How Did a Serpent Succeed Where an Angel Failed?
The Temptation of Eve in a Dream and in Reality
Throughout John Milton's Paradise Lost, the reader feels a sense of foreboding. Because the reader knows that the fall of humankind is inevitable, the warnings and discussion of "free will" throughout the first eight books of the poem serve only to make Eve's transgression all the more tragic. The reader sees evidence of how the fall could have been avoided, and therefore feels as if it was unnecessary. If only Eve had heeded the warnings, if only she had listened, we might all be living in paradise. When Eve dreams of the fall, she is tempted by a very simple argument made by an angel--that if she eats the fruit from the tree, she will rise to heaven and become a God. In the actual temptation, however, the argument is much more layered and complex. The serpent does not present an ideal world, free of darkness, or convince Eve that by eating the fruit she will become equal to God. Instead, he lays down several arguments for why she should eat the fruit. In truth, although he lies about personally tasting the fruit, the argument is accurate--she will have more knowledge and see the world more clearly.
The case for eating the fruit that the angel lays out in the dream is straightforward and uncomplicated. He says that the fruit is capable of making "Gods of men" (V, 70). He does not present any darkness, preferring to present a world where Eve will become "[her]self a goddess, not to earth confin'd, but sometimes in the Air..." (V, 78-79) He does not try to appeal to Eve's intelligence or curiosity; instead he presents a world where she will be happier, more powerful, and more honored. It is central that an angel, the image of perfection and purity, fails to convince Eve to sin where a serpent, a symbol of guile and cunning, succeeds. In this respect, Eve is unlike Adam, a pious man who follows closely what the angels relate to him from God. Eve personifies those characteristics that Adam does not, such as inquisitiveness, courage, and possibly destructiveness. Where an angel, appealing to the human desire to be god-like, may have succeeded with Adam, he failed with Eve. When she wakes up, Eve finds the dream frightening not only because she has committed the ultimate sin, but also because she has displayed hubris--attempting to live like a God in heaven instead of being satisfied with the earth that was created for her.
Since the dream is presented in such a different fashion than the actual temptation, the fear that arises when she wakes up does not reappear when the serpent approaches her. Instead of telling her that she will transcend life and earth and become a goddess, the serpent tells her that her eyes will be opened and she will be able to see more of the dark side. Instead of just having been given an abstract ability to choose between right and wrong, she will understand her choice and be able to make an informed decision. He...