Paradise Lost By John Milton Summary and Analysis Book XI

Summary

Adam and Eve offer fervent, sincere prayers to God for forgiveness. In Heaven, God hears the prayers. The Son intercedes with the Father to show grace and mercy to the humans, saying that he will make up for any inadequacies in Man through his own incarnation and death. God accepts the Son's intercession but says that Adam and Eve cannot remain in Eden. They must still suffer the judgments God has proclaimed, and they must die. However, if they lead a good life, they will be able to live with God for eternity. God summons all the angels to hear his final pronouncement and assigns Michael to go to Earth and expel Adam and Eve from the Garden.

After their prayers, Adam and Eve are more reconciled with their new situation. Adam encourages Eve, reminding her that she will be the mother of Mankind and that her offspring will bruise the serpent. Eve answers that she does not feel worthy to be so honored because she has brought Sin and Death into the world. Eve adds that she will be content to live out her allotted life in Eden.

Michael arrives at this point and informs Adam and Eve of God's decree that they must leave Eden. Eve is stunned, lamenting the loss of the flowers, her bridal bower, everything she holds dear. Adam is also shocked but understands that God's decree must be obeyed. He thanks Michael for informing them so gently and adds that he worries that, outside of Eden, he will never be able to talk with or see God again. Michael assures Adam that God is everywhere on Earth. The angel then puts Eve into a peaceful sleep and takes Adam to the highest point in Paradise from which Michael will give Adam a vision of the future of Mankind.

The first part of Adam's vision is of Cain and Abel. Adam sees Cain's murder of Abel and then is told by Michael that the killer and victim are Adam's own sons. Adam laments the brutality of what he has seen and is then given a further vision of all the terrible ways in which death will take humans. Adam is in deep sorrow over what he has caused and asks if there is no other way for a man to die. Michael responds that those who live good and temperate lives may drop "like ripe fruit" (535). Adam answers that he will neither seek death nor fear life but live in the best manner he can, an idea to which the angel assents.

Next, Adam is shown a vision based on Genesis IV, 20-22, an account of the children of Cain who discovered metalwork. The vision shows men on a plain working with metals and playing musical instruments. Then from the hills that border the plain come a group of Godly men. Beautiful women emerge from tents on the plain, and soon the men pair off and go with the women into the tents. Adam finds this scene much more pleasant than the first. Michael admonishes Adam not to be taken in by a life of pleasure. The people in the vision learned a useful skill but then allowed their craft to become an art, which was more important to them than God. They were the children of Cain.

The men who came down from the hills were the children of Adam and Eve's third child, Seth. They were God-fearing men. Michael calls the women, also descendants of Cain, "Atheists" (625) who have been trained in the arts of sexual love. They lure the men from their godly lives. Adam understands Michael's point, saying that man's downfall starts with women. Michael develops this idea by referring to the fallen men's "effeminate slackness" (634), through which men give over their superiority to women and thus yield to sin. The deeper point, concerning sexual desire, that applies to the story of Adam and Eve is not lost on Adam.

Michael now shows Adam a scene of violence — a terrible battle followed by futile negotiations. Only one man speaks with reason. He is Enoch, whose speech for reconciliation is met with such vehement opposition that he faces death until God takes him to Heaven in a cloud. The story of Enoch shifts directly into the story of Noah. By Noah's time, the Earth is filled with decadence and depravity. Only Noah speaks out against the evil that is taking place. God is so revolted by the actions of Mankind that he sends a flood to destroy everyone but Noah and his family. Adam sees the flood and cries out in anguish at the evil that occurs because of his and Eve's fall. All of his children fall into sin and are destroyed, and he has to watch with no way to help.

Michael says that while all of the evil have perished, nonetheless, the righteous man, Noah, survived because he remained obedient to God. Michael goes through the entire story of Noah. The story ends with an account of the rainbow, God's covenant with Noah, and through him all humans, not to destroy the Earth with flood or fire again until all sin is destroyed by the fire at the end of time. Adam is somewhat comforted by the story of Noah's survival. He is pleased that the just have been saved and the world continues.

Analysis

Books XI and XII change the focus of Paradise Lost. The plot of Adam's and Eve's fall has been completed. The final scenes for most characters have occurred. A brief conclusion seems logical. Instead, Milton adds two more books that trace biblical history through Jesus. Many scholars and readers have questioned the artistic justification for these books, and, in truth, the books do seem to needlessly prolong the work. On the other hand, several solid arguments can be adduced to explain the reasons for Books XI and XII, if not their necessity.

Milton's stated purpose in the poem is to justify God's ways to Man. By the end of Book X, Milton has been able to explain his concept of what God did and why, but he has offered little in the way of justification. Can the single instance of disobedience by Eve and then Adam justify death, war, plague, famine — an endless list of evil? To truly accomplish his goal, Milton needs to show the effects of the fall on Adam and Eve over a longer period and at the same time develop the notion that some greater good than innocence and immortality in Paradise could result from the fall. Books XI and XII represent Milton's attempt at justification.

The justification of God's ways is developed in two ways. First, the justification of God's acts is presented to Adam as a part of the plot structure. That is, through the visions Michael shows Adam, Adam gains a greater individual understanding of what he did, why it was wrong, what the consequences are for him and for all Mankind, and why those consequences are truly better than what would have happened if Adam and Eve had remained sinless in the Garden. Second, the justification for God's ways is developed in a broader scope for the reader as a representative for all Mankind. Through Adam's actions and consequences, the reader gets Milton's explanation of why Man fell and why sin, death, and the myriad of other evils exist on Earth. Through Adam's vision, the reader also sees how Adam's sin will be repeated in various ways and various times throughout history. It is in these final two books that Milton completes his argument for his audience and either does or does not achieve the justification he set as his goal.

