@gAnti-Feminism in Paradise Lost

 

      Shigeo Suzuki

 

‡T

Feminism vs. Patriarch

      The word feminism was first coined around 1830 by a French Utopian writer, Charles Fourier. It did not become familiar to the people until 1892, when a female politician and actress, Marguerite Durand called a convention to demand female rights in society. One of the main reasons the women's rights movement gained ground at the end of the nineteenth century was that women began to realize that it is  unfair for them to be constantly under the power of men simply because  the social system has traditionally  favored  males. Moreover, they found themselves compelled to change the social role of women from one wholly determined by men into a new, equal one. It is ironic, however, that the first person to become aware of the unjust social conditions of women and to demand fair treatment of females in society was not a woman but a man. His name was Poulain de La Barre, a seventeenth century theologian, who  was, again ironically, influenced by misogynous Descartes  whose philosophy depreciates the role of  women in society. De La Barre published in 1673 a tract entitled  "Essays Concerning the Equality of Men and Women", where he straightforwardly points out that  women are, by nature,  no less intelligent than men, and that they would be able to engage in both creative and intellectual vocations if they were provided with the opportunity to study at educational institutions as men were. He further insists that the view of female as  socially and intellectually defective is derived from the blind acceptance of the comments of

various classical philosophers about women.(1)

     At about the same period and with almost the same line of argument, several English writers using such pseudonyms as Rachel Speght and Joseph Swetnam directly claimed that women are not inferior to men in intellectual ability.(2)  It is not a mere coincidence that strong defenses  of women's abilities appear in two different countries in the seventeenth century. The reason why some people  began to defend women's right at this period is particularly clear in the English case. As the success of Cromwell's Puritan Revolution shows, it was in the seventeenth century that Puritans gained ground in society. Their theology put a strong emphasis on the idea that human beings, as God's creatures, regardless of sex should passthrough the spiritual path of repentance-vocaion-enlightenment-glorification, and that everyone  should become a fully mature adult, who is responsible, independent, and free to answer the callings of God.(3)  They attacked the Roman Catholic ideals of celibacy and monastic orders, and persuaded people to establish a firm religious life within married, secular life, not outside it. This theological emphasis on  the importance of marriage and on  the responsibility  to God totally metamorphoses the role of a  married woman, who previously was supposed to follow her husband's wishes blindly. She became an equal partner with her husband in life. The Puritan idea of mankind completely changed the traditional idea of the relationship between wife and husband into friendship or amity between two noble personalities.(4)  It may safely be said that what the Puritans contributed to the history of mankind is not so much a justification for  executing kings according to the laws of the nation as the  social acceptance of regarding  women as human beings of equal value to men.

      If we free ourselves from the notorious general  impression of Milton  as a first-rate misogynist, and read his four prose tracts concerning divorce, we will soon notice that his idea of women and marriage  are not biased with the traditional view of woman as an instrument for bearing children nor of marriage as a well-made social system to satisfy man's sexual desire. He mentions in one of his tracts that a wife should take steps to divorce her husband  if he turns out to be an untrustful man unworthy of being loved as a decent human being.(5) Milton's discourse in the divorce tracts tells us that, far from being a misogynist, Milton is a  man strongly standing up for women. Nevertheless, he is very unpopular among the intelligent feminists in later generations. Sandra Gilbert, who  quotes, as a post-modern feminist critic, Virginia Woolf's remark about Milton, gwe should look beyond Milton's bogey", comments that the poet is gthe first of the masculinists".(6)  Charlotte Bront„v opposes the idea of women reflected in #Paradise Lost#, through the mouth of the heroine in #Shirley#: Milton tries to see the first woman; but ,...it was his first cook that he saw."(7)

      Such feminists have a strong hostility to Milton's idea of women, though the Puritan view of women and marriage naturally leads Milton to be an advocate of the trends that produced the women's rights movement, and his own pamphlets prove that he is far from a mere misogynist. What causes this upside-down evaluation of Milton by the feminists?  The more we know about the role of Eve in the epic, the more confused we become about whether the poet really  depreciates  women.

