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Is John Milton a Misogynist, a Feminist, or a Sexist?

Updated on April 6, 2017
KatSanger profile image

Katherine has been teaching English since 2003 and currently holds an MA in Liberal Arts and an MA in English Literature.

Opening page of a 1720 illustrated edition of Paradise Lost by John Milton.
Opening page of a 1720 illustrated edition of Paradise Lost by John Milton. | Source

Even after three hundred years, arguments abound as to Milton's true proclivities towards the female gender. Is he, as Sara Gilbert argues in "Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey," a misogynist, bent on proving that women are evil? Or is he, as per Edward S. Le Comte in "Milton's Attitude Towards Women in the History of Britain," merely a product of his time, a sexist but nothing worse? Maybe he is, as can be seen in Anne Ferry's "Milton's Creation of Eve," a closet feminist, trying to elevate women through Eve?

From evidence within "Paradise Lost," Milton appears to be a sexist, and Eve and her relationship with Adam bears this out.

Misogyny

Engraving by Michael Burgesse after John Baptist Medina. Illustration to Book 1 of Paradise Lost, by John Milton.
Engraving by Michael Burgesse after John Baptist Medina. Illustration to Book 1 of Paradise Lost, by John Milton. | Source

Different Points of View

Sara Gilbert's Analysis

To be a misogynist, Milton must be shown to harbor a hatred for women. Sara Gilbert sees Milton as a misogynist, arguing that Milton's Eve is Adam's inferior and satanically inspired (368). Gilbert believes that because "Milton's myth of origins [is] summarizing a long misogynistic tradition," the work itself and the author must both be misogynistic (368).

Anne Ferry's Thoughts

However, Ferry points out that the first time we see Eve and Adam through the eyes of Satan in Book Four, we see two "of far nobler shape erect and tall/Godlike erect, with native Honor clad/In naked Majesty seem'd Lords of all" (4.288-290). There is no distinction between Adam and Eve — both are majestic and both are "Lords" (118). This is an outsider's (Satan's) view, yet it is the reader's first introduction to Eve, and as such, the first impression. This moment would have been an ideal time to pursue a misogynistic agenda if Milton had wanted to, but he does not choose to do so. The lines which follow the initial appearance do lower Eve slightly from equality; however, what is done is correct within the Biblical mythos. Ferry points out that "Milton held with passionate conviction...that the Bible is a record of divinely inspired truth which it is the Christian's duty to interpret and follow, not to contradict or ignore" (Ferry 113). How, then, could Milton fail to point out that, in the eyes of those who wrote the Bible, "He for God only, she for God in him" (4.299)? "We, therefore, have to take into account the givens — the fixed points of interpretation that he was unavoidably compelled to work with or to work around" (Ferry 113).

Chrisitne Froula's Examination

Chrisitne Froula in "When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy," picks Book Four apart in detail, determining where Milton's supposed misogyny appears. In lines 440 to 443, Milton has Eve speak to Adam: "O thou for whom/And from whom I was form'd of they flesh/And without whom am to no end, My Guide/And Head…" Falling back on Ferry, however, we can see that the words put into Eve's mouth by Milton are biblical, not misogynist in and of themselves.

However, just several lines later, Froula finds other misogynistic leanings:

Eve is 'part' of Adam's whole, his 'other half,' to which he lays 'claim' by an oxymoronic gentle seizure; her debt to him, as he represents it, is such that she can repay it only by ceding to him her very self (Froula 328).

The Academic Debate

While it is possible to interpret those words as misogyny, Ferry finds quite the opposite to be true. She tends to see a more feminist reading, one in which Eve's origin from the side nearest Adam's heart makes her part of his soul, not an expendable staff to which any man would prefer to his own legs. She is by his side as "an individual solace dear," not as a subordinate, forbidden to leave the place where she is meant to serve him (Ferry 119).

Either reading takes the words to an extreme point. According to one interpretation, Milton is guilty of being a misogynist. In the other, Milton is a forward-thinking feminist, using ideas that were probably foreign, both to him and his time. It is more likely that Milton was falling back on the Bible and its words, not striking out on his own.

