John Milton’s Paradise Lost is the quintessential epic poem, stunning readers for more than three centuries with its 10,000-line narrative on Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. Considered one of the greatest poems of the English language, the masterpiece was dictated by Milton over the course of several years after he went blind in 1652. With the help of his friends and family, he completed the poem and sold the copyright for 10 pounds in 1667.
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Its publication sparked a great critical debate, as Milton—who was already known for his controversial political activism—seemed to challenge the fundamentals of Christian ideology. He depicted Satan as a sympathetic character, and he seemed to draw parallels between himself and God.
While much has been said about Paradise Lost from both a critical and theological standpoint, few can question its cultural impact. Milton incorporated three universal ideas into his poem that still resonate with and challenge readers today.
Obedience and Rebellion
So what was Satan’s motivation for his rebellion and why did Milton paint him as a sympathetic character?
Milton’s own rebellion against faith and the government could be one reason why his text empathized with Satan. When his marriage failed, Milton wrote a treatise advocating divorce (which was blasphemous at the time). As The New Yorker put it, the treatise “was both an idealistic cry for personal liberty and an act of self-justification.” This pursuit for personal liberty was the entire foundation for Satan’s rebellion in the first place, so in a way, Milton likely sympathized with Satan’s quest for self-identity.
Fate and Free Will
Are we free to act how we wish, or are our actions predetermined? This is a question that has nagged readers for centuries, including Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.
Shelley, who was greatly influenced by Paradise Lost, modeled Victor Frankenstein and his monster after the characters in Milton’s poem. Frankenstein plays the role of God by creating man, but his motivations are selfish like Satan’s. And his creature, who kills and acts out in violent ways, symbolizes humankind’s struggle with fate versus free will. After all, how are we to blame the monster for his actions if he was made that way?
Good and Evil
Adam warns Eve that they can’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge, saying it’s “the only sign of our obedience left.” They’re both happy in their existence without really knowing why they’re happy, but when they eat the fruit, they realize they’ve disobeyed God and suddenly gain the knowledge that evil has won. This awakening of consciousness results in feelings of shame and guilt.
To learn more about the themes and symbols in this epic poem, check out the beautifully illustrated Paradise Lost infographic from Course Hero!