 

II

     In #Paradise Lost# it looks as if Eve, the first female in the world, plays a destructive role which plunges all human beings, latent in Adam, into the abyss of sin. Eve breaks  God's command not to eat the fruits of the tree of knowledge. Her breaking of this command leads Adam to eat the same fruit and complete mankind's total descent into sin. If Eve had  not been created in Paradise, or if at least she had been obedient enough to follow her husband's instruction to do the gardening with him and to keep away from the dangers of Satan's snares, man might possibly have remained in paradise, enjoying a happy, eternal life with no torture of sin and without fear of death. The first eating of the forbidden fruit is traditionally attributed to Eve, as it is clearly described in Genesis, but no particular exegesis on Genesis tells us that Eve insists on gardening alone to prove to Adam that she has enough will power to overcome any temptation. #Paradise Lost# is subtly telling us that woman's stubbornness as well as her disobedience to the command of paternal God  destroys human happiness and condemns all human beings to suffer from miserable sicknesses, hard labor, and wars among themselves.

      If our eyes are not too clouded to see through what happens in the poem, it will become apparent that blame for causing human suffering is not attacted to Eve. A particular feminine attribute reflected in Eve is that of bearing  children.   She is often referred to in #Paradise Lost# as the mother of mankind (5:388; 11:160), which coincides with the Hebraic origin of the word Eve, 'mother of all living things.' This@attribute of women is brought out because the Son of God prophesies in the place of judgment that her "seed"(10:181) shall bruise the serpent's heel. Unless Eve has the power of bearing children, no human being can be saved from sin and death. This point is later noticed by Adam, while he is listening to Michael talking about what is to happen in the future. Adam says to himself that the Son of God will proceed from the womb of a woman (12:380). Moreover, although Eve is responsible for man being driven out of Paradise, living outside Paradise is not presented as an inappropriate situation for man, for  man in his fallen state is promised an ultimate salvation at the end of history.  Adam even wonders whether life outside Paradise  is no better than that in Paradise. In other words, the unhappy state of humanity for which Eve is responsible is not necessarily an ill, but can be a happiness in the long run. Thirdly, the most important of the explanations, Eve insists on going to garden alone because she thinks "faith, love, virtue, unassayed/ Alone"(9:335-336) are not worthy of their names. Her motive for departing from Adam exactly corresponds to what the poet encourages people to do in #Areopagitica#. Eve cannot be reproached for either her act or her motive. #Paradise Lost# is sympathetic to the status of women. It is neither misogynous nor favorable to sexism: it does not depreciate the  role of woman.

     Further evidences of a positive attitude to women will be given to prove that this epic is not in favor of misogyny. Milton's contemporaries, except the Puritans and the Humanists, generally regarded women as inferior beings both in terms of personality and intellectual abilities. This depreciation is based upon some passages in Genesis: Eve is born out of Adam's rib, and she leads him into temptation. Most of the feminists in the age of Milton, though their total  number was relatively small, did their best to help women rid themselves of the inferior position of being both a mere bone and a curse as the cause of evil.(8)  #Paradise Lost#, where the life of Paradise is described in detail, has much in common with the claims of the feminists. It is true that the poem clearly indicates Eve is born out of Adam's rib, but at the same time it carefully mentions that she is created by the hand of God because Adam strongly asks God to make him an appropriate help-mate whose personality will be equal to his. Just as every animal has its own mate, so man needs another human being who can share with him "collateral love, and dearest amity"(8:426). Man alone without his own equal mate signifies "imperfection"(8:423). As for Eve's responsibility for the cause of temptation, it is true that Eve is the first breaker of God's  command. The reason she eats the fruit is her wish to be equal to God whereas the reason Adam eats the same fruit is that he is attracted by the magnetic power of human sentiments between him and Eve. It may appear that Adam's motivation is much nobler than Eve's, but Milton concentrates on the fact that their actions are exactly the same. Both Eve and Adam are seen to share the characteristic of giving  top priority to human feelings and sentiment rather than to obedience to God's commands. Furthermore, if we determine moral good and evil in terms of which of the two has done a certain act first, we should remember that it is Eve who first repents of her sin and kneels down to pray for forgiveness.

