Paradise Lost

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The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge Symbol Analysis

The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge Symbol Icon
One of the most famous symbols in history, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is the only fruit that God forbids Adam and Eve to eat of all the trees in Eden. The fruit is delicious-looking and aromatic, but Adam and Eve have no trouble resisting it until Satan tricks Eve into eating the fruit, as she hopes to gain knowledge and value. In itself the fruit gives knowledge of good and evil, which Adam and Eve lack in their innocent ignorance, but the importance of the fruit is that they eat it despite God’s commandment. The knowledge the Tree gives is not inherently sinful, but disobeying God by eating of the Tree is sinful. The fruit that Eve and Adam eat then becomes the ultimate symbol – a single small thing that represents the cause of all the evil and suffering in the world.

The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge Quotes in Paradise Lost

The Paradise Lost quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Paradise Lost published in 2003.
Book 1 Quotes

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse…
What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the heighth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

Related Symbols: The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
Page Number: 1.1.26
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous opening passage, John Milton maps out his project in Paradise Lost. Milton aims to accomplish a great deal: he's going to write a great epic poem about the original human story (according to Christianity), the story of how Adam and Eve fell from grace and paved the way for all of human suffering.

There's a lot to unpack here--scholars have written whole books about these first few lines. Notice the word "fruit" in the first line--a punning allusion to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which will eventually bring down Adam and Eve. Note, too, that Milton keeps on speaking about his relationship with a Heavenly Muse. Like Homer, the original epic poet, Milton describes himself as the passive transmitter of an age-old story: he's using his imagination and creativity to describe the Biblical story, but he remains (mostly) loyal to the Bible itself. Milton's project is at once incredibly humble and incredibly ambitious: he humbly acknowledges his dependence on a muse (in Homer's case a goddess, but for Milton something like the Holy Spirit) for inspiration, and yet also claims that his poem will accomplish a great feat, describing the ultimate "epic," and justifying the ways of God to mankind. Milton, as we'll see, will try to use his poem to explain the great moral mystery of the Biblical book of Genesis: how Adam and Eve could be said to deserve their punishment when it was God himself who created them.

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Book 4 Quotes

This one, this easy charge, of all the trees
In Paradise that bear delicious fruit
So various, not to taste that only Tree
Of Knowledge, planted by the Tree of Life,
So near grows death to life, whate’er death is,
Some dreadful thing no doubt; for well thou know’st
God hath pronounced it death to taste that Tree,
The only sign of our obedience left
Among so many signs of power and rule
Conferred upon us, and dominion giv’n
Over all other creatures that possess
Earth, air, and sea.

Related Characters: Adam (speaker), God the Father
Related Symbols: The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
Page Number: 4.421-432
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Milton sets the scene for the fall of man. In paradise, Adam and Eve have one easy job: to tend to the plants and animals (who are all peaceful and tame), and only avoid the Tree of Knowledge, since God has forbidden them from eating its fruit. Adam tells Eve that their job is exceptionally easy, and the reward is great: because of their obedience, God has made them lords of the Garden of Eden, free to command all the animals and enjoy the beauty of Paradise.

Interestingly, Adam tells us that God has warned him not to eat the fruit because it will bring death. And yet Adam doesn't know what death is--he's totally innocent. In other words, God has instructed Adam and Eve to obey him, but hasn't told them why, exactly. There are some who have argued that God has designed the rules of the Garden of Eden so that Adam and Eve will inevitably eat the fruit--the mystery of what the fruit is, and what death is, is simply too interesting to ignore. (Such critics often point to the writings of Saint Paul for an explanation of why prohibition creates sin.) Others argue that God has kept humans in a state of ignorance so that they'll be happy forever--they don't know what death is, but that's a very good thing. Yet another idea is that God eventually wants Adam and Eve to eat of the Fruit of Knowledge, but only when they're ready, and only when he allows it--thus the tree itself isn't evil, it's only their disobedience to God that's evil.

Book 9 Quotes

Queen of this universe, do not believe
Those rigid threats of death; ye shall not die:
How should ye? by the fruit? it gives you life
To knowledge. By the Threat’ner? look on me,
Me who have touched and tasted, yet both live,
And life more perfect have attained than Fate
Meant me, by vent’ring higher than my lot.
Shall that be shut to man, which to the beast
Is open? or will God incense his ire
For such a petty trespass, and not praise
Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain
Of death denounced, whatever thing death be…

Related Characters: Satan (speaker), God the Father, Eve
Related Symbols: The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
Page Number: 9.684-695
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Satan, disguised as a snake, tries to tempt Eve into eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The snake uses a series of arguments. It claims that it can talk because it ate of the Tree of Knowledge, and the fruit made it wise. The snake also suggests that eating from the tree will elevate Eve's status in life, making her more divine and majestic. Finally, the snake insists that the Tree will not, as God had claimed, make Eve die--the snake has eaten from the tree, and it's clearly not dead. In fact, the snake says that God will praise Eve for eating the fruit, rather than punish her, because eating the fruit shows that she is brave enough to risk death, "whatever thing death be."

One thing to notice about the snake's arguments is that they suggest two opposing sets of morals. One set of morals favors bravery, heroism, striving, and daring uncertainty--one could call this a romantic or chivalric set of values. The other set of values (which the snake criticizes) favors obedience, loyalty, and trust in one's station in life. In the end, the first set of values is just more fun: Eve, who's been shown to be ambitious and curious, wants above her allotted station in life, and this is the sin for which she's ultimately punished.

