Eve Quotes God to Satan: the Reader's Illusion of Her Witness to the Prohibition
We know Milton's "marital theology" constructs Adam's relationship to God in a different way than Eve's ("He for God only, she for God in him," IV.299). Still, Milton leaves unclear the question of when and where and to whom the prohibition on eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Book IV, Adam tells Eve "for well thou know'st / God hath pronounced it death to taste that Tree" (l. 426-7), but neither Adam nor the narrator ever says how Eve should "know'st." When Satan confronts Eve the second time, in his Serpent Suit, Eve tells the ophidian menace "of this tree we may not taste nor touch; / God so commanded, and left that command / Sole daughter of his voice; the rest, we love / Law to ourselves, our reason is our law" (IX.651-4). Challenged by the serpent to support her claim ("hath God then said that...?" ll. 656-8), she quotes God, directly, as if she had heard it, herself: "God hath said, 'Ye shall not eat / Thereof, nor shall ye touch it, lest ye die'" (ll. 662-3). The Norton footnote says "Eve's formulation indicates her 'sufficient' understanding of the prohibition and the conditions of her life in Eden" (1975 n. 5), and the doctrinal distinction between sufficient understanding and deficient understanding certainly seems credibly established by what Milton has Eve say. Nevertheless, readers who notice that she quotes God in direct speech might be forgiven for thinking that the passage means something more, that she heard the command, herself. The effect could be argued as a misreading based on long-standing Christian doctrine, but it certainly conforms to the usage of direct quotation to establish the speaker as a direct witness of evidence in common speech. This argument follows the theoretical conventions of Reader-Response criticism in that it looks for ways in which readers are invited to construct meaning based on things they infer from the text's many puzzles and insufficient explanations.