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Paradise Lost | Study Guide

John Milton

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Paradise Lost | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does Milton depict Satan's leadership qualities in Paradise Lost?

Although Milton initially depicts Satan as a kind of military leader in Books 1 and 2, Satan mostly leads by deception. He uses Beelzebub as his mouthpiece to persuade the other fallen angels of his plan to corrupt mankind. His volunteering to fly to Earth seems like a sacrifice but it is actually self-serving, so that he can ensure his plan is carried out. In the battle with God's army Satan spends a great deal of energy and time arming his soldiers; he forgets that God can and will stop the battle at any time. While he is a strong speaker and clever in warfare, he is always motivated by pride, which Milton does not see as a leadership quality.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, how are the ways of God reconciled with the theme of free will?

Milton initially invites the reader to sympathize with Satan's plight, but he uses both Satan and the story of Adam and Eve's fall as a cautionary tale about the powers of God. Milton is careful to point out that even though God is all-knowing and all-seeing, he has not predetermined anyone's fate and has actually endowed all creatures with free will. In this way Milton justifies the ways of God, arguing that all beings can choose or not choose their actions. But Milton emphasizes that God is above all others, and to disobey him is to earn whatever punishment he doles out, given that he is fair and just and forgiving. God reminds the reader in Book 2 that, "I made him just and right/Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall." Here God is speaking of Adam, and is saying that even though he created Adam and has foreknowledge of everything he will do, he created him so that he could make his own choices, good or bad. Although Milton depicts Satan and Adam as sympathetic characters who ultimately make their own individual choices to disobey God, Milton's ultimate goal is to show his readers that even though God's ways may be inscrutable, they are always just. This reconciliation would have reflected many of the religious anxieties of Milton's era, since the Puritan Church was in the process of redefining man's personal relationship with God. Milton seems to be pointing out that the two concepts can exist side-by-side as long as God's ultimate authority is acknowledged.

In Paradise Lost, how and why does Milton's portrayal of Satan change?

Milton sets Satan up to be a sympathetic character early on in the epic as in Book 4. He is the most dynamic and complex character in the text, which would have been a controversial choice in Milton's era. Even though Satan has disobeyed God and started a rebellion, Satan's reasons are initially understandable—jealousy, doubt, and the wish for independence. In Book 4 Milton is also careful to show Satan in his moments of doubt about the rightness of his his actions, which makes him more than a one-dimensional villain. Yet as the epic continues his logic diminishes and Satan commits wholeheartedly to his evil intentions. Milton may have chosen to portray Satan this way to hook the reader only to prove his argument about the justification of God's actions.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, is Satan's revenge justified?

Satan's revenge is not ultimately justified. Though his jealousy and doubt are understandable, God is essentially a benevolent and kind ruler, who endowed all creatures with free will so they may make their own choices. Satan is allowed to make the choice to get revenge, but God already knows the outcome and so his revenge is also futile. In Book 3, God notes to the Son that, "so bent [Satan] seems/On desperate revenge that shall redound/Upon his own rebellious head." Satan could have repented to God at any time and been forgiven. But to corrupt all of mankind in order to get revenge is of a different magnitude—Satan is not only harming God but his innocent creations as well.

What arguments can be made for either God or Satan as the protagonist, or main character, of Milton's Paradise Lost?

Arguments can be made for both characters as the hero of the poem. Satan Milton spends a great deal of his epic dedicated to Satan's struggle, which many readers have found sympathetic. Satan is arguably the most dynamic character in the epic and his struggle is identifiable. He has moments of self-doubt and self-pity and sees himself as the protagonist, while God is his antagonist. God God is the all-seeing, all-knowing ruler of the universe of Paradise Lost. Though he knows the past, present, and future, he has endowed all his creatures with free will, and so they are able to make the choice to obey or disobey him. If God is the protagonist of Paradise Lost, then Satan is his antagonist. Even though Satan sets up the fall of man, God has already seen that it has happened and is able to ultimately turn evil to good.

In Paradise Lost, how does Milton characterize Adam and Eve?

In Book 4 Milton characterizes Adam and Eve as essentially innocent, in love with each other and God. The poet characterizes Adam as the wiser and stronger of the two with the closest relationship to God. Their relative distance to God can be seen in the line "He for God only, she for God in him." Milton characterizes Eve as inferior to Adam; she is vain, weak, and experiences her relationship to God through Adam. He portrays their relationship as good and innocent until the fall in Book 9, but he points out that Adam is blinded by his love for Eve, which leads to his eating of the fruit.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, how does Satan's soliloquy in Book 4 further develop his character?

In Book 4 Satan gives a speech to himself while looking at Earth in the distance and considers the actions he has decided to take. Though he admires God's work in creating the new world and is jealous that he won't get to experience it, he commits himself to corrupting God's new creatures. However, it's revealed that, since Satan is in disguise as a cherub, he gives himself away because his face shows his complicated and conflicted emotions. Satan also seems to feel that goodness is futile, as he notes, "Which way I fly is Hell; I myself am Hell"—he believes that redemption is beyond him. These facts and the soliloquy he gives develops his character by showing that he is complex and suffers human-like emotions; a relatable quality for most readers.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, how and why does Adam's and Eve's relationship change after the fall?

In Book 9, after both Adam and Eve eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, their relationship begins to lose its innocence. Their lovemaking takes on a shade of lust and both begin to feel shame at their nakedness. They blame each other for what has transpired and have mankind's first fight. Then, in Book 10, the Son curses Eve to bear pain in childbirth and submit to Adam, and condemns Adam to have to toil for his food. In Book 11, Michael shows Adam his future generations and the suffering they will experience. Both Adam and Eve have lost their innocence, and their relationship is forever changed due to their disobedience.

What does the portrayal of Eve in Milton's Paradise Lost reveal about the author's ideas of gender?

In Book 4 Milton portrays Eve as inferior to Adam because of her sex. She is weaker, less intelligent, and has no direct communication with God. Milton also points out in Book 9 that she is the one who leads Adam to the Fall, since she eats the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge first and offers it to him, knowing that he will eat it to stay with her. Though contemporary readers may take issue with Milton's portrayal of Eve, he is reflecting the prevailing beliefs of his era, particularly religious beliefs, that dictated that women were the inferior sex and should submit to men in all matters.

In Paradise Lost, under what religious moral assumptions does Milton seem to be operating under?

Milton seems to be operating under the religious moral assumption that God is essentially good, benevolent, and just. Even though God's ways are essentially unknowable to man, man should trust that God is wiser and will reward obedience to his ways. Another religious assumption that Milton seems to have is that evil springs from the mistakes made through man (and angels) exerting their free will. God allows this free will in order for his creatures to prove that their obedience is a choice, not a rule. According to Milton's religious moral assumptions, sin and suffering also derive from the opportunity for free will. These assumptions show why Milton feels he must defend the ways of God to men.

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