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Paradise Lost

John Milton


Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

1. Satan is the most well-developed character in Paradise Lost. Is he a sympathetic character? Examine one of his soliloquies and identify the character traits and poetic techniques that make him seem appealing or forgivable.

One reason that Satan is easy to sympathize with is that he is much more like us than God or the Son are. As the embodiment of human errors, he is much easier for us to imagine and empathize with than an omniscient deity. Satan’s character and psychology are all very human, and his envy, pride, and despair are understandable given his situation. But Satan’s speeches, while undeniably moving, subtly display their own inconsistency and error.

When Satan first sees Earth and Paradise in Book III, he is overcome with grief. His description of his situation is eloquent; his expression of pain is moving. Perhaps we pity Satan as he struggles to find his new identity while reflecting on his recent mistakes. Likewise, his feeling of despair resonates with feelings that all human beings undergo at some point. However, Satan’s despair becomes fuel for his ever-increasing evil, rather than the foundation for repentance. His anger and irrationality overcomes him, and he resolves to make evil his virtue. In many ways Satan becomes more understandable in this speech for his pitiable human qualities, and he becomes more interesting as well due to the unpredictability of his character. But overall, his ever-increasing stubbornness and devilish pride makes him less forgivable.

2. Trace the appearance of autobiographical details in Paradise Lost. How are these details important to the story? What is the identity and role of the narrator?

Traditionally, critics make a distinction between the author and the speaker of a poem, or between the author and the narrator. Paradise Lost, however, identifies the narrator with Milton in several of the invocations that open individual books. Milton inserts autobiographical references to make the reader know that it is he—not an imaginary, unnamed character—who is narrating.

The autobiographical details in Milton’s three invocations allow Milton to simultaneously express his purpose and his Christian humility. Milton explains to his audience that his purpose is just and his humility is real. First, in his invocation in Book I, he hopes his darkness (or blindness) will be illuminated so he can learn the facts of his story he will tell. In his second invocation, in Book III, he praises Holy Light and again hopes that his blindness will be corrected, at least metaphorically. He also expresses his fear that he may have waited too long to begin writing his epic poem; he fears his age may cloud his reason, or that he has passed his creative and stylistic peaks. In the final invocation, in Book VII, Milton asks for help in making the narrative transition from Heaven to Earth. In a display of humility, he asks for help in finishing his story. This invocation presents Milton as a devoted follower and writer with fallible qualities. His pleas to his heavenly muse parallel Adam and Eve’s repentance and request for guidance. Milton’s interjections diminish the possibility that the story will become simply a vehicle of his ego and opinions. These autobiographical details endow his narration with a sense of authority.

3. Traditional Christian belief holds that the Son and the Father are two parts of the same God, but Milton presents the Son as a fundamentally separate entity from God the Father. How does this distinction affect the plot of Paradise Lost?

Milton deviates from traditional Christian theology concerning the Holy Trinity. He explains in Paradise Lost his belief that God the Father existed with the Holy Spirit, another part of the Trinity, who wandered about the “vast abyss” (I.21). But, Milton explains, God the Son had not yet been created. God the Father creates him afterward, and appoints him as his second-in-command. Indeed, this depiction of the Son’s origin conflicts with the Bible. But in both the Bible and in Milton’s story, the appointment of the Son as second-in-command leads to Satan’s envy and rebellion. In this way, Milton’s separation of the Father and the Son allows for Satan’s outrage to be more understandable, and at least more believable. While Milton did not completely believe in every aspect of the Holy Trinity as it was believed by others in his time, he does believe that God the Father and God the Son have equal powers but with different roles.

The Father and the Son are essentially one entity, but the construction of Paradise Lost as a story with characters who must interact with each other allows Milton to explore their separate roles and their unfathomable relationship. In many scenes, God the Father sends God the Son to perform certain tasks, like the creation of the universe, of Earth, and Adam. The Bible explains that God himself, not Jesus the Son, performed these tasks, and Milton agrees. In these scenes, the Father merely works through his Son. Since Milton believes that God the Father is unknowable and unimaginable, God the Son becomes his knowable and imaginable representation. In other words, the Son (Jesus) becomes the mobile version of God and the mediator between humankind and God the Father.

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