In "Patriarchal Poetry," Sandra Gilbert points out that Eve is hidden from the angels whenever they appear, and that at a "crucial moment in the history of Eden" she is actually "drugged and silenced by divinely ordained sleep" (372). That such things happen within Paradise Lost cannot be argued with; the reasons for the absence and sleep, however, can be.

When the angel first comes and speaks with Adam, Eve is sent away. She is supposed to be gathering food, but instead, she comes back and eavesdrops on the conversation. This can be viewed as sexist or even feminist, but not as misogynistic. It is sexist in the assumption that a woman is weak-willed and unable to keep away as she is instructed. It can be feminist, however, because Eve shows a strong character by showing an interest in her circumstances and the world. A truly submissive Eve, of the type that Gilbert sees, would not have broken the order to stay away. The divinely ordained sleep, on the other hand, shows more sexism than misogyny. Eve, having no say in her own future, does not need to be instructed by the angel. While this is not in any way kind towards her, Edward S. LeComte points out that:

The faith and morals…which Milton held were not, needless to say, those of a misogynist…In common with the men of his time and those of preceding periods, and more moderately than many, he did believe that women had their 'not equal' place and should keep it (983).

Anne Ferry agrees with LeComte, pointing out that "Milton simply believed in the sexual subordination of women" (113), which is not at all the same thing as misogyny.

Finally, Gilbert's own words can be used against her position that Milton and his work are misogynistic. When Gilbert states that, "Eve falls for exactly the same reason that Satan does: because she wants to be 'as Gods' and because, like him, she is secretly dissatisfied with her place, secretly preoccupied with questions of equality, " (372) she makes the assumption that showing these characteristics makes Eve a thing to be hated. In fact, those characteristics argue more towards feminism. An unthinking, unknowing female would simply take what was offered to her. Eve, however, while creating her own unmaking in going off alone and meeting Satan, is standing up and attempting to strike out on her own. Milton does not show that she should be hated for this. Indeed, God forgives her and her punishment is not thought to be harsh at the time.

Feminism

Engraving by Michael Burgesse after John Baptist Medina. Illustration to Book 2 of Paradise Lost, by John Milton.
Engraving by Michael Burgesse after John Baptist Medina. Illustration to Book 2 of Paradise Lost, by John Milton. | Source

Is Ferry's Argument Convincing?

To be a feminist, Milton must be shown to urge the equality of women.

Anne Ferry, in "Milton's Creation of Eve," sees Eve as Adam's equal, and even his superior at times. "What Adam wants in a mate is what God brings him in Eve — which both God and Adam in [Book Eight] define by terms like 'societie,' 'fellowship,' 'conversation,' 'Social communication,' 'companie'" (Ferry 120).

Even Froula agrees with this to some extent, mentioning that "God baits Adam after he requests a companion, saying in effect, "I'm alone; don't you think I'm happy?" to which Adam replies, "Thou in thyself art perfect, and in thee/Is no deficiency found; not so in Man" (8:415-416) (Froula 332). Adam does not see himself as superior to Eve (or anyone else) at this point, but he is admitting his flaws and asking for a partner to share with as he cannot be whole by himself.

Ferry also believes that the confessions of Adam and Eve to God after eating from the Tree of Knowledge further prove their positions. Milton "exaggerates Adam's devious excuses to the point of ridiculing him, while he elevates Eve's accusation of the serpent to a form of truly penitent 'confessing'…" (Ferry 127) In doing this, Eve is seen as Adam's "spiritual superior" (Ferry 127). Ferry points out that the scene of the confessions does not have a Biblical model to fall back on, and, therefore, Milton created this on his own, proving his willingness to accept the superiority of Eve.

Milton's Feminism

While these points do show that Eve is not constantly subject to Adam's will, Milton's feminism is not apparent. Edward Pechter, in his response to Froula's misogynist claims in "When Pechter Reads Froula Pretending She's Eve Reading Milton," states that "Milton is a feminist…Milton's poem is situated in history, and it is implausible to suppose Milton capable of thinking up feminist answers to feminist questions, or for that matter of being able to ask such questions" (166).

