Milton wrote an epic poem called Paradise Lost that tells a story of a huge universe filled with strange characters, spanning across time and space. The poem is centered around a captivating Satan and two innocent characters, Adam and Eve, and explores the tragic fall of humanity.
Milton wrote this poem when he was in his forties, blind, disappointed by the Restoration, and at risk of execution. The poem has sparked debates over whether it successfully defends God’s actions or reveals cruel aspects of Christianity.
You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.
Let’s get started without further ado.
In this Paradise Lost book summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:
Table of Contents
Adam and Eve, tempted by Satan, commit the first sin and are banished from Paradise.
Books 1-2: The Demonic World and Satan’s Plans
Satan and his followers, formerly angels in Heaven, find themselves in Hell, their place of punishment after an unsuccessful rebellion against God the Father. Vowing to wage eternal war against God, Satan rallies his troops and, with Mulciber as architect, joins them in building Pandemonium, a palace of magnificent size and splendor. Satan wonders if it is best to continue the revolt by open war or secret trickery.
Various alternatives are proposed by Moloch, Belial, and Mammon (devils), but Satan’s second-in-command, Beelzebub, proposes that God be attacked indirectly by seducing humans, His newest creations. The vote is unanimous, but when Beelzebub explains the dangers of the projected plans, the demons fall mute: no one wants to make the trip alone through the abyss.
Satan resolves the difficulty by accepting the challenge himself. He journeys to the gates of hell, where he meets Sin and Death, though he fails to recognize them at first. Sin reminds Satan of how she sprang full-blown from his mind when he rebelled against God, and of how Death, their son, was conceived.
She also refers to her own subsequent rape by Death and the birth of the hounds of Hell. Satan persuades these keepers to open hell’s gates for his journey into Chaos. Encountering that realm’s rulers, named Chaos and Old Night, he appeals to their desire for darkness and disorder by promising to frustrate God’s plans. They direct Satan to the outside shell of the newly created world.
Books 3-4: The Divine World and God’s Plans
The Father, aware of Satan’s escape from hell, predicts that Satan will cause humans to sin.
He denounces human ingratitude and disobedience but states that He will remain merciful toward humans. In a dialogue with God the Son, a deadlock appears to be reached since justice requires that the penalty of death be enforced for breaking divine law unless a substitute can be found.
The Son solves the problem by offering Himself as a future scapegoat, a sacrificial lamb. Meanwhile, Satan explores the world, first visiting Limbo, or the Paradise of Fools, a place reserved for future humans who commit stupid acts, and next finding his way to the Sun. There, Satan changes his appearances to that of an innocent cherub (angel) in order to deceive Uriel, the regent (protector) of the Sun, about his evil intentions and to be directed to Earth.
Satan reveals and criticizes his own evil in a monologue to the Sun, but, hardening his desire for revenge, leaps over the boundary wall of Eden. Prowling through the garden in the form of various animals, he eavesdrops on Adam and Eve and learns of God’s single commandment not to eat the forbidden fruit.
Driven by his envy of human happiness as well as by revenge, Satan inspires a dream within Eve’s mind as she sleeps, and thus prepares the way for humans to be tempted by disobedience. Discovered by the angels who guard Paradise, Satan confronts Gabriel, one of God’s chief angels. They exchange angry comments that almost lead to physical combat, but are interrupted by the appearance in the sky of the balance scales of divine justice.
Books 5-6: The Need for Human Instruction and the War in Heaven
Eve relates to Adam that she dreamed of an angel persuading her to eat the forbidden fruit, but, reassured by Adam that imagined sins are not punishable, she joins Adam in their morning prayer to God.
The Father instructs the angel Raphael to warn Adam and Eve of Satan’s goals and to inform them of the origin of evil in Satan’s own disobedience and fall: Envious that the Son was so beloved by the Father, Satan rejected God’s rule and, despite warnings by the angel Abdiel, led one-third of Heaven’s angels in a revolt.
After two days of inconclusive victories, one for each side, the Son rode forth in the Father’s chariot and so terrorized the rebels that they threw down their arms and cast themselves through a broken rampart in Heaven’s walls to fall through Chaos into Hell. Raphael warns Adam and Eve against following the example of Satan’s disobedience. If they do, they will be similarly punished.
Books 7-8: The Beginning of the World and of Humankind
Raphael, prompted by Adam’s request for more information about matters that humans cannot understand, explains that the Son created the world from the formless matter of Chaos in order to give a physical shape to God’s idea.
The masterpiece of His creation is humankind, which is created in the image of God. Despite Raphael’s emphasis on human beings, Adam asks about the importance of the stars and planets, but is informed that he does not need to know whether the world is geocentric (with Earth at the center), as it appears to be, or heliocentric (with the Sun at the center), as Adam thinks it should be.
Adam therefore turns to his own earliest memories of finding himself in existence, of naming the animals, of asking God for a mate, of the creation of Eve, and of his feelings for her. These emotions are so powerful that Adam admits to self-doubt about his ability to control them and is lectured by Raphael on the difference between animal passion and human love.
