Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of Obedience to God
The first words of Paradise Lost state that the poem’s main theme will be “Man’s first Disobedience.” Milton narrates the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, explains how and why it happens, and places the story within the larger context of Satan’s rebellion and Jesus’ resurrection. Raphael tells Adam about Satan’s disobedience in an effort to give him a firm grasp of the threat that Satan and humankind’s disobedience poses. In essence, Paradise Lost presents two moral paths that one can take after disobedience: the downward spiral of increasing sin and degradation, represented by Satan, and the road to redemption, represented by Adam and Eve.
While Adam and Eve are the first humans to disobey God, Satan is the first of all God’s creation to disobey. His decision to rebel comes only from himself—he was not persuaded or provoked by others. Also, his decision to continue to disobey God after his fall into Hell ensures that God will not forgive him. Adam and Eve, on the other hand, decide to repent for their sins and seek forgiveness. Unlike Satan, Adam and Eve understand that their disobedience to God will be corrected through generations of toil on Earth. This path is obviously the correct one to take: the visions in Books XI and XII demonstrate that obedience to God, even after repeated falls, can lead to humankind’s salvation.
The Hierarchical Nature of the Universe
Paradise Lost is about hierarchy as much as it is about obedience. The layout of the universe—with Heaven above, Hell below, and Earth in the middle—presents the universe as a hierarchy based on proximity to God and his grace. This spatial hierarchy leads to a social hierarchy of angels, humans, animals, and devils: the Son is closest to God, with the archangels and cherubs behind him. Adam and Eve and Earth’s animals come next, with Satan and the other fallen angels following last. To obey God is to respect this hierarchy.
Satan refuses to honor the Son as his superior, thereby questioning God’s hierarchy. As the angels in Satan’s camp rebel, they hope to beat God and thereby dissolve what they believe to be an unfair hierarchy in Heaven. When the Son and the good angels defeat the rebel angels, the rebels are punished by being banished far away from Heaven. At least, Satan argues later, they can make their own hierarchy in Hell, but they are nevertheless subject to God’s overall hierarchy, in which they are ranked the lowest. Satan continues to disobey God and his hierarchy as he seeks to corrupt mankind.
Likewise, humankind’s disobedience is a corruption of God’s hierarchy. Before the fall, Adam and Eve treat the visiting angels with proper respect and acknowledgement of their closeness to God, and Eve embraces the subservient role allotted to her in her marriage. God and Raphael both instruct Adam that Eve is slightly farther removed from God’s grace than Adam because she was created to serve both God and him. When Eve persuades Adam to let her work alone, she challenges him, her superior, and he yields to her, his inferior. Again, as Adam eats from the fruit, he knowingly defies God by obeying Eve and his inner instinct instead of God and his reason. Adam’s visions in Books XI and XII show more examples of this disobedience to God and the universe’s hierarchy, but also demonstrate that with the Son’s sacrifice, this hierarchy will be restored once again.
The Fall as Partly Fortunate
After he sees the vision of Christ’s redemption of humankind in Book XII, Adam refers to his own sin as a felix culpa or “happy fault,” suggesting that the fall of humankind, while originally seeming an unmitigated catastrophe, does in fact bring good with it. Adam and Eve’s disobedience allows God to show his mercy and temperance in their punishments and his eternal providence toward humankind. This display of love and compassion, given through the Son, is a gift to humankind. Humankind must now experience pain and death, but humans can also experience mercy, salvation, and grace in ways they would not have been able to had they not disobeyed. While humankind has fallen from grace, individuals can redeem and save themselves through continued devotion and obedience to God. The salvation of humankind, in the form of The Son’s sacrifice and resurrection, can begin to restore humankind to its former state. In other words, good will come of sin and death, and humankind will eventually be rewarded. This fortunate result justifies God’s reasoning and explains his ultimate plan for humankind.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Light and Dark
Opposites abound in Paradise Lost, including Heaven and Hell, God and Satan, and good and evil. Milton’s uses imagery of light and darkness to express all of these opposites. Angels are physically described in terms of light, whereas devils are generally described by their shadowy darkness. Milton also uses light to symbolize God and God’s grace. In his invocation in Book III, Milton asks that he be filled with this light so he can tell his divine story accurately and persuasively. While the absence of light in Hell and in Satan himself represents the absence of God and his grace.
The Geography of the Universe
Milton divides the universe into four major regions: glorious Heaven, dreadful Hell, confusing Chaos, and a young and vulnerable Earth in between. The opening scenes that take place in Hell give the reader immediate context as to Satan’s plot against God and humankind. The intermediate scenes in Heaven, in which God tells the angels of his plans, provide a philosophical and theological context for the story. Then, with these established settings of good and evil, light and dark, much of the action occurs in between on Earth. The powers of good and evil work against each other on this new battlefield of Earth. Satan fights God by tempting Adam and Eve, while God shows his love and mercy through the Son’s punishment of Adam and Eve.
Milton believes that any other information concerning the geography of the universe is unimportant. Milton acknowledges both the possibility that the sun revolves around the Earth and that the Earth revolves around the sun, without coming down on one side or the other. Raphael asserts that it does not matter which revolves around which, demonstrating that Milton’s cosmology is based on the religious message he wants to convey, rather than on the findings of contemporaneous science or astronomy.
Conversation and Contemplation
One common objection raised by readers of Paradise Lost is that the poem contains relatively little action. Milton sought to divert the reader’s attention from heroic battles and place it on the conversations and contemplations of his characters. Conversations comprise almost five complete books of Paradise Lost, close to half of the text. Milton’s narrative emphasis on conversation conveys the importance he attached to conversation and contemplation, two pursuits that he believed were of fundamental importance for a moral person. As with Adam and Raphael, and again with Adam and Michael, the sharing of ideas allows two people to share and spread God’s message. Likewise, pondering God and his grace allows a person to become closer to God and more obedient. Adam constantly contemplates God before the fall, whereas Satan contemplates only himself. After the fall, Adam and Eve must learn to maintain their conversation and contemplation if they hope to make their own happiness outside of Paradise.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Scales in the Sky
As Satan prepares to fight Gabriel when he is discovered in Paradise, God causes the image of a pair of golden scales to appear in the sky. On one side of the scales, he puts the consequences of Satan’s running away, and on the other he puts the consequences of Satan’s staying and fighting with Gabriel. The side that shows him staying and fighting flies up, signifying its lightness and worthlessness. These scales symbolize the fact that God and Satan are not truly on opposite sides of a struggle—God is all-powerful, and Satan and Gabriel both derive all of their power from Him. God’s scales force Satan to realize the futility of taking arms against one of God’s angels again.
The wreath that Adam makes as he and Eve work separately in Book IX is symbolic in several ways. First, it represents his love for her and his attraction to her. But as he is about to give the wreath to her, his shock in noticing that she has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge makes him drop it to the ground. His dropping of the wreath symbolizes that his love and attraction to Eve is falling away. His image of her as a spiritual companion has been shattered completely, as he realizes her fallen state. The fallen wreath represents the loss of pure love.
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