What fear I then, rather what know to fear
Under this ignorance of good and evil,
Of God or death, of law or penalty?
Here grows the cure of all, this fruit divine,
Fair to the eye, inviting to the taste,
Of virtue to make wise: what hinders then
To reach, and feed at once both body and mind?
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

Related Characters: Eve (speaker), God the Father
Related Symbols: The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
Page Number: 9.773-784
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Eve finally gives in to the snake's arguments and eats from the Tree of Knowledge. She's persuaded by the snake's points, but mostly because she's a naturally ambitious, inquisitive person. Eve decides that the Tree doesn't really kill people at all--it just makes them wise and intelligent. Like the proverbial child, Eve is interested in eating from the Tree of Knowledge precisely because it is forbidden to her. As a result, she eats, and mankind falls from grace. Even the earth itself "felt the wound" of this small, symbolic action.

Eve's decision to eat from the Tree parallels the Biblical description of the fall of man, though with much more detail thrown in. As in the Bible, Milton writes that the woman ate from the Tree first-- a detail that was often used to justify the lowered position of women in Western society.

However I with thee have fixed my lot,
Certain to undergo like doom; if death
Consort with thee, death is to me as life;
So forcible within my heart I feel
The bond of nature draw me to my own,
My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;
Our state cannot be severed, we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.

Related Characters: Adam (speaker), Eve
Related Symbols: The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
Page Number: 9.952-959
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Adam discovers that Eve has sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam is still a loyal servant of God, but he also loves Eve, his wife. Therefore, Adam makes a horrible choice; knowing full-well that the fruit of the Tree will destroy him, he eats it. Adam loves Eve so completely that he's blinded to his duty to God.

In the passage, Milton criticizes the chivalric tradition of England. Adam loves his wife so completely that he's willing to disobey God for her sake. Such behavior could be interpreted as romantic and incredibly noble. But Milton sees it as sinful: Adam errs in choosing to love a mortal being more than he loves God. Nevertheless, Milton describes Adam's act of sin as more heroic and perhaps admirable than Eve's: as a result, Adam is punished less harshly than Eve when God discovers his creations' sin.

O Eve, in evil hour thou didst give ear
To that false worm, of whomsoever taught
To counterfeit man’s voice, true in our Fall,
False in promised rising; since our eyes
Opened we find indeed, and find we know
Both good and evil, good lost, and evil got,
Bad fruit of knowledge, if this be to know…

Related Characters: Adam (speaker), Satan, Eve
Related Symbols: The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
Page Number: 9.1067-1073
Explanation and Analysis:

After Adam and Eve have both eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, they at first feel excited and pleased with themselves, and they have lustful sex for the first time. But afterwards, they come to realize that the fruit of the Tree has condemned them to a life of misery: they're aware of sin and evil now, and they're ashamed to be alive. A sure sign of their sinful nature is that they immediately begin to argue amongst themselves. Here, for instance, Adam claims that Eve has destroyed him by tempting him to eat from the Tree--he blames Eve for listening to the snake.

It's ironic that Adam and Eve have begun arguing so forcefully, since only a few hours before, Adam had claimed that he and Eve were "one." Milton shows how feeble and nonsensical such declarations of love really are: Adam and Eve are not, in fact, "one" at all anymore--their sin, instead of romantically bringing them together, has only torn them apart.

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The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge Symbol Timeline in Paradise Lost

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge appears in Paradise Lost. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 1
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Free Will and Predestination Theme Icon
...and its sorrowful consequences. In the first line Milton refers to the consequences as the “fruit” of disobedience, punning on the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, which Adam and... (full context)
Book 4
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
...the Earth, and has only forbidden one thing: they are not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, as it will cause their death. Adam does not know... (full context)
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Free Will and Predestination Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
...such joy while he is condemned to Hell. He notes God’s commandment against eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and decides that this is his opportunity to corrupt Adam... (full context)
Book 5
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
...Knowledge. There she saw a creature who looked like an angel, and he took a fruit from the Tree and ate it. The angel then praised the taste of the fruit... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
In the dream the angel told Eve that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge would make her even happier, as she would be like... (full context)
Book 7
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
...breathing life into him. They then created a woman, and commanded the pair to “Be fruitful… and fill the earth.” God gave all creation for these humans to govern, except he... (full context)
Book 8
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
...plants and animals. God only forbade one thing: Adam was not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, or else he should lose his “happy state” and be... (full context)
Book 9
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Free Will and Predestination Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Satan further says that God has forbidden the fruit so as to keep Adam and Eve “low and ignorant” instead of assuming their proper... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Free Will and Predestination Theme Icon
Eve looks at the fruit, which seems especially perfect and delicious to her, and she thinks about Satan’s persuasive words.... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Free Will and Predestination Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
Adam regrets aloud that Eve ate the forbidden fruit, as he sees now that instead of gaining divine knowledge of good and evil, they... (full context)
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Book 10
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Free Will and Predestination Theme Icon
Back in Heaven, God immediately knows when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. The angelic guards of Eden also know, and they fly up to Heaven to ask... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
...because he was embarrassed of his nakedness, and the Son asks if he ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. Adam says that Eve gave him the fruit to eat, and... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
Free Will and Predestination Theme Icon
...Eve to explain herself, and Eve says that the serpent tricked her into eating the fruit. The Son (now referred to as God) immediately condemns the serpent to forever crawl on... (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
...of his triumph, glorifying his own exploits and how he destroyed all humanity “with an apple.” (full context)
Hierarchy and Order Theme Icon
Disobedience and Revolt Theme Icon
Sin and Innocence Theme Icon
A grove of trees then sprouts up in Hell, filled with fruit like the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but whenever the hungry, thirsty snakes try... (full context)