Milton says that unfortunately he can no longer talk about friendly discussions between humans and heavenly beings, but must now turn to the inevitable tragedy of his tale – Adam and Eve’s disobedience and the Fall of Man. Though his story is sad, Milton declares that it is more heroic than the epic tales of Homer or Virgil because it deals with morality, not just physical strength. He invokes the Muse again, his “celestial patroness,” though in the third person this time instead of directly. Milton hopes she will visit him in his sleep and inspire him, as he worries he began this task too late in life and cannot finish it alone.
Milton now places his epic within the tradition of tragedy, as it involves the fall of a great man through some special flaw. Milton both reaffirms his ability and speaks with appropriate Christian humility, mentioning his old age and asking the Holy Spirit to finish the poem through him. The Fall of Man will be the tragic climax of the poem, but there is no suspense about its outcome whatsoever, as it has been foretold from the start and is part of Christian doctrine.
Milton also asks the Muse to keep him from being distracted by vain descriptions of “long and tedious havoc” (battles), as Homer and Virgil did in their epics. He wants to finish his divine task before he gets too old or the world starts decaying with “cold / Climate.” The scene then turns to Satan, who has been hiding on the dark side of the Earth for seven days after being banished by Gabriel. On the eighth day Satan returns to Eden disguised as a mist, following the Tigris River and rising up in the fountain next to the Tree of Life.
Milton mocks the more tedious parts of the classical epics and the knightly romances of the Middle Ages. For him, the ultimate hero is not measured in physical strength but in moral power. Milton has already described the extravagant war in Heaven, but in the end it was more about obedience and revolt than feats of martial prowess. God again allows Satan to enter Eden undeterred.
Satan studies all the creatures of Eden, considering which one he should disguise himself in, and finally he settles on the snake for its “wit and native subtlety.” Before continuing with his plan Satan hesitates, grieving what might have been. He decides that Earth is more beautiful than Heaven ever was, but as he praises its glory he laments how he cannot take any joy in this wondrous new creation. Adam and Eve’s happiness only causes him greater anguish.
In the actual account in Genesis, Satan is never mentioned, and it is merely the clever serpent who tempts Eve. It is only Christian doctrine that later associates Satan with the serpent. Satan’s reasoning continues to degrade, making his arguments more difficult to follow but also more tragic, as he has lost everything except hate.
Satan finally controls his thoughts and reaffirms his purpose to bring evil out of God’s good, and in one day to mar what took it six days for God to create. In this way Satan hopes to have revenge on God, who he assumes created humans to “repair his numbers” and to spite Satan, by corrupting humans so they become Hell’s instead of “Heav’nly spoils.”
Satan now recognizes that it would have been better to remain good, but he still clings to his despair and is unwilling to repent. God did indeed create humans partly to spite Satan and repair his number of worshippers, so in a way Satan had that small victory.
Satan further laments how far he has fallen, from the highest Archangel to the “mazy folds” and “bestial slime” of a serpent, but he accepts that he must deal with lowly things first if he is to fulfill his lofty ambitions. He then creeps along like a “black mist” until he finds a sleeping snake and possesses its body, which is curled up upon itself like a labyrinth.
Satan has totally devolved in his transformations by now – beginning as the brightest Archangel, then a dark, terrible warrior, then a cherub, then a cormorant, toad, mist, and serpent. The image of the maze returns as a negative image of forbidden knowledge, which leads one to become lost. The snake’s labyrinthine body thus becomes a living symbol of devilish complexity.
The next morning Adam and Eve wake up and give their usual spontaneous praise to God. Then Eve proposes that she and Adam work separately instead of together as she usually do, as she hopes to get more work done this way. Adam doesn’t approve of this idea, as he worries that the two will be more susceptible to Satan’s temptation if they are alone, and in times of danger the woman’s place is “by her husband.” He also assures Eve that their labor is not a strict necessity, as there is no way they could complete all of it until they have children to help them.
Eve’s first mistake, which leads to her eventual temptation and fall, is trying to change the natural order by working separately without Adam. As the “inferior” of the two, she should submit to her husband’s wishes and stay by his side in times of danger, but she wishes to prove herself worthy. Milton again associates natural procreation with the innocence of Eden.
Eve responds that she “overheard” Raphael’s warning about Satan, but she wishes to prove herself should Satan attack her alone. She also recognizes that she and Adam are “not capable of death or pain,” and so have little to fear. Adam again tries to dissuade her, saying that if they are together he will be able to protect her from Satan, who is surely very clever, and that in her presence Adam feels even “More wise, more watchful, stronger” than usual.
Eve’s attempts to prove herself are not sinful, but any misstep in the divine hierarchy can lead to greater sin. Milton’s argument here is that in a proper marriage men and women should complement each other and be stronger together than apart, with the husband leading but being strengthened by his wife’s presence.
Eve is slightly put out by this, and argues that if they defend themselves against Satan alone, they will gain “double honour,” and that surely God would not make their happiness so fragile as to depend on them always being together. Adam responds, calling Eve “O woman” and reminding her of their free will, which allows them to ruin Paradise on their own. He also warns her of Satan’s wiles, and how he might deceive her into disobedience without her even realizing it, but finally Adam relents.
