I’m studying for the GRE: English Literature subject test. If you’re familiar with the test then you know that the sheer amount of reading you have to do to prep for the test is pretty time consuming. Between reading and writing, I haven’t had a lot of time for anything else.
I’m glad to be reading through the classics though. I didn’t appreciate them in high school (partially because as a rule I think we teach them too young). Really the only books I enjoyed from this list were the ones I read later in college. I like reading them because it’s interesting to see how literature and writing evolved over time, and I like being familiar to the works that everything references. The big two that I’m more familiar with thanks to pop culture than the work themselves are Paradise Lost, and Dante’s inferno.
So I’m going to be posting book reviews. Some of them will eventually be popular and new books, but for now, it’s going to be old classics, starting with Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost was written by John Milton in the late 17th century. Because of his blindness, Milton had his daughter write down the words of the poem as he spoke it. Milton alludes to his blindness in the poem, hoping his physical blindness allows him to have a better spiritual sight. His blindness does give reading the lengthy descriptions of eden and hell and heaven more depth. He was SO descriptive. Paradise Lost is constructed as a modern epic poem and follows the traits of an epic closely. It invokes the muse (the holy spirit and Urania at different occasions), begins in medias res (in the middle of things) and acknowledges the epics that came before throughout the poem.
The poem begins with Satan and his followers waking up in hell after their war on heaven. At first they are devastated but Satan shows the same plucky determination and positive outlooks that Disney heroes exhibit today. He’s determined to make the best out of a bad situation and declares that it’s “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” he and his demons who are also deities of other religions, set about making hell a more habitable environment. According to them heaven is what you make of it and they can make a heaven out of their hell.
There is a lot of speculation as so why Satan begins the story as such a likable character. If it were a modern day tale he’d seem like the underdog who tried to overthrow a dictator. He finds other friends (chaos, sin and death) and convinces them that they all have a common cause, bringing his ragtag band of misfits together to better their environment and bring down a common enemy.
Milton has to constantly remind the reader that Satan is evil. I think this is to show why angels might have followed him as well as to draw parallels between Satan and Adam. Remember in Milton’s mind the quest for knowledge is every bit as evil as the quest for power. As someone coming from a Christian background it’s uncomfortable reading paradise lost and realizing you admire/identify more with Satan than with god. It makes you question the traits you’re finding admirable and why. And I think that’s the point. These are human traits and they can be used for good or for evil.
In any case Satans character begins his gradual transformation into smaller and smaller forms. At first he is indescribably large, then he shifts to a smaller size to enter his castle, Pandaemonium, then he shifts to a cherub to fool Uriel, then he is compared to a wolf, then becomes a toad and finally a snake. His character undergoes a similar transformation mentally. He begins the story clever and eloquent and by the end of the story his own logic has become so twisted against himself that it becomes difficult to follow. His earlier assertion that he can make a heaven out of hell proves true in the opposite manner when he’s exploring the heavenly garden of Eden and is still suffering from inner torment. You can make a heaven out of hell, but you can also make a hell out of heaven.
God, the son, and the Angels were considerably more difficult to relate to, though I imagine they were more difficult to write. Milton relied on a lot of scripture for their dialogue.
At first Adam is as difficult to relate to as the heavenly host. He’s so good and perfect that a a character he lacks depth, this changes after the fall.
Eve is an interesting character throughout the novel. If you read the text through a feminist lens the novels cringe-worthy. Eve is denied her chance to know herself when she is pulled away from her reflection in the stream (narcissus reference), she doesn’t want to be with Adam at first (though his interpretation is that she’s playing hard to get) she is not present for any of the important conversations. She is targeted by Satan because she’s weaker and less intelligent. Eve is constantly being reminded that she is subservient to Adam and is a lesser being. To be fair, this was reflective of the time and Milton was actually fairly progressive in that he portrayed Adam and Eve as a balanced couple. Adam needs Eve as much as Eve needs Adam. Eve tempered Adams depression, Adam acted as Eve’s strength. Their love for one another and their unwillingness to live without each other is perhaps the central conflict to Paradise Lost. The Angels, the Son, and god himself warn Adam that he should not let his feelings for Eve overwhelm his commons sense but his love for her is too strong. He follows her lead. On the day of the fall instead of working he’s making her a flower wreath (symbol of his love) which he drops once he realizes she fell (symbol of the fall), he eats the fruit knowing that he is sinning (unlike Eve who was tricked) because he cannot imagine a life without her. He has one weak moment in the book where he insults her, but it’s after the fall and placed there to show that he’s changed. She pulls him out of his depression and the two leave Eden holding hands.
Another symbol in paradise lost is the scales of justice. Milton’s dislike for politicians and the corruption of the church are referred to. He allows the interpretation of science and religious theory (the sun travels around the earth vs. the earth travels around the sun) stating that whichever one is correct isnt the point. All the matters is that god made them and they works. He seems to believe that knowledge was dangerous. Adam is told several times that he doesn’t need to know everything he just needs to trust god. Ultimately this quest for knowledge is what causes Paradise to be lost.
The fall is also portrayed as not being an entirely bad thing as it gives man a chance to redeem themselves and gives god a chance to show his mercy. It’s tragic but it’s not all bad. The son of god (not yet named because he’s not yet born) plays a role in paradise lost as the one to punish and forgive man kind. Milton portrays them as separate characters of the same mind, leaving it unclear if their entirely independent of one another or the same being represented in a different way. The sons appearance is the reason for the war in heaven as Satan did not want to bow down to this new leader. Of his followers only Abdial (sp?) remained loyal to god.
The war is also portrayed through Raphael telling Adam the story. The war is almost cartoonish, Satan created a cannon and the angels throw mountains at each other, but they can’t die… So the stakes are pretty low.