Fallenness and Gender in ‘Paradise Lost,’ ‘The Monk’ and ‘Lamia’ – Part One

Milton’s use of ‘man’ in Paradise Lost (1667) refers to the entirety of mankind, even though, ironically, it is woman, specifically in the form of Eve, who commits the ‘First Disobedience.’ Eve then draws Adam into sin with her by sharing with him the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. For this, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, a Fall that signifies a state of transition from innocence to disgrace, triggered by an act of ‘disobedience.’ For Milton, a state of ‘Fallenness’, or susceptibility to temptation, is exclusively tied to the female sex in the form of Eve, as it is she who displays physical and psychological characteristics that make her appear as degraded and vulnerable to temptation. Like Eve, Fallenness is exclusively tied to Matilda in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) as she also facilitates the Fall of her male counterpart, Ambrosio. Initially presented as a pious, incorruptible monk, Ambrosio is encouraged and succumbs to his temptations upon the arrival of Matilda. Although both women are solely blamed for these occurrences, Adam and Ambrosio also display an equal susceptibility to be drawn into Fallenness. Despite this, Adam and Ambrosio blame their female counterparts for their own Fall. Conversely, in Keats’ poem Lamia (1820) the Fall and destruction of Lamia and her lover Lycius is not attributed to one particular character or sex, and the nature and concept of Fallenness is instead ambiguous. This essay will therefore explore the concept of Fallenness, and by interrogating its portrayal in Paradise Lost, The Monk and Lamia will examine how the concept manifests itself, and will also consider whether the concept transcends humanity altogether.

Initially it appears that Fallenness is exclusively attributed to the female sex. Eve’s ‘golden’ hair is described by Milton as ‘Dishevell’d but in wanton ringlets wav’d, As the Vine curls her tendrils’ (IV. 305-307).[1] ‘Tendrils’ portrays Eve’s untidy hair as winding and flowing, representing a dangerous force that could entrap others. The use of ‘wanton’ demonstrates Eve’s promiscuity, so that her ‘wanton ringlets’ serve as a metonym for her untameable sexuality.[2] These images confirm that, even at her conception, Eve is already licentious and devoid of innocence. Adam has shorter hair which signifies his moral integrity in comparison to Eve (IV. 303). Ambrosio admires his painting of the Madonna and wishes to ‘twine round my fingers those golden ringlets.’[3] Stephen B. Dobranski posits that loose hair was deemed as inherently sexual, because of its association with undressing and ‘sexual availability.’[4] This creates a contention within the painting between the purity of the Madonna and the brazen sexuality that her ringlets imply. The paintings’ resemblance to Matilda also foreshadows Ambrosio’s subsequent Fall by her intervention, but also his desire to be intimate and to become entwined with her. It is the hair of Eve, the Madonna and Matilda that demonstrates one aspect of their Fallenness: their innate sexual degradation.

The untameable sexuality associated with the female is damning for them and those around them, as realised in the figure of the Bleeding Nun in The Monk. The young Beatrice de la Cisternas ‘took the veil at an early age,’ but she soon ‘abandoned herself freely to the impulse of her passions and seized the first opportunity to procure their gratification.’[5] Beatrice’s lack of control is emphasised by the fact that she impetuously sought to sate her desires at the ‘first’ opportunity. ‘Seized’ implies that she did so with suddenness and force. The use of ‘their’ personifies her sexual passions, cementing their status as the dominant force in her life, of which she is slave to. She becomes the mistress of the Baron Lindenburg, and all of Bavaria was ‘scandalised by her impudent and abandoned conduct.’[6] Her sexual appetites control her so completely that she is willing, and conspires with another lover, to murder the Baron, a crime that is ‘attributed solely’ to her.[7] Her multiple sexual partners emphasise her promiscuity, and in the religious world of the novel, this is justification enough for her own murder. Her innate sexual degradation, which is attributed exclusively to the female sex, possesses her so entirely that it results in her death.

Eve also displays a psychological Fallenness. When looking at her reflection, Eve is ‘pleased’ (IV. 463) that ‘What there thou seest fair creature is thyself’ (IV. 468). This alludes to the mythological figure of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. Like him, Eve exhibits an intense vanity, and it is only through God’s intervention that she pulls herself away from her reflection. Milton demonstrates here that women need God’s help to detach themselves from their materiality and vanity. God lures Eve away from the pool upon the promise of bequeathing her the title of ‘Mother’ (IV. 475), an offer which Eve accepts when she realises that she will see ‘multitudes like thyself’ (IV. 474). This is attractive to Eve, as having humanity made in her own image, mirrors how God made Adam in His own image. This would give Eve an exalted status, similar to that of God.[8] Her desire to recognise herself in her children, and the superior status over them that this would grant her, is attractive, as she wants to replicate the image of herself she saw in the pool. The decision to accept this title of Mother is driven by her own vanity. This quality, attributed exclusively to the female sex, emphasises the Fallenness of Eve’s psyche.

