Debate with other literary critics.

John Milton, “anti-feminist”?

Hey guys,

Today’s topic will focus around Milton’s Paradise Lost.  I have always been interested in the character Eve and how she is portrayed in Milton’s story.  So the topic of debate is, was John Milton an “anti-feminist” or a feminist?  Feel free to leave your comments below.

There have been many debates throughout history arguing whether or not John Milton was an anti-feminist.  In most cases, depending on what part of the text is looked at, one could argue for both claims that he is an anti-feminist and that he is not an anti-feminist.  Shannon Miller, department chair of English at Temple University, shows support for both sides of the debate.

“One significant implication of Paradise Lost’s seeming use of the “anti-feminist” scene is the silencing of the female interlocutor who had emerged onto the scene of the “anti-feminist” debate in the early seventeenth century.  But, while Milton may represent the convention of silencing Eve, at least within male authorized texts in the “anti-feminist” tradition, he embeds into his poem the very defenses for women promulgated by male-and female-authored tracts alike” (Miller 46).

In Book 9 we see many phrases that can possibly support that Milton thought Eve was a subordinate character.  For example, Satan wants to influence Eve because he is afraid of Adam’s strong build and “intellectual superiority.”

“Her husband, for I view far round, not nigh, whose higher intellectual more I shun, and strength, of courage haughty, and of limb, heroic built…” (Davis 630).

Another instance where Milton seems to portray Eve as malicious is when she is deciding whether or not to share the fruit with Adam.  However, another interpretation can be that she is seeking autonomy and does not want to be a subordinate character.  This could be an example where he embeds defenses for women into the poem because in this moment Eve shows strength and the desire for independence.

“But keep the odds of knowledge in my power without copartner?  So to add what wants in female sex, the more to draw his love, and render me more equal, and perhaps, a thing not undesirable, sometime Superior; for inferior who is free (Davis 638)?

In Book Ten of Paradise Lost Milton uses the phrase “fair defect”, when Adam complains about his wife Eve.

“Oh why did God, Creator wise, that peopled highest heaven with spirits masculine, create at last this novelty on earth, this fair defect of nature…” (Davis 652, 653).

One reading of this can be that Milton portrays Adam as seeing Eve as flawed and imperfect compared to the male form.  Davis even suggests that, “the subordination of women is clear and reflects the patriarchal standards of the time” (Davis 571).  However, other scholarship suggests that the phrasing is not as condemning as it sounds.  …“Milton suggests that, although Eve has her faults and has defected from the party of God and Adam, this defection is not as obvious and permanent a sin as is Satan’s rebellion.  In other words, instead of violently and permanently condemning Eve, the poet employs a more subtle approach, simultaneously criticizing her while leaving open for her the possibility of change of mind(Satan, of course, will always remain a rebel)” (Jungman 205).

Q: What is your “reading” of the phrase, “fair defect?”  Do you think the term is negative or does it simply serve to make Eve more beautiful/loveable?

Q: Do you personally think that Milton was an “anti-feminist” or do you think that he defended women in his text?

Davis, Paul B. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Vol. 3. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Jungman, Robert E. “Eve as a “Fair Defect” in Milton’s PARADISE LOST, BOOK 10.” Explicator 65.4 (2007): 204-206. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Oct. 2011.

Miller, Shannon. “Serpentine Eve: Milton and the Seventeenth-Century Debate Over Women.” Milton Quarterly 42.1 (2008): 44-68. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.


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8 thoughts on “John Milton, “anti-feminist”?

  1. Wow….Never thought of it like that…..Thanks…Betsy

  2. I would vote for “anti-feminest” if only because of the time in which he wrote

    • Yes, many people try to argue that Milton was most likely an anti-feminist because of the strong patriarchal society in which he lived. However, there is support that he could have had feminist ideals. In Milton’s life he was considered a rebel. He wrote for the support of divorce, democracy and some commonly held beliefs of the Church at the time. He was imprisoned for speaking against democracy, and was almost killed for treason. Would Milton most likely then sympathize with a character who also can be seen as a rebel? I am just offering a different opinion, but yes, I can see why people see Milton as an anti-feminist.

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