Sexism

Engraving by Michael Burgesse after John Baptist Medina. Illustration to Book 3 of Paradise Lost, by John Milton.
Engraving by Michael Burgesse after John Baptist Medina. Illustration to Book 3 of Paradise Lost, by John Milton.

The Concluding Arguement

To be a sexist, Milton must be shown to discriminate or stereotype the social role of women, based purely on their gender. In this, Milton excels.

In "Milton's Attitude Towards Women in the History of Britain," LeComte says that "...the voice that speaks out on the inferiority and proper subjection of women is at times unmistakably Milton's own…he will go out of his way, whether by parenthetical remark or by free alternation of his sources, or, in one case, by sheer misinterpretation of the original Latin" (977).

In conclusion, Milton does not show a hatred of women, but he also does not show a willingness to elevate them, unless it makes for a good story. Milton is, therefore, a product of his times, and believed in the submission of women to men. This is merely sexism — nothing more, nothing less.

Works Cited

Daehler, Albert H. "Adam's Motive." Modern Language Notes. 31.3. March 1916. pp. 187-188. 5 May 2007.

Ferry, Anne. "Milton's Creation of Eve." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 28. 1. Winter 1988. pp. 113-132. 5 May 2007.

Froula, Christine. "When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy." Critical Inquiry. 10. 2. December 1983. pp. 321-347.

Gallagher, Philip J. and Sandra M. Gilbert. "Milton's Bogey." PMLA. 94. 2. March 1979. pp. 319-322.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey." PMLA. 93. 3. May 1978. pp. 368-382. 5 May 2007.

LeComte, Edward S. "Milton's Attitude Towards Women in the History of Britain." PMLA. 62. 4. December 1947. pp. 977-983. 5 May 2007.

Milton, John. "Paradise Lost. A Poem in Twelve Books." Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1957. 207-469.

Pechter, Edward. "When Pechter Reads Froula Pretending She's Eve Reading Milton; Or, New Feminist Is but Old Priest Writ Large." Critical Inquiry. 11.1 September 1984. pp. 163-170. 5 May 2007.

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    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 14 months ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      An interesting and sharp yet common-sensical analysis. A few points about LeComte's remark in the "Sexism" section. Paradise Lost is full of parenthetical remarks about a lot of things that go "out of their way." As for "sheer misinterpretation of the original Latin," LeComte forgets that the "original" wasn't Latin at all, but Hebrew. While most educated Christians in Europe at Milton's time did think of St. Jerome's Vulgate translation into Latin as their ur-text of the Scriptures, Milton, like many Puritans, knew Hebrew fluently and thus could have relied on the original Hebrew text as his source, or a source. Whether he did or not, I have no idea.

      Interestingly, Judaism has a bit of a different take on Adam and Eve. The Hebrew word "tzela," customarily translated as "rib," also has the less specific meaning "side." Thus, the prevalent Jewish view, noted in the Talmud, is that Adam was originally a hermaphrodite, half male and half female--each gender an equal part. By creating Eve, then, G-d didn't take a small part out of Adam, which would imply male superiority and female inferiority, but split Adam right down the middle, fashioning Eve out of the female "side" while the male "side" remained Adam, as it were.

    • Helena Bonde profile image

      Helena Bonde 2 years ago from San Francisco

      Just stumbled upon this article, and it's great! A clear, concise, analysis of Milton's depiction of Eve. I'd be curious to know if you think Milton's other poems also fit in this model of depicting women. I'd guess so, since, as you say, Milton seems to have been neither overtly anti or pro-women, instead complacently agreeing with the dominating sexist views of his time.

    • KatSanger profile image
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      Katherine Sanger 3 years ago from Texas

      I'm very interested in how you see him as "feminist."

    • Rafini profile image

      Rafini 3 years ago from Somewhere I can't get away from

      Okay, so you're claiming Milton was sexist? I totally disagree.

      I ended up here, reading your article, because I am writing my final paper for this semester on Paradise Lost and have come to the conclusion that Milton created this epic poem as an argument based on concepts of equality, inequality, and individuality.

      Assuming Milton was a misogynist is my rebuttal ~ I don't believe he was. Feminist, maybe. Sexist? Not a chance.

      Interesting read, though.

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