In Book XI, Michael is introduced as the second angel, after Raphael, to impart information and education to Adam. Michael and Raphael make an interesting contrast. Both come with messages for Adam, and both speak to Adam outside of Eve's presence. Michael is stern though not unkind while Raphael is often called the "affable archangel." Michael brings pronouncements to Adam; Raphael engaged Adam in a friendly conversation. Michael's statements to Adam are straightforward lessons that cannot be misconstrued; Raphael is much less authoritarian in his tone, causing a number of critics to partially blame Raphael for Adam's failure to be prepared for the serpent. Michael cannot be faulted for lack of clarity. The contrast points up the differences in Man's relationship with the angels before and after the fall. Before the fall, Man had a more personal relationship with Heaven; after the fall, Heaven instructs, Man listens.

The absence of Eve when both Raphael and Michael talk with Adam reinforces the idea that woman is secondary to man. During Raphael's visit, Eve absents herself, preferring to have Raphael's ideas explained to her by Adam. Michael puts Eve into a deep sleep while he talks with Adam. Once again the idea is that Eve will better understand if the message is provided for her by Adam. In Milton's view of biblical and world history, women have an important role, but in matters of the intellect, men predominate.

A further aspect of Milton's view of women's role in society comes in the second vision that Michael presents. In this vision, a group of godly men are seduced by a group of seductive women. Adam's positive response to this scene points up his weakness for women that led to his fall. Michael says that men often will fall away from God by yielding their superior position to women because of physical and sexual attraction. Michael calls this "effeminate slackness" (634) in men and suggests that the problem results from the reversal of the proper or ordained order of the world. Among humans, men have a certain superiority over women. Milton's ideas on the roles of men and women have provoked much critical debate through the years, particularly among feminist critics.

The first scene that Michael shows Adam, the murder of Abel by Cain followed by the "house of death" is really Adam's introduction to death. Before this scene, Adam has no experience of death. The murder and the grotesque scenes in the "Lazar-house" (479) impress on Adam the monstrosity he has loosed on the world. Also the discussion of grotesque diseases leading to death versus the death of good men, dropping like ripe fruit in old age, seems to suggest that horrible deaths are the result of evil lives. That Milton would suggest this idea seems strange, given his own blindness.

The last two visions that Michael shows Adam deal first with war and then the destruction of the world by flood. The unifying factor in these two scenes, as well as an image that runs throughout the work, is that of the one good man willing to stand up against a host of opponents. First, Enoch tries to resolve the issues of the war with reason and is nearly killed before God takes him to Heaven. Second, the story of Noah is similar in that Noah alone of the people on Earth speaks out against sin and evil. Eventually, only Noah and his family are saved when the flood comes. Michael explains, "So all shall turn degenerate, all deprav'd, / Justice and Temperance, Truth and Faith forgot; / One Man except, the only Son of light / in a dark Age" (806-809). The examples of Enoch and Noah here recall Abdiel, the only one of Satan's angels who opposed his plan for rebellion. Throughout Paradise Lost, the one just man standing up to the evil has been put forward as the example. The Son, accepting mortality and death to save Mankind, is the ultimate paradigm for this image. The image is of particular importance to Adam because he failed to stand up to Eve and, through her, the serpent, in his moment of testing.

Book XI ends with the rainbow, God's covenant with Noah and the one truly hopeful sign in the entire book. For the most part, Michael's description of history has been what most critics call "degenerative history," showing the steady decline of Mankind. This view of the world is similar to the classic myth of the Four Ages of Man in which Mankind goes from a Golden Age, a paradise, through deteriorating stages of Silver, Bronze, and the present Iron, in which ultimate collapse seems imminent. In the Inferno, Dante had presented this myth in the image of a statue with a golden head, silver shoulders and chest, bronze torso, and iron legs. Dante added clay feet to symbolize the corruption of the church. Paradise Lost and biblical history follow this same pattern to a point. They both begin with paradise in Eden and show successive stages of degeneration until God destroys the world by flood.

The difference between the classic view and Milton's Christian presentation is the rainbow. After Noah finds land, God makes a promise never to destroy the world by fire or flood until sin is burned away for eternity in a final conflagration. Thus, the rainbow represents the hope of salvation for all those who remain obedient to God. The Abdiels, Enochs, Noahs, and, we presume, Adams and Eves will eventually find eternal life because they do not deviate from God's path. The colors of the rainbow provide the Christian contrast with pagan gold, silver, bronze, and iron and offer a sense of optimism at the end of what has been a very grim and depressing presentation of history.

Glossary

prevenient (3) antecedent to human action.

propitiation (34) gracious.

Amarantin (78) dark purplish-red.

descry (228) to catch sight of; discern.

gripe (264) [Archaic] to grasp or clutch; to distress; oppress; afflict.

euphrasy (414) eyebright; any plant of the figwort family having pale lavender flowers in leafy clusters.

rue (414) an herb with yellow flowers and bitter-tasting leaves.

Lazar-house (479) a house of the diseased and dying, especially for lepers.

catarrh (483) inflammation of a mucous membrane, esp. of the nose or throat, causing an increased flow of mucus.

effeminate (634) having the qualities generally attributed to women; unmanly; not virile. Milton uses the term in the sense that a man allows a woman to take his place in the natural hierarchy in which, for Milton, women were inferior to men, especially in terms of reason and intellect.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

After both Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit, what is the first thing they do?




Quiz