HEAVEN AND ITS DISCONTENTS: MILTON’S CHARACTERS IN PARADISE LOST
Many critics agree with C. S. Lewis that “Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters.” Satan is certainly a wonderful creation, but Adam and Eve are also complex and well-drawn, and God may be the most complicated character of all. Paradise Lost is above all God’s story; it is his discontent, first with Lucifer and then with human beings, that drives the action from the beginning until his anger subsides at the world’s end.
Milton’s characters are usually discussed in terms of their illustrative significance, their role in his efforts to justify God’s ways. This is appropriate, of course, but the characters are portrayed in such concrete detail that much of their behavior can also be explained in psychological terms. His mimetic characterization often subverts his thematic intentions and is an aspect of Milton’s art that has been largely ignored.
Motivational questions arise at each stage of the poem about the ways in which characters relate to each other and why their behavior is so extreme. Why does God anoint the Son King, and why is Satan so disturbed by this act that he foments a rebellion? Why is God so enraged by Satan’s revolt that he is not satisfied with consigning him to Hell but frees him so that he can damn himself further by carrying out his dark designs, despite the cost to humankind? Why do Satan and God have such intense cravings for power and glory? The ambitious Satan wants more than he already has, but what accounts for the voracity of God’s appetite? Satan’s vindictiveness is clearly a response to his feeling injured, but must not God also have been deeply hurt to have such a powerful craving for revenge? If so, why is the Almighty so vulnerable?
Similar questions arise about the behavior of God and Satan toward Adam and Eve, Adam and Eve’s behavior toward each other and God, and God’s relationship with the Son. Why is Satan so full of turmoil after he arrives in Eden? Why is Eve so easily seduced, and why does Adam choose to die with her? And why is God so hard on Adam and Eve and the rest of humankind? How does the Son help God to manage his inner conflicts and ultimately to resolve them?
Most critics treat Milton’s characters as coded messages from the author; but the richness with which they are depicted interferes with the process of decoding; for as the characters come to life, they escape their thematic roles. The clash between Milton’s rhetorical intentions and his mimetic characterization does much to explain the controversies that have surrounded this poem. Instead of looking through the characters to author or theme, this book looks at Milton’s characters as objects of interest in themselves, as creations inside a creation who embody his intuitive insights and are products of his genius in psychological portraiture.
Chapter 1. Heaven and Its Discontents
Chapter 2. Coping with Defeat
Chapter 3. The Creation
Chapter 4. Satan’s Inner Conflicts
Chapter 5. Adam and Eve: Before the Fall
Chapter 6. Adam and Eve: The Fall
Chapter 7. Adam and Eve: After the Fall
Chapter 8. God Protects His Image: Before the Fall
Chapter 9. After the Fall: God’s Response
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