Controversies, #8 (Fall 1999)

"Women and Sin in Paradise Lost"

    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 #8: The pattern should be emerging by now, given our reading of the "Wife of Bath's Prologue," Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, Amelia Lanyer, and how many others, that Anglo-European Christians tended to identify women as particularly prone to sin.  The "Eve" narrative in Genesis provides some of the stimulus, but many of the early church fathers like Paul, Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome, developed a theological position which extended Eve's guilt to all women and Adam's "susceptibility" to all men.  Milton plays a famous role in this process.   Particpants: Shana Hellman, Beth Allee, and Arnie.

Women and male authors' conceptions (!) of Sin--Corey Wronski, 11/15/99

        Satan takes "Sin" his daughter/lover (a woman) to the new world, and the one who spurs the first sin (by encouraging Adam), that brings down that new world is a woman (Eve). Any thoughts on a possible connection? Since the story of creation was first told women have been viewed as weaker, more prone to sin.

        Side note: Remember the lengths that Corvino suggests to keep Celia from sin (in the form of adultery) in Volpone (though as we saw she's a virtuous character and this could just be jealousy).

        Are women often seen as personifications of sin in life and in literature? Some women's studies scholars argue that they are. Any thoughts in relation to Paradise Lost?

First era American feminism and gendered Sin--Natasha Gorski, 11/15/99

        Susan B. Anthony was also very concerned about the story of Adam and Eve in the bible which not only made Eve look like an evil doer but also a lesser of man (she was made out of his rib). However, Anthony when preaching pointed to another story in the testament after that story of creation which point out that God says men and women are equal. My point is yes i think there is a coincidence . In fact much more than a coincidence-the literary canon forces women to be a minority and it does that is by portraying women as morally or mentally unstable. I mean think about it. The bible is (despite your religious beliefs) a text which people refer to and interpret. A literary scholar or author who believes the ideas developed by the canon will then approach the bible as if the women mentioned in it (except a rare few) are either morally or mentally unstable at some point. I think, this all also relates back to the idea that men and women observe their environments very differently and this is affected in their writings. To personify women as sinful or weak may allow some men or male writers to better deal with these differences. What I find more of an important question is , How could women writers not be more outspoken about this unfair comparison? Maybe men? that makes everything even more complicated. But do check out some of the works by Susan B.Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Also, the Mad Woman in The Attic is a great book.

Making the "feminine" in history & women's authority--Arnie, 11/16/99

        Natasha and Corey have begun an important discussion about the way literature's conservatism, its interest in preserving traditions and pleasing princes (including those of the church), helps create and preserve social myths which can become destructive as well as constructive. An effective coastal defense force might be necessary when Vikings come calling on a regular basis, but who among Byrtnoth's suicidal warriors would enroll in Joe Morton's Peace Studies program for fear of the poets' stinging tongues? What woman, if she were not seeing visions and hearing voices, would argue for her right to speak in the Middle Ages when public opinion told them to be "shamefast" (head down, silent, not making eye contact or dressing too flashy)? If women were considered temptresses just by merely being there, being "different" from men, their dangerous power would be enormously magnified were they to speak out or write. If silent women like the "Miller's Tale'"s Alison were irresistible temptations to every clerk in town, what might the Wife of Bath provoke? Hence the interruptions of her prologue by the Friar, Summoner, and Pardoner, all agents of the church. By that logic, the same ideology that works to identify women as dangerous and essentially unstable also prevents them from speaking up to challenge that view, even if one were to be so free from her culture's predominant values that she had the idea to do so in the first place.

        The same kind of silencing social mythos also affects student writers who have internalized the notions that they're bad readers and writers, that original insights are impossible for them, and that only published critics can know the truth or figure out the rules for how to write it persuasively. In fact, when those student writers are female and the critics they trust are male, one might say little has changed in the five hundred years since Chaucer wrote. The class mythos that Robin the Miller rebelled against is just as powerful and afflicts male writers, too. If knowing and writing literature is the proper behavior only of the aristocracy, then commoners (i.e., middle- and working-class kids whose parents aren't elite school graduates) need not bother trying, or so the myth goes. One of the reasons I honor Sir Philip Sidney is that he addresses his "Defense" to all readers, irrespective of gender or class, and he specifically did not publicly humiliate the Puritan commoner and pamphleteer, Stephen Gosson, though he was surely provoked in public by the dedication of "The Anatomy of Abuses" to him without his permission. Maybe being Mary Herbert's brother taught him something, or if not that, then surely being ruled by Elizabeth I would do the trick, unless he were a fool.

        Halkett and Osborne (Wednesday) will show us the first stages of women's private literacy, when they use memoirs and letters to start constructing versions of their lives that grant them powers of discernment and reason equal to (and sometimes greater than) those of men. Lanyer and Astell (Monday) are examples of those rare women who not only got the idea that the old mythos might be flawed, but were able to publish their criticism of it, too. See the previous posting on Government and Religion for some context on the emergence of "pamphlet" publication that provided the medium for some of this kind of innovation. Also remember that a good deal of what was being written by the earliest literate women was never published in their lifetimes because of the unpredictability of public response and the danger that their reputations could be destroyed (see Lady Mary Wroth). Nevertheless, the old technology of manuscript circulation of their work would still affect the opinions of their friends, male and female.

Biblical-era precedents for the Sin=female move--Kathleen McGill, 11/16/99

        Lilith, who it is said to have been created as an equal to Adam, is now seen as a demon because of her unwillingness to be subservient. She is now a lecherous creature who kills babies and rapes men in their sleep. The myth says that Lilith and Adam were connected, like Siamese Twins, but because of their fighting, God separated them. This did not do either, because Adam insisted on being the dominant party, not the equal. Lilith ran away. So, as he was made in the "likeness of God" and favored, Adam received Eve, as Natasha said, who was made from his rib---so there was no question of who was dominant. Lilith was punished for her disobedience and made barren. (this is off on a tangent, but interesting: in some versions of the story, it is actually Lilith who is the serpent in the Garden. I have also heard another take that says Satan seduced Eve, while Lilith (Satan's consort) seduced Adam, and thus the fruit on the tree of knowledge is a metaphor for forbidden carnal knowledge) If you are looking at Lilith as the serpent--a temptress-- there are other examples from the Bible of such women, one being Jezibel.

        Since the bible was written by Men, they made God masculine--instead of a transcendent-being with no gender. This relates with what Natasha was also saying about the inherint sexism in the Bible and its possible cause," To personify women as sinful or weak may allow some men or male writers to better deal with these differences."(differences meaning of the sexes) I believe this to be true, but it could, (and I am making a leap here) trace back to matrafocial times where men and women were equal and the female body was revered for its fertility and beauty. The schism between mind and body came when the patriarchy took over and moved god from the earth to the sky. It is interesting the symbols of fertility of the Gaia worshipping culture--a bull's horns--are now related to the devil. This is directly related to the passage in "Paradise Lost" where Milton is describing the Egyptian gods and goddess as being little more than demons--half man, half beast--in disguise. The Earth, and nature are now to be feared because they represent the impure impulse and not the removed chastity of Christianity.



Blamires, Alcuin
The case for women in medieval culture / Alcuin Blamires
Pub. info.
Oxford : Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1997

Main Collection
305.409 B637c