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The Theme and Moral Purpose of "Paradise Lost" Book-I

Since all epics of antiquity deal with personalities and events of divine or
superhuman dimensions, it has become a fixed rule that an epic worthy of the
name should deal with an action or story which has universal or even cosmic
appeal. The affairs of small people do not interest us since there is nothing heroes
or noble about them at first sight. The Iliad dealt with Gods and heroes, lovely
women and romantic lovers, doughty deeds on the battle-field and heroic
achievements and death.
The Ramayana deals with the heroic virtues of constancy, parental duty, filial
love, chivalry, succouring the oppressed, loyalties and treacheries on a grand
scale. In the Mahabharata, we have the endless complication all springing from
the rivalries of brothers for power and dominion. As the fortunes and misfortunes
affect all human beings, all are interested in following the adventures of such
exceptional beings. We see what man is capable of, what man has to contend with
and what man has to suffer as a result of transgressing the rules of Dharma.
From such knowledge we come out chastened and inspired to order our lives
more honorably and nobly.
But the ancient epics dealt with men and events which we know could not
have happened as described. Much of it is pure imagination, much of it is
fantastic or incredible and many other parts are beyond human agencies. They
help us to realise that we are surrounded by invisible powers which can shape us
to some extent, and which exert a continuous influence over us for good and ill.
Faith in God and a divine order is thus inculcated, and we do not feel as strangers
or helpless beings in this world. Death is the final end of all mortal men. But
before death comes, we are impelled to do something worthy of our higher
natures so that it may remain as an object of inspiration to all mankind. Thus,
epics give us delight, instruction, edification and consolation.
Milton's Subject: Fall of Man
Milton was a profound student of the classics, and from a very early period of
his life, he was seized with the ambition to write an epic poem. But the course of
his life was chequered by many interests, conflicts and crosses which prevented
him from taking up the work on which he kept on brooding. At last he hit upon
the subject of the fall of Man as narrated in the Bible as a fit theme for his epic,
and planned and completed his Paradise Lost. The actual story of Adam and Eve,
of their blissful state of innocence in paradise and the manner of their fall from it
is very briefly narrated in the Genesis. Taking it as the kernel of his work, he
decided to enrich it in all possible ways with the resources of his poetical
faculties, his wide knowledge, learning and scholarship.
Coleridge commenting on the theme of Paradise Lost said: "It represents
origin of evil and the combat of evil and good, it contains matter of deep interest
to all mankind, as forming the basis of all religion and the true occasion of all
philosophy whatsoever."
Universal Interest
The fall of man is a subject of universal interest. Unlike other epics of ancient
times, he could treat it in such a way as to ring conviction to the modern mind.

But as mythology is a very essential aspect of all epics, he decided to make use of
all his classical lore to embellish and illustrate his own narrative. As an epic
should provide for the free play of all the nova rasas as we call them, he
developed a plot which provided scope for them in ample measure. Biblical
history is a part of the Sematic racial heritage; and the ancient Hebrews had come
into contact with the pre-classical body of knowledge which goes back to a much
more ancient past than that of ancient Greece and Rome. At the same time,
according to the Christian religion, all mankind has been cursed as a result of the
disobedience and fall of Man. Also that religion connects it with the coming of
Jesus Christ as the Saviour of mankind from the sin of which Adam and Eve were
Raleigh remarks: "A prerogative place among the great epics of the world has
sometimes been claimed for Paradise Lost, on the ground that the theme it
handles is vaster and of a more universal human interest than any handled by
Milton's predecessor. It concerns itself with the fortunes not of a city or of an
empire but of the whole human race, and with that particular event in the history
of the race which has moulded all its destinies.".
A.C. George states: "We can state the essential theme of Paradise Lost as the
sustained opposition between love and hate, God responds to the destructive
challenge of Satan with the creative expression of love." "Milton has combined
two traditional elements - the story of the challenge and response through an
indirect agent. The former theme is the direct physical conflict of the Celestial
Battle, and the latter is Satan's challenge of God-indirectly through God's own
creature man. The second theme arises out of the first."
Another interpretation is that the theme of Paradise Lost is "the Fall of Man"
from Paradise on account of his sin. Here Milton has tried to show that every
action of man, however, insignificant, has its consequences. His principal
concern is that man must make the right use of every moment of life because his
actions are irrevocable. Milton's object in this poem was also to emphasize the
role of Christ as the Redeemer of mankind and to justify the ways of God to men.
According to Tillyard, when the passions get the upper-hand chaos ensues,
all peace is gone and man falls from true liberty to moral anarchy. According to F.
Kermode, Paradise Lost points the contrast between the true delight of love and
the false delight which leads to sorrow.
The doctrine of Free Will has been insisted on by Milton frequently and
emphatically. The kind of action or state of mind Milton felt desirable was one
perfectly controlled by the conscious will. Any deed, however significant,
performed instinctively or without the full significance of the issue realized, was
of little value. Milton has not condemned the element of desire in human nature
but the difference between love that is genuine and passion that is not controlled
by reason has been brought out.
God's Pity on Mankind
As every sin has to be punished so was it the lot of mankind to suffer death
although they had been promised immortality by God. But God himself took pity
on mankind after a time, and resolved to come down in human shape to save men
from hell and death. So Christ is represented as the Son of God, who came on
earth and suffered Himself to be crucified, thus taking on himself the sin of