With a final warning to avoid temptation—both from outsiders and from within himself—Raphael bids Adam farewell.
Books 9-10: The Fall of Humankind and Its Immediate Consequences
Adam rejects as dangerous Eve’s suggestion that she and Adam work separately so that they can accomplish more. They argue, then part company. Satan, disguised as a serpent, finds Eve alone and leads her to the forbidden tree.
Eve, suspecting no evil from the serpent and unaware of Satan’s presence within it, is persuaded that eating the fruit will produce good results. She disobeys God and eats the forbidden fruit. Then, returning to Adam, she tries unsuccessfully to convince him that her belief and action were correct.
But Adam decides that disobedience is preferable to losing Eve. They make love passionately, then fall into a troubled sleep.
Awakening with a sense of guilt and shame, they cover their nakedness and quarrel bitterly about who is to be blamed for their fall. The guardian angels, though blameless themselves, withdraw to Heaven, where the Father orders that the world itself be made less perfect.
The Son appears in Paradise to pronounce judgment on the serpent and on Adam and Eve. Satan meets Sin and Death building a bridge over Chaos to link Hell and Earth. Later, he relates his adventures to the assembly in Pandemonium, where they are suddenly transformed into serpents who feed on apples of ashes.
In Paradise, Adam is saddened by his state and renews his quarrel with Eve. Eve proposes suicide to avoid future evil, but also offers to take all guilt upon herself. Instead, Adam proposes that they return to the place of judgment, where both pray for divine guidance and aid.
Books 11-12: The Aftermath and Final Consequences of the Fall
The Father hears the prayers of Adam and Eve, but states that they must be driven from Paradise. Adam and Eve, cautiously optimistic about the future, are shocked and dismayed when Michael, a good angel, descends to the garden to enforce the Father’s ruling.
Michael leads Adam to the Mountain of Contemplation, where he opens Adam’s eyes to a vision of the future. The incidents of Book 11 include the first death, when Cain murders Abel, a house full of incurably diseased people, the impious attempt to raise the Tower of Babel to Heaven, and the destruction of Earth by a universal flood survived only by those in Noah’s ark.
Book 12 continues with biblical history from Abraham to the birth of the Messiah. Michael then predicts the continuing struggle between good and evil throughout the course of human existence, and looks forward to the moment when, as time stops and eternity begins, a new Heaven and Earth appear for the redeemed (those who are delivered from sin), and the gates of Hell are finally closed.
Michael and Adam awaken Eve, in whose mind Michael has inspired a dream-vision of what Adam has already seen. As the three prepare to leave, Michael posts a guard of fiery angels at the entrance to Paradise, and Adam and Eve begin their journey through the world.
God the Father: Omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful); invisibly bright, not completely understandable to angels or humans; accessible only through God the Son. Architect, ruler of the universe in which He shows His glory by justice and mercy. Desires to bring good out of evil.
God the Son: Born of the Father; spokesman for the Father in the universe. Defeated Satan during war in Heaven; created the world, including Adam and Eve. Judges Adam and Eve after the Fall, speaks on their behalf to the Father. He is the Messiah, the future King of Glory.
Satan (Hebrew for “adversary” or “enemy.”): Enemy of God and humans; father of Sin; father and grandfather of Death. Great courage, cunning; powerful speaker, forceful leader. Desires to bring evil out of good by waging an eternal war against God.
Sin and Death: Offspring of Satan. Keepers of the gates of Hell. After the fall of Adam and Eve, they become the builders of the bridge over Chaos to join Hell and Earth. Sin sprang from Satan’s mind; when Satan mated with her (Sin), they produced a child, Death (which makes Satan incestuously both the father and the grandfather of Death).
Chaos and Old Night: Ancient rulers over unformed matter out of which Hell and the world were made. Desire for disorder. They symbolize mental and moral disorder, and physical deformity.
Michael (Hebrew for “as if God.”): Leader of the loyal angels during the war in Heaven against Satan; he is a prophet of future events to Adam and Eve after the Fall.
Raphael (“Medicine of God.”): Teacher of Adam and Eve; he is also the narrator of the war in Heaven and of the creation of the world.
Uriel (“Fire of God.”): Regent of the Sun. Deceived by Satan when disguised as an angel seeking directions to Earth.
Abdiel (“Servant of God.”): Faithful to God when urged by Satan to rebel.
Gabriel (“Strength of God.”): Chief guardian of Paradise until after the Fall; he discovers Satan influencing Eve’s dreams.
Beelzebub (“Lord of the flies.”): Satan’s second-in-command, closest companion.
Moloch (“King.”): Desperate for revenge against God.
Belial (“Wickedness.”): Eager for luxury and ease.
Mammon (“Riches.”): Interested only in material goods.
Mulciber (“Founder of metals.”): Architect of Pandemonium, the palace of Hell.