Eve’s confusion and lack of intelligence precipitates the Fall of Man. Eve’s first action when she is born is to look into the ‘Smooth Lake, that to me seemed another skie’ (IV. 459). Eve looks to the ground; Adam looks to the sky. This shows Eve’s confusion between the two, and lack of effective ability to reason. Eve also does not understand ‘God or Death, of Law or penalty?’ (IX. 775) which makes her vulnerable in the presence of Satan, whose actions are based on deceit. Satan uses these flaws to persuade Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

Milton’s criticisms of Eve’s psyche are summarised by his assertion that:

‘The Wife, where danger and dishonour lurks,

Safest and seemliest by her Husband staies,

Who guards her, or with her the worst endures’ (IX. 267-269).

The specificity of ‘Wife,’ and the iambic stress that falls upon it, emphasises that part of Eve’s Fallenness stems from the social position she occupies as Adam’s consort. ‘Lurks’ supports this view, as it tells us that her Fallenness remains deceptively hidden. ‘Lurks’ also supports the idea that Eve’s Fallenness was foregrounded by her sex but is elevated by her status as the consort of Adam. This is fully realised and apparent to those around her when she eats from the Tree. Both Milton and Lewis encourage the reader, as well as the male characters in the texts, to view the female sex as solely accountable for the advent of the Falls that occur in both texts. This is foreshadowed by the sexual and psychological Fallenness that Eve and Matilda exhibit upon their introductions. The marriage of sexual and psychological Fallenness render the women as totally Fallen, and totally irredeemable.

Eve and Matilda also have the ability to cause the Fall of others as their own Fallen nature is hidden behind a façade of extreme virtue. To Adam, Eve’s golden tresses enhance and demonstrate her virtuous power as does her beauty.[9] In her presence:

 ‘That space the Evil One abstracted stood

From his own evil, and from the time remained,

Stupidly good.’ (IX. 463-465).

Eve’s beauty is enhanced by her virtuous nature, and is so powerful, that she temporarily exorcises the evil from Satan. Matilda too appears virtuous, as demonstrated by the ‘dazzling whiteness’ of her breast.[10] White is a colour representative of purity, and it is this that attracts Ambrosio to Matilda as well as the painting of the Madonna. Ambrosio is correct in asserting that ‘vice is ever most dangerous when lurking behind the Mask of Virtue.’[11] ‘Lurking’ echoes Milton’s own description of ‘Wife’ and affirms that Eve and Matilda’s physical exteriors align them with a hyperbolic image of virtue, which shields their Fallen nature. This makes them even more dangerous to their male counterparts, who are unaware of the extreme Fallenness that they are encountering and are at risk to.

Adam falls victim to this, as following her eating from the Tree, Eve ‘wantonly’ (IX. 1015) tempts and encourages Adam to indulge in her sexual desires, and by extension, Fallenness. The repeated use of the word ‘wantonly’ emphasises Eve’s sexual immorality, in contrast to Adam and Eve’s first sexual encounter, in which the two were ‘pure of sinful thought’ (VIII. 504), and Eve is described as ‘blushing’ (VIII. 511) like the innocent morn. Through the use of her ‘contagious fire’ (IX. 1035) Eve diffuses her sin into Adam, meaning that, in having sex with her, he is indulging in her Fallenness with her, and Falls himself. Despite the reader being informed of Eve’s dubious intentions, Adam only sees, and is seduced by, her ‘female charm’ (IX. 999). In this moment it is clear that Adam’s Fall is the fault of Eve. Similarly, Ambrosio has sex with Matilda as he is seduced by her false façade of ‘warmth and passion.’[12] This emphasises the Fallenness of the female sex, as they are so corrupted that they are willing to draw others into their own Fallen state through the use of their manipulative, dangerous sexuality.

Thanks for reading! Part two next week!

[1] John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. by John Leonard (London: Penguin Clothbound Classics, 2014).

[2] John Wittreich, Feminist Milton (London: Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 87.

[3] Matthew Lewis, The Monk (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2016), p. 32.

[4] Stephen B. Dobranski, ‘Clustering and Curling Locks: The Matter of Hair in Paradise Lost’, PMLA Vol. 125, No. 2 (2010), p. 348.

[5] Lewis, The Monk, p. 134.

[6] Ibid., p. 134.

[7] Ibid., p. 135.

[8] Julia M. Walker, Milton and the idea of woman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), p. 151-152.

[9] Dobranski, ‘Clustering and Curling Locks: The Matter of Hair in Paradise Lost’, p. 349.

[10] Lewis, The Monk, p. 51.

[11] Ibid., p. 66.

[12] Ibid., p. 71.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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