Adam reminds Eve of her secondary place in the proper order of nature, and again Milton reiterates the supreme freedom of Adam and Eve’s will even as the Fall approaches. Adam’s mistake is giving in to his weakness regarding Eve’s physical beauty, and allowing her to sway him against his better nature.
Eve replies that the proud Satan will surely seek out Adam first, so she is in little danger. Then she departs from Adam to her own “groves,” looking more beautiful than any Greek goddess. As she leaves Adam asks her to return at noon for their meal, and then Milton laments that never again will the two have “sweet repast” in Paradise again.
Milton breaks in again to emphasize the acuteness of the tragedy that is about to occur. He restates all the beauty and innocence of Paradise before it is snatched away by one act of disobedience.
Meanwhile Satan has been seeking out the pair, hoping but not expecting to find them separated. He is then delighted to see Eve by herself, tending to her flowers. Satan is momentarily stunned by her beauty and innocence, but then “the hot Hell that always in him burns” reminds him of his hate. Satan (within the serpent) coils himself elaborately and seems to stand upright in a “surging maze,” lifting his “head / Crested aloft” to get Eve’s attention.
Milton portrays the pre-Fall serpent as a magnificent animal with a crest on its head and the ability to lift itself upright. Again this physical verticality symbolizes moral righteousness, as the serpent is still a sinless beast before the Fall. Satan makes himself a beautiful physical spectacle, knowing that Eve is easily diverted by vain appearances.
When Eve notices him Satan speaks to her, praising her beauty and grace and calling her a “goddess amongst gods.” Eve is amazed that the serpent can speak now, as she thought none of Eden’s creatures could talk except for she and Adam, and she asks how this came to be. Satan explains that he found a tree with beautiful, delicious apples, and when he ate the fruit he suddenly found himself with the ability to speak and with an expanded intellect, able to perceive both heavenly and earthly knowledge. He says the apples also made him seek out Eve so that he could give her the praise and worship she deserves.
Satan uses flattery to initially win over Eve, showing how “inferior” she is by giving such weight to superficial things like beauty. Eve did not receive Raphael’s full message about the dangers of forbidden knowledge, so she is susceptible to Satan’s argument that all knowledge is inherently good. Milton approves of knowledge, but only when it is made subject to obedience.
Eve is amazed at this, and though she says the snake is “overpraising” her, she asks him where this tree grows. Satan offers to show her, and Eve follows him the short distance to the Tree of Knowledge. When Eve sees the Tree she says the journey was “Fruitless,” as she has been forbidden by God from eating its fruit. Satan asks about this commandment, and Eve reaffirms that she and Adam can eat the fruit of any tree except that of the Tree of Knowledge, or else they will die.
Eve is initially armed with repeated obedience, but she has overestimated her own strength in asking to work separately from Adam. She recognizes that the snake is praising her more than is proper by calling her a “goddess,” but she does not stop his flattery. It is implied that these compliments make her more sympathetic to Satan’s arguments.
Satan raises himself up like “some orator renowned / In Athens or free Rome” and then says that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge has revealed to him that God actually wants Eve to disobey him, as this will prove her independence and “dauntless virtue” in braving death. Satan says that he himself has proved that the fruit does not bring death, as he ate of it and still lives. Satan also argues that it would be unjust for God to punish Eve for such a small thing, and if he is not just then he is not worthy of being God.
Satan uses several arguments that seem persuasive on their own, yet are contradictory when taken together, and Eve shows her inferior intellect by being persuaded by them. In this Milton’s portrayal of women grows even more harsh. Milton expands on the Biblical account by having the serpent claim to have already eaten the fruit – in Genesis the serpent just tells Eve the fruit will make her more godlike.
Satan further says that God has forbidden the fruit so as to keep Adam and Eve “low and ignorant” instead of assuming their proper places as gods. If he, a serpent, achieved speech and intelligence from eating the fruit, then surely Eve will become a goddess if she eats it. Satan says there is no sin in desiring knowledge and wisdom, so Eve should “reach then, and freely taste.”
Satan’s argument basically returns to his original speech convincing his angels to rebel – Eve is rightfully a goddess, and she should not have to submit to God simply based on his arbitrary commandment. This argument seems like it would be unappealing to the relatively ignorant, unambitious Eve, but when combined with the earlier flattery and barrage of arguments, it wins her over.
Eve looks at the fruit, which seems especially perfect and delicious to her, and she thinks about Satan’s persuasive words. She muses that the fruit must be very powerful if God has forbidden it, and if the serpent has truly eaten it then she doesn’t need to fear dying. It seems wrong that such magical fruit would be denied to humans if beasts are allowed to eat it. Finally “in evil hour” she reaches for a peace of fruit, picks it, and takes a bite. At that moment “Earth felt the wound” and Nature sighs sorrowfully, knowing that “all was lost.”
