“For while so near each other thus all day
Our taske we choose, what wonder if so near
Looks intervene and smiles, or object new
Casual discourse draw on, which intermits
Our dayes work brought to little, though begun
Early, and th’ hour of Supper comes unearn’d.“
Book IX of the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton (written 1660-1665, published 1667, 1674) examines the attitude towards labour through the exchanges between, the first woman according to Christian theology, Eve, is speaking to the first man, Adam, in the garden of Eden. She has proposed to him that they employ a division of labour, saying “let us divide our labours”, and wants to work hard to earn her keep while Adam, who has a rather cavalier view of work, wants to enjoy their work instead, exchanging smiles and glances as they go about their day. The readers can also note a difference in their opinion of gardening and tending to the garden, a task for Eve but a hobby or repast for Adam. Some critics have found Eve to here be seen as a nagging woman, male critics like C.S. Lewis and Northrop Frye have described her as petulant and wilful, as well as “a silly girl” for taking her labour so seriously. However, female critics such as McColley have referred to her as “reasonable” and C. Champagne writes that she is efficient. Thus, in her domestic role, Eve can be seen to be depicted as the patriarchal master, thus reinforcing the hierarchy between Adam and Eve, who are not truly equal. Male critics are not able to identify the importance of the domestic labour she takes seriously, although as Barbara Kruger’s famous contemporary art later puts it, “It’s small world, but not if you have to clean it.”
Milton further sets up the separation of Adam and Eve, which leads to Eve’s temptation later in the book at the hands of Satan disguised as a serpent, through Eve’s dialogue with Adam and insistence on separating from one another to work. This makes things almost all too convenient for Satan, who had been waiting to catch Eve alone while eavesdropping on her conversation with Adam, and thus Eve is opened to blame in a way that she was not in the Bible, Milton’s source text, as the holy book did not detail Eve’s desire to separate. At the same time, Milton depicts not only the Fall of ‘man’, as he portrays two distinct Falls in his epic, with Eve and Adam both separately ‘choosing’ to Fall, with the choice always being available to them as rational beings, and so not entirely clearing Adam of the blame either. This said, Adam’s reasons for the decision to Fall are found to be more noble, making Eve seem selfish in comparison, as Adam fell so as not to let Eve suffer alone (while Eve merely did not want Adam to replace her with “another Eve”.)
The Fall (or rather Falls) of man are continually shown to parallel Satan’s own fall from grace, with Satan and Eve both shown to act out of love for themselves, where Adam acts out of love for Eve. Christianity does allow, however, a chance of redemption to mankind, as Jesus Christ, the son of god who is also a descendant of Adam and Eve, redeems them in his incarnation in human form, suffering for their sins (just as humanity must continue suffering, with labour pains and death introduced as a consequence of the Fall).
The quoted lines also indicate the distracting effect Eve’s presence alone has on both Adam and Satan. Adam, when he first sees her, is unable to think straight, as is Satan, who literally licks the ground she walks on while attempting to attract her attention. This image of the stereotypical temptress reduces Eve to just that and nothing more, pandering to patriarchal stereotypes. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath on the other hand defies norms by intentionally fulfilling stereotypes to point out that there is nothing wrong with them, achieving a radical proto-feminism that Milton’s Eve falls short of. At the same time, Milton allows Eve a voice and long speeches, making her available to be judged on the basis of what she espouses herself, separate from Adam. Milton achieves this at a time when the female voice was suspect and meant only to echo the man’s (which, conversely, Eve does do by the end of the book, submitting to Adam’s “Authority and Love” as a superior being, since she is a ‘woman’ and thus ‘of man’, created from his rib). Milton’s allowances and ideas, even if they are lost at times, remained unfamiliar even two centuries later, as Browning’s narrator in ‘A Woman’s Last Word’ proves by professing to her lover “I will speak thy speech, Love, / Think thy thought” and compares herself to Eve, saying “Lest we lose our Edens, Eve and I” albeit a far more conscious Eve than Milton’s, stopping to “See the creature stalking / As we speak” and “Hush and hide the talking / Cheek on cheek.”
Thus, Milton permitting a space for Eve is a gesture ahead of his times, as is his liberal outlook on sexuality, showing Eve and Adam to have pleasurable intercourse even before the Fall (which some Christian critics had believed was a consequence of the Fall) as well as hinting that love-making was practiced by the angels in heaven, and that Satan is “sexually deprived” (F. Kermode). He only distinguishes the prelapsarian intercourse between Adam and Eve as pure while it later becomes licentious and perverse, even though it is between a married couple, thus highlighting the knowledge gained from the Forbidden fruit as negative, and to be in fact no real knowledge, but only shame instead, thus justifying the ays of god in denying the fruit to them and establishing his place as a serious Christian writer, justifying god’s decision to test Adam and Eve, since obedience means nothing if it is not put to the test. God’s hierarchy is thus shown in conclusion to be fair, despite Satan professing otherwise to Eve, and it is in fact Satan who wishes to rule unfairly, as . a feudal lord, while god’s ways as established as just. Eve’s conviction, subsequent to the quoted extract, at being able to resist and god not blaming them in the event that she isn’t, turns out to be incorrect as she falls prey to Satan’s seduction. Despite this, Milton’s Eve is a strong and important character in literary history, bringing a new perspective to an age-old argument.