity no more satisfactorily that be saying that she is a female, for she acquires this consciousness under circumstances dependent upon the society of which she is a member' (de Beauvoir 49). Adam remains silence to show his approval for her statement, thus telling her that she is the one to blame for the Fall. 

            From her statement and his silence, readers can see the development of Eve as a wife in the Early Modern period. Robert Crowley's book, a guidebook for woman, in his last chapter, titled, 'The Womans Lesson,' depicts the duties a wife has to her husband, Eve has to Adam:

And if thyne housbande do outrage

In any thinge what so it be

Admonish him of his laste age

With words mylde as becometh the. (qtd. in Hull 55)

As Crowley says, a woman must 'with words mylde as becometh the' recapture the favor of her husband. Therefore, Eve acknowledges this fact and by admitting that she wronged him, she is 'admonish[ing] of his laste age.' Indeed, Eve's decision, or forfeit as it is better described, leads her to begin her duties as a wife in the early modern period.

            Similarly, at the end of the epic, Adam and Eve both walk out of the Garden together, equal. Indeed, the narrator says, 'They hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow / Through Eden took their solitary way' (Milton 12.-648-649). Hand in hand Adam and Eve walk out of Eden, seemingly equal. Closer reading reveals however, that they are not equal.  When Eve submits to Adam and takes the blame for the fall of mankind, she is in 'sweet compliance' as Adam has wanted from her creation in Book 8 to create an 'unfeigned union of mind.' In the Bible, Eve deceives Adam into eating the apple, but in Paradise Lost, Adam chooses to eat it. The results are the same, though'Adam blames Eve. Milton, in doing this, reveals the hypocrisy of the patriarchal society'no matter if a man chooses to do something or not, he is still going to blame the woman in the end. The result of this hypocrisy is her submission for wanting to resolve a fight where she is outnumbered.

            Singling herself out as the reason for the Fall, Eve braves criticism, condescension, and even degradation from her husband and her maker. Troubling is the manner in which she does it though. Adam and God both accuse her of giving into the temptation of the sin, but it is Eve who backs down to finally take the blame. From the unrelenting patriarchal society, Eve is more or less tied down by the dominating culture and is obliged into submission in order to sweetly comply as Adam says. Milton's insistence in creating his own version of Eve as a more complex character makes a bold and rare statement: Eve took the blame because she had to, not because she wanted to.




Works Cited

Anderson, Douglas. "Unfallen Marriage and the Fallen Imagination in Paradise Lost." SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 26.1 (1986): 125-144. MLA International Bibliography.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Green, Mandy. "The Virgin in the Garden: Milton's Ovidian Eve." Modern Language Review 100.4 (2005): 903-922. Academic Search Premier.

Hull, Suzanne W. Chaste, Silent & Obedient: English Books for Women 1475-1640. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1982.

Liebert, Elisabeth. "Rendering "More Equal": Eve's Changing Discourse in Paradise Lost.' Milton Quarterly 37.3 (2003): 152-165.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Gordon Teskey. New York: Norton, 2005.

Moore, Jeanie Grant. "The Two Faces of Eve: Temptation Scenes in Comus and Paradise Lost." Milton Quarterly 36.1 (2002): 1.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. 3rd ed. New York: Camridge University Press, 2008.