Paradise Lost Book 9/Wollstonecraft Question

Mary Wollstonecraft’s criticism of Paradise Lost asserts that Milton’s depiction of Eve grants her—and, consequently, all women—minimal authority in life alongside men. She writes that “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives. Thus Milton describes our first frail mother” (Chap. II, par. 2-3). While Milton certainly emphasizes beauty, passivity, and general purity in his initial development of Eve, I cannot help but question whether she really is “outwardly obedient” to Adam. During their dialogue in book 9, out of fear for the enemy they were warned of, Adam asks Eve to stay within his sight while they tend to the garden. Eve begins her reply with the following:

If this be our condition, thus to dwell
In narrow circuit strait’nd by a Foe,
Suttle or violent, we not endu’d
Single with like defence, wherever met,
How are we happie, still in fear of harm? (322-6)

Her first inclination is not simply to agree with Adam; rather, it is to look beyond the immediate command and question its larger implications. Her concern for their quality of life contrasts Adam’s concern for her safety, and her suggestion that their enemy may best be confronted rather than evaded, show in her a level of perceptual independence that Wollstonecraft does not seem to acknowledge. If the decision to either follow God or take Satan’s suggestion is read as a decision not between good and evil, but knowing and unknowing, is it possible to flip the narrative to favor Eve over Adam?

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