      #Paradise Lost#,which tells us that its subject is to "justify the ways of God to men"(1:26), but not in a simple and direct way,  is filled with material whose complexity and trickiness can be compared with those of metaphysics and  of scholastic theology. Thispoem, as an epic, contains an anti-epic element in the sense that it shows the vanity of military wars. As a tragedy it  turns into a divine comedy due to the promise of the last salvation at the end of human history. It also intentionally depicts the Son of God and Adam as being no less heroic in strength of will-power and  fortitude than  Satan. #Paradise Lost# subtly changes traditional values into  quite different ones. Just as this epic is describing things by using the traditional patterns or categories in order to stress the importance of values which oppose those traditional ones, so the poem, which appears to be  depreciating  the role of women in the traditional way, insists that a woman should not be so depreciated. The poem is not tainted with the traditional view of women as inferior beings.

 

 

III

      Our evidence shows that Milton does not discriminate on grounds of sex. We  are so accustomed to various criticisms of #Paradise Lost# from the viewpoint of "a phallogocentric structure of thought", said Mary Nyquist,that we are apt to take it for granted that "the patriarchally structured polarity of male and female" dominates the view of women in #Paradise Lost#.(9)  So far, so good: but what has become of the diatribes hurled at the poet by the intellectual feminists?  It looks as if they have shown themselves not to be intelligent enough to comprehend the fair treatment of the role of women in #Paradise Lost#. Actually, they are not so stupid as to fall into a trap which the aggressive feminists in the 1960s might have plunged themselves into. Those feminists in the 60s specifically demanded that women's work at home should be subject to the minimum-wage system , and that women should be provided with as equal opportunities to work outside the home as men have. Although most cultures still find these demands difficult to accept as do many women, these feminine considered them important and valuable, but whatever further demands they may make for, money, job opportunities, and promotion, their demands are following the course of what men usually consider valuable and important. They subconsciously judge the value of things on the basis of whether  men consider them  valuable or not. In other words, their sense of values is so strongly affected by masculine principles and masculinity that what they intend to do as  defenders of women's rights is inconsistent with what they have to do both as activists and  catalysts in imbuing male-oriented society with feminine principles and the  values of femininity. As #Paradise Lost# is a poem which certainly does not look down upon women, as we have seen  above, the feminists who criticize the poem for taking a contemptuous view of women have fallen into the same snare that those in the 60s did. They find  the poem tainted with misogynism,  not because the poem is really stuffed with the anti-feminist sentiments, but because they are subconsciously pre-programmed to respond to the poem through the eyes of those critics with values founded on masculinity and masculine principles. We could say they are playing  an antic role as  critics in that they affirm their own female viewpoint without driving away the superiority of male principles and masculinity over the feminine ones and femininity.

      Fortunately enough, however, these feminist critics have given us keen insight into some of the submerged anti-feminist elements in the poem, which easily escape the notice of people with  clouded eyes.  #Paradise Lost# is not misogynous; a view which  is accepted by those critical feminists whose minds are skilled in scrutinizing what others blindly take for granted. Such feminists are critical of the fact that the poem has almost left feminine principles and femininity stranded, though it has paid  due respect to women as a sex and gender. When she mentions that Eve is looked down upon as a mere cook, Charlotte Bront„v does not accuse Milton of viewing women depreciatingly, but she is eager to defend the feminine principles and femininity in the following way:

 

The first  men of the earth were Titans, and ...Eve was their mother: from her sprang Saturn, Hyperion, Oceanus; She bore Prometheus.....The first woman's breast that heaved with life on this world yielded the daring which could contend with Omnipotence.(10)

What she is driving at in this passage is that Eve is quite far away from the great Earth-Mother, Gaia, whose power can bear all things and nurture even those things which can defeat the great god, Zeus. The trouble with the poem is that the feminine principles and femininity are unwarrantably undervalued and even suppressed in a distorted way. The critical point of view by the feminists does not lie in how much more good Adam the man is doing than Eve the woman, which of the two first  repents, nor who is the first eater of the forbidden fruit. They are not trying to root out these elements of anti-feminist sentiments on such a quantitative level, which,if they are   problems at all, are minor ones.