This small, single act is the “Fall of Man” which brings all death and suffering into the world. Taken by itself this seems cruel and unfair, but Milton adds so much gravity to the act by including the earlier war in Heaven, Raphael’s warnings, and the approach of Sin and Death, that the action becomes much more than just biting into a fruit. Even so, the great question of the poem remains if Milton “justifies” God’s extreme punishment of this single disobedient act.
Satan immediately slinks back into the undergrowth. Eve is overcome by the delicious fruit and she gluttonously eats many pieces of it, not realizing she is “eating death.” She then praises the Tree of Knowledge and muses on whether she should let Adam eat the fruit or not – if he doesn’t, then she might finally be “more equal” with him, but then she reasons that if she is going to die because of this, then Adam would be “wedded to another Eve,” which she could not bear. She resolves to give him the fruit as well, as she loves him and wants to share everything with him, whether life or death.
At first the Tree does not bring feelings of guilt and sin, so Eve is convinced she has made the right decision. Her character grows even more negative as her first thought after eating the fruit is leading Adam also into her disobedience. Her temptation of Adam brings up another traditional aspect of the Fall – love and sexuality. The couple choose each other over God in a perversion of the hierarchy of love, in which love of God should come first.
Eve bows to the Tree of Knowledge and then goes to find Adam, who has been weaving a wreath of flowers to give to Eve. Adam meets her and sees the forbidden fruit in her hand, and Eve hurriedly explains that the serpent ate it and learned to speak, and so convinced her to try it as well. She has eaten it and her eyes have been opened, and she is “growing up to godhead,” and now she wants Adam to try it so that they might be together in “equal joy, as equal love.”
Adam, still innocent and unfallen, has been making a wreath out of his pure (but over-extravagant) love of Eve. This wreath, the last image of their unfallen relationship and the idea of marriage as God intended it, falls symbolically to the ground. Eve repeats Satan’s arguments, feeling that she has moved above her station in God’s order and is becoming a goddess herself.
As soon as Adam hears this he drops the garland of flowers, which “all the faded roses shed,” and he stands there speechless and pale. He is horrified that Eve has succumbed to temptation, and he realizes that all is lost, but then Adam immediately decides that he cannot live without Eve, as no new unfallen woman could replace her. He knows he will be dooming himself by eating the fruit, but reasons that surely God would not destroy them or punish them too harshly. Eve is delighted at his faithful love and she embraces him, and then Adam eats the forbidden fruit, “fondly overcome with female charm.”
The faded roses of the wreath become the first thing to wilt and decay in Paradise. Adam’s sin is not trying to gain forbidden knowledge or move beyond his rank, but placing his love for Eve above his love for God, which is again upsetting God’s proper order. Milton portrays the unfallen couple as having innocent flaws (Adam as over-curious and attracted to Eve’s beauty, Eve as distracted by appearances and wanting to prove herself) and then shows how these flaws can lead to fully-fledged sin in the right situation.
Nature groans again and the sky weeps a few drops of rain, but Adam feels immediately invigorated and more godlike. He then looks at Eve and is filled with lust, and he praises her for choosing this “delightful fruit.” Then he and Eve run off to a “shady bank” and have sex. Afterward they fall asleep briefly, and when they wake up their minds are in turmoil and they recognize that they have fallen.
Adam and Eve’s sexuality is usually associated with the Fall, and though Milton portrayed them as sexual even in their innocence, now lust is introduced to the world and sexuality becomes more of a sinful act (associated with darkness, in a “shady bank”) than a pure expression of love and procreation.
Adam regrets aloud that Eve ate the forbidden fruit, as he sees now that instead of gaining divine knowledge of good and evil, they have only gained knowledge of “good lost, and evil got.” Adam laments that he will never be able to look at God or an angel again without shame. The two are suddenly aware of their nakedness, and they feel ashamed, so they cover themselves with fig leaves roughly sewn together, and lose “that first naked glory.”
This shame at being naked is taken directly from Genesis, as everything about humanity begins to be corrupted into its current state. The couple now realize the point Milton has been trying to prove – knowledge is important, but not all knowledge leads to good, especially when it involves being disobedient to God and disrupting his order.
Adam and Eve sit down and start to weep, and then the emotions of sin come to them and they are filled with “anger, hate, / Mistrust, suspicion, discord,” and lust, and they start to argue. Adam blames Eve for wanting to work separately, and Eve says that the serpent would surely have tempted Adam as well if he had been there. She says Adam should have been firmer with her, which makes Adam angrier, and he calls her ungrateful, reminding her that he ate the forbidden fruit just so they could be together. He curses himself for listening to her and trusting her, and promises to not trust a woman again. The two keep arguing for hours.
One of the immediate effects of sin is for Adam and Eve to blame each other and the serpent. This then becomes the first real argument on Earth, and the beginning of the corruption of the inner lives of all people. Milton’s own arguments against women come through in Adam’s bitter outbursts, and indeed the Eve Milton portrays is generally a weak woman who brings harm to others and then blames them for it. Tragically, Adam ate the fruit out of love for Eve, but his disobedience causes him to fall out of “true love” with her.