Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.