      Whether Bront„v's  points are in the right direction can be shown by one of the remarks which the repentant Eve makes while she is persuading Adam to commit suicide immediately. Her argument for  suicide is so made as to prevent them from procreation, for she finds it "hard and difficult" to keep away from carnal sexual intercourse, "love's due rites, nuptial embraces sweet"(10:992; 10:994). A little closer observation of her argument shows that she cannot conceive by herself and multiply descendants of her own accord without the aid of the male. Conception and the continuation of the human species are not monopolized by the female, but are a co-operative work between men and women. Eve is often referred to in the poem as the "mother of mankind", but in reality she is only nominally so. This can be reaffirmed by the female attribute of bearing children.  A brief survey which we have already made above shows that the women's child-bearing function is indispensable if man is to be saved from sin and death, because one of the children  born out of a woman's womb is destined to conquer sin. Adam, referring to this function of women, mentions that the Son of God proceeds from the female's womb, but his comment is preceded by his remark, "from my [Adam's] loins/ Thou [the Son of God] shalt proceed"(12:380-381). Women's special propensity for bearing children no longer has the amazing  power that is found in Gaia, who "bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side"( #Theogony# 126-127). Eve, who cannot bear without the aid of a male, is not blessed with the magnificent power of strong femininity. What is more, to reduce the power of femininity to a heteronomous one is the punishment of sin against God the Father  which the Son of God gave women. He punishes women with "pains ...in child-bearing"(10:1051). The good feminine characteristics of giving birth and nurture are devalued with an ominous reminder of sin.

 

 

IV

      We must figure out the  main reason why  women as a sex and gender are in #Paradise Lost#  appraised properly in contrast to the traditional view of women as inferiors whereas femininity and feminine principles are despised and shown in an inferior position. we could  explain it by saying  that  the poem is influenced to the core  by both the  classical patriarchic ideal of #patria potestas# reflected in Zeus-Jupiter as an apex of gods and Judeo-Christian monotheistic patriarchic culture. Such  broad ideals and wide frames of reference are so inadequate for explaining the reason that they tend rather to blur the positive attitude toward females as a sex and gender  in #Paradise Lost#. We must apply  to the poem a less broad but more specific ideal to work out both the positive and negative attitudes towards women. That ideal is Puritanism, as most of us might suppose. The nature of the Medieval Catholic Church as well as the post-Trent Catholic Church was to seek to incorporate every member of the parishes into one universal body of Christ, Corpus Christi, and totally disregard the individuality of  members as  part of a whole, with putting top priority on unity.(11)  Motherhood is at the center of this relationship between believers and the Church, as is shown in the figure of Misericordia unfolding her cape wide open(Fig.1), the statue of Ecclesia feeding two tiny Christians at her breast(Fig.2), and the sculpture of the Virgin holding the crucified Christ and  the believers in and around her womb(Fig.3, Fig.4). Christ himself, though the Son of God, was sometimes depicted as a mother in the Medieval and Renaissance periods(Fig.5).(12)  Needless to say, astronomical numbers of art works concerning the subject of the Virgin with the Child  were produced in these periods. Protestant artists in the age of Renaissance, on the other hand, were especially drawn to such subjects as God's calling of St Matthew and the conversion of St Paul by means of the Holy Spirit from above, which gives an image of the unilateral relationship between a father and his son.(13)  Puritanism, which is notorious for its aggressively anti-Catholic attitude, strongly encouraged each believer to read the Bible with the aid of the Holy Spirit from above, and urged him to  grow up to be a preacher in the church he belonged to. It denied the Catholic hierarchy  of preachers and lay people, whose relation can be termed as that of the nurturer and the nurtured, the mother and her child. It also cast evil eyes upon the Catholic way of nurturing miscellaneous believers in one Church, because Puritans took it for granted that the church should consist of only those members who truly repent of their own sin and eagerly seek to take part in God's calling.  Becoming an independent believer to help build up a steadfast church is imposed upon each member of the church as an ideal. The repentant believers are often referred to by an  image of either a pilgrim or a military soldier whose destination is the kingdom of God the Father. This image of the Puritans is shown on the front page of the puritan manual named "The Christian Warfarer"(Fig.6) and on the triangles held by Christ standing triumphantly on Sin, Death, and Satan(Fig.7). In the world of Puritanism, femininity and feminine principles are far behind and overshadowed by masculinity.

