Controversy #5 (Fall 1998)

"Myth and Belief as Social Construction Materials, and Literature as Their 'Delivery Vehicle,' Part Two"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #5: The question of how the afterlife is presented often is answered by poets. They may be instructed by theologians, but they often take what might seem outrageous liberties as they fulfill their imaginations of the idea. See Sidney's discussion of poetic making in the "Defense" for a very clear discussion of this. I suppose, in Book One of Paradise Lost, Milton's constructing a world of brimstone rather than a golden one, but it's certainly brilliant in a strangely fascinating way.

"Paradise Lost??," Kelly Barrett, 11/9/98

In the first Book, Milton clearly states his purpose of "Paradise Lost" is to "justify the ways of God to men" (line 26). It makes perfect sense to try, and realize, God's plan for humankind, but is this actually what Milton did?

I believe that this was his initial intent, but throughout time Milton's fictional depiction of Hell has become what modern Christians believe is Hell. (At least this is what I understand, please correct me if I am wrong.) Therefore Milton created the modern image of hell. My question is, by doing this is Milton playing God himself and not just writing his own version of Genisis?

Another question that can be asked is with faith how much should a single work of literature influence the reader? By filling in the gaps about the history of pre-man is Milton really justifying God or altering the thoughts of his readers?

I would like to know everyone's opinion. Thank you!

"Milton's Hell," Tara Conrad, 11/11/98

I do not think Milton's intent was to play God by creating "Paradise Lost." His attempt to write his own version of Genesis does not mean that he is trying to be God. As with any work, the interpretation that a reader takes from the work is unique and personal. Although Milton's description of Hell has become a common belief, it does not mean that this was Milton's intention.

As Kelly pointed out, Milton set out to "justify the ways of God to men." While taking on such an enormous task, Milton draws on his beliefs and many different scholarly sources to write "Paradise Lost." Because Milton was very knowledgeable about different languages and customs, he had a broader influence over his writing than just Christian texts.

I think that "Paradise Lost" is another point of view about religion and man's beginning. Since Milton's version of Hell has become the modern image of Hell, readers have only decided to agree with Milton's opinion. It does not mean that Milton has decided to play God and now his readers are his followers.

Even though I believe that Milton's version of Hell has become commonplace because readers have chosen to believe Milton's opinion, I would still like to understand why readers over the centuries have chosen Milton's version of Hell instead of other authors like Dante. What was more appealing or intriguing to them about Milton's Hell? Why have the masses chosen to identify their images of Hell to Milton's burning, torturous Hell?

"Milton's Hell vs. Dante's Hell," Keith Winkler, 11/11/98

On the topic of people choosing Milton's Hell over, say, Dante's Hell, Milton's Hell is definitely more physically-based than the Inferno. The structure of Milton's Hell is similar to the hierarchy of a monarchy, with a ruler and his council, and then the damned souls, his "subjects." With Dante's Inferno, there is no such hierarchy: for one, there are no real rulers in the Inferno. There are devils keeping the damned in their assigned circles; however, there is no real ruler(s) of Hell; Satan's distinguishing characteristic is that he is the most severely damned, in the lowest, coldest circle of Hell.

Also, the structure of Dante's Hell is determined by the judgment of which sins are more serious, while Milton does not judge the damned in this way (in fact, so far he has not mentioned people going to Hell at all!). It is thus necessary, in order to accept Dante's view of Hell, to agree with him on which sins are the most serious (in Dante's Hell, betrayal of one's master is the greatest). Dante also places unbaptized children in Hell, a view that many readers would not agree on.

 "Versions of Hell, Eden and Paradise," Arnie, 11/15/98

What an excellent discussion you folks had while I was struggling with Hobbes! You rightly point out that the significance of fixing one poet's stamp upon an entire culture's imagination of the afterlife (or what came before) is a mighty interesting and potentially dangerous thing. Much depends upon one's sense of whether the thing being represented in fact exists. An atheist, or an agnostic, for instance, has a far different stake in mind for the decision between Dante's hierarchical Hell and Milton's one-inferno-fits-all model than does the Christian who accepts one of the canonical bibles (Vulgate, KJV, etc.) as inerrant truth. I'm surprised, in fact, that Milton hasn't attracted more attention from American Protestant sects who have extremely narrow interpretive readings of the text.

Another thing, which I mentioned at the end of class, makes Milton even more significant, and means I probably will have to shoe-horn in some passages from the later books. He's the one who, for modern readers, modernizes the anti-feminist view of Eve which we saw in WoBPro and gives it a narrative expression. According to Miltonic creation, Eve, made from Adam's left rib, loves God only through Adam, rather than directly, as Adam does. Therefore, at the moment of the Temptation, Eve can excuse her act as a service to Adam, and Adam follows Eve in an excess of attachment to her (flesh calling out to flesh, as it were). So at a time when the English were exploring all sorts of new roles for women, especially in letters, memoirs, and the theatre (women actresses are allowed for the first time on the stage in the Restoration of Charles II--post 1660), here comes Milton with an extremely reactionary view of the origin of things like Sin and Death in the world. Note that, in the allegory in Book II, Sin is female, as if that gender better suited the essence of disobedience. The Wife of Bath might have even agreed, but for differing reasons, I suppose. ("Who painted the allegory, tell me who?")

Watch for echoes of the distrust of women (and women's distrust of men) in the later works, most notoriously in Congreve, Wolstoncraft, and Astell. But also look for that other great addition to the Biblical Eden that Milton gave us--Adam and Eve as a married couple. The sacrament of marriage has become so central to English culture by this time that the married state, courtship, and coping with marital strife come to dominate the world of literature more than any other plot devices for several hundred years. The battlefield is quite left behind, and the "domestication" of the arts has begun. The word, "chivalry," begins its slow slide from defining the behaviors of mounted warriors on the battlefield to defining the behaviors of bourgeois men with bourgeois women, mostly in public spaces like streets, doorways, parlors, and balls.