The Monster Reads Milton: Paradise Lost

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By Wm. Moeck | NYPL Exhibitions

When Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin first read Paradise Lost in the fall of 1815, she and Percy Bysshe Shelley were living in sin, and Milton’s epic poem about the Fall of Adam and Eve had not yet figured in the background of the novel she began writing the following year. In her 1818 Frankenstein, a monster is created but, before he becomes evil and vindictive, tries to educate himself by reading three books that fall into his possession. On reading the popular novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe, the Creature feels sympathy for the anguish of the young lover. Plutarch’s classic Lives, a compendium of biographies, teaches the Creature the difference between virtue and vice in the rulers of antiquity. But the Creature’s reaction to reading Paradise Lost is most profound.

“It moved every feeling of wonder and awe, that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting,” the Creature reflects. The epic poem causes him to reflect bitterly on the differences between himself and Adam, who “had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous,” while he himself was “wretched, helpless, and alone.” Satan, the Creature realizes, was “the fitter emblem of my condition.”

First published in 1667, Milton’s Paradise Lost was in the 18th century regarded as a worthy successor to the epics of Homer and Virgil, molding the English tongue into a fit vehicle for immortal verse. Milton’s 10,565 lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter took a skeletal story outlined in a few pages of Genesis — about a universe created and its human inhabitants expelled from a garden — and retrofitted it with the trappings of classic narratives about heroic battles and perilous journeys. Milton also turned the story of a serpent’s deception of Adam and Eve into a tale that paralleled an altogether different plotline about a war in heaven. Satan, resenting his lack of recognition in heaven, gathers a rebel army to overthrow God, whose only son banished the fallen angels to hell. Milton thus made one kind of original sin find its counterpart in another.

Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896), with etchings by William Strang (1859–1921), a noted Scottish engraver and painter. NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

A portrait of John Milton (1608–1674), from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

“Milton playing to his daughters,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

Title page of Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

In Shelley’s Frankenstein, reading Milton allows the Creature to realize that he is, in fact, a monster. “Evil thenceforth became my good,” he swears to himself while on a killing spree, as he knowingly quotes Satan’s speech from Paradise Lost: “all Good to me is lost; / Evil be thou my Good.” The similarities between his predicament and that of Satan are startling.

Shelley also banks on her reader’s ability to see the similarity between Victor Frankenstein and Milton’s characters in Paradise Lost. Although Frankenstein begins his studies innocently, his quest for forbidden knowledge makes him, too, experience a fall from grace. And as Frankenstein and his monster have been confused in popular culture, so they are both initially Adamic twins in the novel: they each need to recognize their makers at the same time they need to have their own merits acknowledged. When Frankenstein oversteps the boundaries of appropriate science and refuses to name his son as his own, he becomes the cruel master of someone he sees as satanic. At the same time, his Creature sees Frankenstein the way Satan sees God: a tyrant rightly deserving destruction. As Satan cannot distinguish between justice and revenge, so Frankenstein’s monster feels that he has no choice but to exact vengeance on an unjust creator.

Paradise Lost and Frankenstein both ask the hardest question that theologians ever have to answer: Why is there evil in this world? And it is difficult not to feel as Milton’s Adam feels in his sinful state when he laments his condition: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / to mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From Darkness to promote me?” Shelley’s Creature expresses a similar challenge, if only to distinguish himself further from Adam after discovering in Frankenstein’s journal how his ugliness inspires hatred and contempt: “Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? ... Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, ... but I am solitary and detested.”

“Satan rising from the burning lake,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

“Sin and Death at the Gates of Hell,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

“Happy state of Adam and Eve,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

If Milton’s fallen Adam has redeeming qualities that Shelley’s monster lacks, it is worth considering why Shelley used Adam’s question to God as the title-page epigraph of Frankenstein. The 1818 edition’s title page — lacking the author’s name — is remarkable for another reference that it makes, and for another significant omission. That edition subtitles the work “The Modern Prometheus,” as Shelley invokes a different ancient myth about creation, by Aeschylus, in which the Titan man Prometheus steals fire from Zeus to give to mankind. Prometheus rebels against the King of the Olympians, who is doomed to be overthrown, and although the Titan is without hope for himself, he sets the stage for human innovation.

