A Sample 'A' Paper

from English 230: Great Narrative Works


Things to note:

1) The paper has a clearly articulated thesis in the introduction, one that is developed in different ways in each of the paragraphs of the paper.

2) Rather than making numerous points briefly, the student has chosen to concentrate on a specific topic (and even a specific passage) so that s/he can provide an in-depth and extensive interpretation of the text at hand.

2) The student has used a good deal of textual evidence from Paradise Lost to support his/her case.

3) The student never rests at paraprase but always seeks to interpret the descriptions s/he provides.

4) The paper has almost no grammatical and stylistic problems.


The Epic Tradition of Misogyny

Throughout the history of epics, misogyny has been a recurring theme, even an epic tradition. In the Odyssey there is the story of Clytemnestra, the evil woman who kills her husband, Agamemnon, after he returns from the Trojan War so she can live with her lover. Agamemnon says of his wife, "a song of hate--such is to be the chant that shapes her name among all men; the fame of woman kind--even the chaste--is blemished by her name" (Odyssey, 24.199-202). In the epic the Iliad, Helen causes the deaths of thousands of Greeks when she abandons her husband and flees to Troy with her lover. Milton continues this tradition in Paradise Lost with his portrayal of Eve in Book IX. He however sets the scene for our intended condemnation and dislike of Eve much earlier. Milton has Satan meet Sin in Book II in order to create an allegory that juxtaposes the actions and characteristics of Sin with the actions and characteristics of Eve. This allegory develops Milton's espousal of misogyny and takes this epic "tradition" to a yet unattempted level.

Near the end of Book II in Paradise Lost, Satan comes upon Sin and Death as they are guarding the gates of hell. Sin, who holds the key to hell, explains how she was seduced by Satan and how Death was conceived as the result of their union. She explains how Death "in embraces forcible and foul" (2.793) raped her and created hellhounds that encircle Sin's waist and are "hourly conceived/ And hourly born, with sorrow infinite" (2.796-797). In Book IX, Milton describes Satan's temptation of Eve, the sin that follows, and the repercussions of that sin. When God discovers Eve's sin he curses her: "Children shall thou bring forth in sorrow," he says. Eve also brings about the beginning of mortality for mankind as a result of her sin. Clearly Milton intends the reader to associate the character Sin with the character Eve. They have similar encounters with Satan that end in similar results. Both women are seduced by Satan, both have pain in childbirth, and both bring about Death. This allegory allows Milton to have already prepared the reader's mind to associate femininity with evil and ugliness. Also, when one reads of Eve in Book IX, the effect is infinitely multiplied since Eve is now not just one woman making one mistake, but she is representative of the whole concept of Sin. Furthermore, as the first woman, her embodiment of Sin is necessarily passed on to all forthcoming women.

Milton says of Sin that she "seemed woman to the waist and fair,/ But ended in many a scaly fold" (2.650-651). Sin's appearance is an allegory of Eve because Eve similarly appears beautiful but deep down is evil and, if not composed of a serpent, certainly tempted by one. Eve demonstrates her true nature when she accepts Satan's seduction and tempts Adam to join her in sin. Because of Eve's apparent beauty, Adam yields to her, saying he is "fondly overcome with female charm" (9.999). After God punishes Adam's and Eve's sin, Adam acknowledges Eve's betrayal and says, "Is this the love, is this the recompense/ Of mine to thee, ingrateful Eve?" (9.1163-1164). Even though Adam has free choice when he sins, it is Eve whom Milton represents as sinful, suggesting that Milton intends the reader to make women culpable for all sin. Milton creates the body of Sin as an allegory for the way in which women accomplish their sin, by being both seductively beautiful and dangerously serpent-like in their alliance with Satan.

In Paradise Lost, Milton thus improves on past epics and their use of misogyny. Where Clytemnestra is responsible for the death of one man and Helen for the deaths of several thousand, Eve is responsible for the death of every human being who will ever be born. Where Helen has an affair with Paris and Clytemnestra with Aegisthus, Eve is seduced by the devil himself. Milton has elevated the sins of women to where they must accept complete responsibility for the mortality of man. This misogynistic outlook--that women are the root of all sin and death and in league with the devil--is Milton's attempt to continue and enlarge what could be termed an epic tradition of misogyny.

Milton may have had several reasons for his grim portrayal of women. The first is the story itself. It is necessary that Milton follow the biblical story of the garden of Eden since his work is a Christian epic. In the Christian tradition it is Eve who is tempted by Satan and sins first. However, because Milton reveals details of his life in Paradise Lost, such as exposing his blindness by saying "ever-during dark surrounds me" (3.45-46), he becomes a real person telling his story and, so, his personal views can also be considered. Milton had a confident personality, even bragging that his epic would be greater than those of the ancient Greeks. Perhaps the misogyny of his tale consitutes yet another way for him to build his masculine ego. Another fact to consider is the time period in which the epic was written. God says to Eve in Book X: "to thine husband's will/ Thine shall submit" (10.195-196). In a Christian society of the seventeenth century, a negative view of women and an endorsement of man's supreriority would have been readily accepted.

Milton begins Paradise Lost by allowing Satan to tell his side of the story of his fall from heaven and his reasons for sinning. Eve is not afforded the same chance. She and all women are condemned from the beginning of Paradise Lost when in Book II Milton presents Sin and her feminine hideousness as an allegory for the story of Eve that follows. Eve is portrayed as an easily seduced betrayer who is in union with Satan. From Eve to Sin to all women, the blame for death and man's trials is transferred. God punishes all women, implying that all women are "Eves" plotting behind men's backs, causing trouble, and never realizing that their actions have dire consequences for all of mankind. Displaying women in this light is nothing new to epics and, as with various epic conventions, Milton changes this tradition to fit his story. In Paradise Lost Milton "intends to soar/ Above th'Aonian mount" (1.15) and, as far as misogyny is concerned, he certainly does.