mankind. This is known as the doctrine of vicarious suffering. God as man,

suffered despite being pure and guiltless. By following Christ men were thus
giving a chance of regaining their lost Paradise. This is the main topic which
Milton has elaborated in his two great epics called Paradise Lost and Paradise
Regained. The first deals with the entire story of the Universe from the moment
of the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve, down to the disobedience of
Adam tempted by Satan.
Two Groups of Angels
To explain how Satan came to be an evil spirit, we have another mythological
story of how there was formerly great war between one group of angels devoted to
God and another group of angels led by Lucifer who wished to overthrow God so
that he himself might become the most supreme of spirits, in the end, Lucifer was
defeated and hurled down by God with all his hosts into a bottomless pit there to
suffer for ever. But Lucifer, thereafter called Satan rankled in his defeat and
planned to seek revenge against the Almighty. On hearing that God had created
Man to take the place of the fallen angels, he decided to tempt him and wean him
away from God. He found an opportunity to do so, since God put Adam and Eve
in Paradise and gave him the lordship of all creation with one exception alone.
This was that they should not taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge which
grew in Eden.
Satan seized the opening, and after recognising his shattered hosts and
placing them in suitable dwellings in Hell, came out, and taking the form of a
serpent, entered Eden and caused the fall of both Adam and Eve by persuading
Eve to eat the fruit of knowledge. With knowledge, Adam and Eve lost their
innocence, and God cursed them not only with the loss of their immorality and
happiness but also drove them out of Eden to wander over the earth and earn
their bread by the sweat of their brow.
Various Episodes
Into this main Biblical story, Milton has woven many episodes, drawn from
the entire range of ancient lore to give his poem both substance, bulk and shape
and impressive majesty and sublimity.
Vastness of the Theme
Critics have admired Milton's courage in dealing with the universal subject.
The scene of action is the universal space; time is represented by eternity. The
characters are God and His creation. The epic deals with the fortunes of the
whole human race and not of a particular country and nation.
The Problem of Evil: The Conflict between Good and Evil
The problem of evil is a very old subject. Philosophers have given different
views regarding the origin of the evil. Some regarded it as something external.
Others regarded it as something eternal. For Satan, evil is the disobedience of the
order of God. It is the will of the Man asserting himself. In fact, Satan brought
freedom to Man. He gave consciousness of personality to Man. Man began to act
with free choice and judgement. Now this freedom meant facing the
consequences of one's choice. Adam and Eve have, therefore, to leave paradise
because they followed their own free will. Milton condemned the act of Man. He
did not appreciate man's free will and judgement because he was a very strict
Puritan. His stress was on the results of the evil which led man to his ruin.

Some critics feel that there are two themes which are quite balanced, namely,
the Fall of Angels and Fall of Man. The first half deals with Satan's efforts to do
something against God. The second half is the drama of Adam and Eve.
But this cannot be accepted. Milton clearly said that his story dealt with the
Fall of Man. Satan's story is subsidiary to the main story of Adam and Eve.
Milton's Failure to Justify the Ways of God to Man
Some critics believe that the poet instead justifies the ways of Satan to men,
he has not justified the ways of god on the poetic level. Milton has tried to do so
through arguments which are unconvincing.
Moreover, the punishment given to Adam and Eve is out of proportion to
their sin of disobedience. Hanford points out that "the justification of divine ways
lies in the representation of Adam as a free agent and in the revelation of the
working of God's Grace which allows to him and his descendants the opportunity
for a new exercise of moral choice and of consequent salvation even after the
Fall... The poet has gone out of his way again and again to insist on the fact of
Adam's freedom..Neither personally nor as a part of the system did the idea
greatly move or interest him."
Poetic Justice
The theme of the epic is the justification of "God's ways to Man. "Milton
justified the punishment of Adam and Eve for the crime they committed. They
are expelled from Paradise. However, Milton is not a pessimist. He believe in
spiritual development from Hope to Faith. God through His Goodness redeems
man from sin. His son namely Christ offers his own sacrifice for the sake of Adam
and Eve. At the end of the Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve feel repentant. They are
punished in Heaven by God through the angel named Michael.
David Daiches states: "Milton's heart was not fully in this sort of justification.
Whatever he might have consciously thought." However, he adds that the true
justification lies in the way in that virtue, can only be achieved by struggle, that
the Fall was inevitable because a passive and ignorant virtue, with the challenge
of an imperfect world, cannot release the true potentialities of human greatness.
Milton's Puritanism and his great faith in the Bible made him choose his
subject which was of interest to all men. His great achievement lies in making
such a serious subject which is agreeable and acceptable to all. In fact, his
sublimity (greatness and grandeur) can only be maintained at high level on a very
lofty subject,