Shelley’s allusion to Prometheus Bound — which her husband rewrote into a new myth — does more than equate the gift of fire with Frankenstein’s secret studies of the mysteries of life and death. It imaginatively pairs Paradise Lost with Frankenstein, because Satan’s seduction of Eve allows Sin and Death to enter the world, but also human history and redemption, which — like fire — resonate with the paradoxical idea of a creation that destroys the creator and leaves something new. But Eve, who is more imaginative than her husband in Paradise Lost, would seem superficially to be the one important character in Milton’s poem without an analog in Frankenstein: perhaps because Shelley herself identified with Eve.

The entwining of artistic and biological creation is a particularly fertile theme in Frankenstein. Adam’s challenge to God on the book’s title page should be read in its larger context. In Book X of Paradise Lost, Adam indulges a misogynistic fantasy about a universe unpopulated by a second sex. Such a universe, he supposes, would be proof against the kind of temptation that snared him, as this single-sex propagation eerily recalls not only Athena springing from the head of Zeus, and Adam raised from the dust by a male Judeo-Christian deity, but Sin and Death springing unaided from Satan, not to mention the Creature from Frankenstein’s laboratory.

“Adam and Eve Entertain Raphael,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

“The creation of the world,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

“The creation of Eve,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

Adam is wrong about angels being only masculine; Milton’s narrator had already affirmed how they can assume either, or both, of the sexes. Adam’s idle wish better expresses his vexation with himself for having submitted to Eve, but the fantasy is a potent one — especially in the hands of a woman writer. Shelley’s allusion to Adam’s wish intimates an awareness of the envy felt by male authors longing to be able to give more than metaphoric, literary births. In reminding us of gender differences, Shelley intimates the Romantic period’s engagement not just with Milton but with a theory of poetry that sees the artistic process as an extension of the biological. If Adam, like Victor Frankenstein, aspires to create life without the help of others, Shelley’s title page without an author more effectively does so.

For 18th-century readers, Paradise Lost capped a tradition going back to Virgil and Homer. But 19th-century readers instead noticed dramatic and lyrical affinities that Milton shared with Aeschylus and Dante. Paradise Lost became more than a narrative poem and, seen as a revolutionary and a prophet, Milton offered writers an exemplar for the relationship between an artist and his or her art. When we nowadays consider artistic production as being a form of self-expression, instead of the result of adherence to carefully laid out canons of rules and measures, we are subscribing to Romantic theory about poetry.

Milton’s poem was heavily indebted to ancient epic. It was therefore logical to seek a hero, although neither Adam nor Satan fit the bill comfortably as a successor to Achilles and Aeneas. For Romantic writers such as Shelley, it was the author of Paradise Lost, rather than any of his characters, who was heroic in his artistic endeavors to justify the ways of God. Milton’s story was, for them, less about original sin than about originality as sin. And just as Frankenstein’s Creature elicits at least as much sympathy as Milton’s Satan, so it is the Miltonic theme of creation that is powerfully reformulated in Shelley’s most modern of myths.

“Eve Tempted by Satan in the form of a Serpent,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

“Adam rejects the Condolement of Eve,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

“Michael sets before Adam a vision,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

“Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise,” an illustration from Paradise Lost by John Milton: A Series of Twelve Illustrations (1896). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs


Wm. Moeck co-edited Paradise Lost 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary before curating NYPL's 2008 exhibition John Milton at 400: A Life beyond Life. A frequent chair of Renaissance and Victorian literature panels at conferences of the Northeast Modern Language Association, he is currently preparing an NYPL exhibition about Charles Dickens for 2012. He teaches British literature at Nassau Community College, SUNY.
 
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"When Mary Wollstonecraft

"When Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin first read Paradise Lost in the fall of 1815, she and Percy Bysshe Shelley were living in sin..." Is SHE the 'Monster' in the title who reads Milton?? Clever placement there!

10-2-2012

In the article "The Monster

In the article "The Monster Reads Milton: Paradise Lost" by Wm Moek we can understand that the creature does know that he is committing murder and wrongful deeds. In the article it says "reading Milton allows the Creature to realize that he is, in fact, a monster" meaning that the monster no loner had innocence in its crimes. The aided in my interpretation of Frankenstein because it gave me an idea of what kind of stories the creature read.

9-5-2012

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