      Some people may complain that this argument about Puritanism  is inconsistent with what we have discussed in the beginning of this paper, where it is mentioned that Puritans do not depreciate women. We should not mistake female as a sex and gender for femininity and feminine principles. Puritans made a success of founding a new tradition of treating men and women on an equal basis  within its organization to help improve women's position, but at the same time they subconsciously took a negative attitude toward incorporating  within their organization the feminine principles and femininity. Such typical Puritan characteristics as sternness, abstinence, and rationality are at variance with those feminine characteristics of darkness, disorder, regression, and mixture. The Puritans' deep hostility toward mysteriousness and intuitiveness, both of which are typical feminine characteristics, is symbolized in a witch trials on a memorably huge scale. The aim and ideal of feminism to pay  due respect to the human body and nature against logic and culture is totally looked down upon in the Puritan world. #Paradise Lost#, which is heavily influenced by Puritanism, clearly reflects this Puritan way of thinking of women.

      The feminists do not say anything against #Paradise Lost#, so long as the poem admits  the value of women as a sex and gender. But the case is quite the reverse where the poem adopts only masculinity and masculine principles and forcibly thrusts femininity and feminine principles into the corner. The diatribes against the poem about the anti-feminist elements, however, must not go beyond the limit of reason, for nobody can rid himself of the invisible fetters which are provided by ideas he inherits from his background and the frame of reference he is devoted to. Yet it is also true that we should not attribute Milton's limited view of femininity wholly to cultural and theological ideas.  In this sense  Virginia Woolf's warning against the anti-feminist sentiments in #Paradise Lost# is worth quoting here to conclude our paper: "no human beings should shut out the view [of Milton's bogey]".(14)

 

 

Notes

(1)@Benoite Groult, #Le Feminisme au Masculin# ( n.p.: Denoel-Gontier,     1977), p. 37.

(2)@Simon Shepherd, ed.  #The Women's Sharp Revenge: Five Women's          Pamphlets from the Renaissance# (London: Fourth Estate, 1985),pp.      9-27. Cf. Christopehr Hill and Edmund Dell, ed., #The Good Old         Cause: The English Revolution of 1640-1660# (London: Frank Cass,       1969), pp. 286-286, 321.

(3)@William Haller, #The Rise of Puritanism# (1938; rpt. Philadelphia:      Univ. of Pennsylvania Press,1972), pp.93-112.

(4)  William Haller,gHail Wedded Love,h in #Milton#, ed. Alan Rudrum       (London: Macmillan,1968), pp.299-301; Roberta Hamilton, #The Liberation of Women: A Study of Patriarchy and Capitalism#             (London: Allen & Unwin, 1978), pp.56-63; Keith Thomas, "The Puritans and Adultery: The Act of 1650 Reconsidered," in #Puritans and Revolutionaries#, ed. Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), pp.259-60; Simon Shepherd, #Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama# (London: Harvester, 1981), pp.53-56; Alan Sinfield, #Literature in Protestant England 1560-1660# (London: Croom Helm, 1983), pp.53-56.

(5)  #Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and Tetrachordon in Complete       Prose Works of John Milton#, Vol. II, Gen. ed. Ernest Sirluck          (New Haven: Yale  Univ. Press, 1959), 324-329, 625-627.

(6)  Sandora Gilbert and Susan Gubar, #The Madwoman in the Attic# (New       Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p.136.

(7) Charlotte Bronte, #Shirley#, ed. Andrew and Judith Hook (Harmondsworth: Penguine,1974), p. 315.

(8) Shepherd, ed. #The Women's Sharp Revenge#, 64-73; Diane Kelsey McColley, #Milton's Eve# (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1983), pp. 24-26.

(9) Mary Nyquist, gTexual Overlapping and Daliah's Harlot-Lap,h in       #Literary Theory/ Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and Dav       Quint# (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986), pp.           357-366.

(10) Bronte, p. 315.

(11) Ernst Troeltsch, #The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches#,       trans. Olive Wyon (1931; rpt. Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago           Press,1976), I, 201-205, II. 477-484.

(12) Caroline Walker Bynum, #Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Woman# (Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1987), pp.277-296. Cf. Peter Burke, #The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy# (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1972), pp.162-163.

(13) William H. Halewood, #Six Subjects of Reformation Art: A Preface to Rembrandt# (Tronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1982), pp. 4-19.

(14) Virginia Woolf, #A Room of One's Own# (Harmondsworth: Penguine,         1945), p. 112.