John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, relies on the underlying structure of ancient epics to portray the Christian worldview as noble and heroic, arguing that God’s actions, for people who might question them, are justified, hinting that humankind’s fall serves God’s greater purposes. In his retelling of Adam and Eve’s story, Milton suggests that disobedience to God leads to spiritual exile, allowing evil in all its manifestations to enter the world, which, in turn, offers necessary opportunities for redemption.

At the poem’s outset, Milton’s speaker invokes the muse of the Holy Spirit to fill him with knowledge, since that spirit forms the creative force of the universe; Milton, in turn, seeks to serve as the creative force of the poem. His literary project emphasizes the idea that Christian values—such as obedience, humility, and forbearance—are of the highest importance.

The main conflict of the poem involves Satan’s jealous desire to corrupt God’s new and beloved creation by creating human distrust in God’s plan, a distrust that will lead to disobedience. Through the temptations of the antagonist, Satan, Milton emphasizes the corruption to which humans are vulnerable if they are not spiritually aware of the manipulative power of evil around them. Adam and Eve’s inner struggle, an effort to resist temptation, symbolizes the innate human desire to stay loyal or true to a spiritual compass, which, in Milton’s poem, is represented by God’s exhortations and the messages of his angels.

The inciting incident of the poem finds the antagonist, Satan, banished to hell, where he and his fellow devils construct a temple called Pandemonium, a symbol of chaos and irrationality, and then plot both to make a good out of evil and an evil out of good. Milton portrays the devils’ apparently democratic decision as ironic evidence of their failed capacity for reason: Satan refuses to accept God’s rational hierarchy—that the Son is superior to him—and settles on irrational disobedience. In an allegory reminding the poem’s readers of a conventional Christian understanding of the fall, Satan begets Sin who begets Death. He volunteers to corrupt God’s new and beloved human beings, and a bridge is built between Hell and Earth. 

The rising action explores ideas about free will and a redemption in which God’s Son will willingly sacrifice himself, God’s plan for human salvation. The Son is the instrument through which God acts, and Milton shows how God and the Son work separately, yet are manifestations of the same entity, working as one. Free will is one of the major themes of the poem, and Milton suggests a paradoxical idea about it: a human being is free to choose, yet is only truly free when choosing the good. Events unfold as Adam is visited by the Archangel Raphael who recounts the story of creation, reveals the primary conflict between God and Satan, and describes the latter’s fall and the War in Heaven. The war stands as an extended spiritual metaphor in which disobedience leads to one’s blindness from the truth. Raphael warns Adam to be wary of Satan’s temptations; Adam’s choice will rest entirely in his own hands. 

At the poem’s climax, Satan accomplishes his goal by convincing Adam and Eve to become disobedient. Plagued by envy and despair, Satan flatters Eve, convincing her to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. He presents knowledge as a means with which she might equate herself with God, using his perverted reasoning to demonstrate how knowledge can be used for evil. Eve, in turn, convinces Adam to join her in this act of disobedience, and he dooms himself, unable to bear the thought of losing her. Ultimately, he chooses loyalty to Eve over loyalty to God. As the pair’s heightened senses take over, their capacity for reason diminishes. The further Adam and Eve drift from God, the more reduced their powers of reasoning become.

In the falling action, Adam and Eve awaken to their banishment from Paradise. They find themselves in a world of shame and evil, blaming each other for their condition, and Sin and Death subsequently enter the world. The fall, however, paves the way for humanity’s redemption and salvation; thus, Milton claims that his epic surpasses the ancient classics, as it pertains to all of humankind, not to a single hero or nation. The archangel Michael grants Adam visions of a future in which his offspring commit murder, as well as scenes of people living for pleasure and the flesh. Unlike Satan, Adam and Eve repent by praying to God. 

Michael, in the poem’s resolution, recounts the idea that a Messiah will eventually arrive to reunite Heaven and Earth, noting that there will be much suffering before that reconciliation. Milton suggests that Adam and Eve’s fall is the “felix culpa,” or happy fault or fortunate fall, for God’s mercy is shown. Individuals, he suggests, may hope to redeem themselves through devotion and obedience to God, forming an aspect of his ultimate plan. Comforted by these suggestions, Adam and Eve, in the poem’s final scene, exit into a new world. They have been led to understand that obedience to God and his love for his creation will lead humanity toward salvation, toward regaining a Paradise that has been lost.