Adam and Eve (Hebrew for “man” and “life.”): Father and mother of humanity. Created as images of God. Before the Fall, they are perfect and have free will to choose evil. After the Fall, they are diminished by mental and moral chaos; they give birth to human sin and death, but are also ancestors of the Messiah. Archetypes (original models) of humanity at its best and worst.
Themes and Ideas
1. Free will
Milton rejects the idea of predestination (i.e., human lives controlled by God) and insists on free choice as the basis for moral responsibility: the angels decide for themselves to be loyal (Abdiel) or rebellious (Satan); the Son volunteers to become human, is not forced to, could have declined; Adam and Eve had the strength to resist temptation, but were free to fall.
God, too, had free choice: He foresaw right and wrong choices by others but did not interfere—they could receive no credit for good unless they were free to choose evil, no blame for evil unless they were free to choose good, and so on.
Animals are neither good nor bad, because (according to Milton) they are governed by instinct; Chaos is morally neutral, because “chance governs all.”
2. Moral Consequences
Good and evil choices result in rewards and punishments, The Son is to become the King of Glory; Satan, driven from Heaven, becomes the monarch of Hell; Adam and Eve, ejected from Paradise, inhabit the world of sin and death.
Morally neutral places are affected by human action: war among animals begins to occur after the Fall, as do natural disasters (floods). Sin and Death impose on Chaos to build a bridge from Hell to Earth.
3. Grace and Providence
God’s plan for loving His creatures is called providence. Once evil is chosen, the original capacity for good is corrupted and a person needs divine grace for redemption. Satan, sending Sin and Death from Hell and Chaos to Earth, succeeds in bringing evil out of good.
God succeeds in bringing good out of evil by sending the Son down from Heaven to offer grace to fallen humans. This free, unearned gift works internally in Adam and Eve and their descendants to restore people’s ability to choose good instead of evil.
The Son’s voluntary sacrifice of His own freedom makes possible this restoration. Satan realizes that providence would be pointless for him, since, if pardoned, he would choose evil again and thus suffer an even worse relapse.
4. Fall and Restoration
Since freedom of choice is necessary to God’s providence, temptations to make the wrong choices and to fall are inevitable. Satan was self-tempted; he tempted Eve through the serpent and Adam through Eve.
Their descendants are tempted by sin. The Fall is not only an outcome of Adam and Eve’s wrong choices, but is a continuing process until the end of time. Paradise was lost not once, but is being lost repeatedly. Restoration, also, is a process begun by Adam and Eve in accepting God’s grace after their own fall, but it is not complete until the end of time after all of the falls and partial restorations have occurred.
5. Infinity and Time
Only God is infinite and eternal. Everything else is finite (limited). The Son is the closest to the Father’s total perfection (“In him all his Father shone substantially expressed”); Satan is the farthest from it.
Adam and Eve are closer to God before the Fall than after. Finite, changeable time is a moving, imperfect image of an infinite, unchangeable eternity; everything finite is a changing image, potentially for better or for worse, moving toward a state of fixed, absolute values.
6. Levels of Perfection
Everything is originally perfect, yet is higher or lower depending on one’s distance from God. Unfallen angels are higher than humans, who in turn are higher than animals; the soul is above the body, and reason above passion.
Order, if not corrupted, results in the obedience of lower to higher. Any violation of this order is a disobedience to Natural Law (i.e., the image of divine law). Satan, originally lofty in Heaven, disturbs the order by trying to equal the Father.
This results in his fall. In Eve’s desire to elevate herself, she follows the serpent, an inferior. Adam gives way to his passion for Eve, despite the command of his reason not to. The result? Chaos and evil.
7. Obedience and Self-fulfillment
Since the violation of internal order is self-destructive, true self-fulfillment demands a submission to higher goods, and thus, ultimately, obedience to God. Ironically, true freedom is possible only to those who serve.
Abdiel (“servant of God”) is an angelic example. Obedience to one’s own self (Satan), to a lower creature (Eve), or to passion (Adam) is a form of self-defeating slavery. Self-denial is self- fulfillment; service is perfect freedom. The Messiah (self-sacrificing restoration) and Satan (self-serving corruption) are examples of before and after the Fall.
8. Appearance and Reality
Images of reality can be replaced by false appearances, with the result that value systems are turned upside down. Satan replaces true service with hellish tyranny (“better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”) and self-fulfillment with self-debasement (“myself am hell”); thus, he prefers evil to good (“Evil be thou my good”).
His temptations appeal to what seems to be—but is not—the self-interest of others (“be wise and taste”). Adam refuses, irrationally, to give up Eve, because she was made from his rib and thus represents a part of him. What appears to lead up actually leads down.
After the Fall, the reverse is true: Eve humiliates herself at Adam’s feet and offers to take sole blame; thus redirected by Eve, Adam proposes that both bow down “in humiliation meek” before God. The Son empties Himself of divine glory to become mortal, but the Father knows that the Son’s humiliation will actually raise Him high. For humanity after the Fall, suffering leads to victory, and faith leads to life after death.
9. Universality and the Fortunate Fall
Because their story illustrates the preceding themes and ideas, Adam and Eve are the prototypes (i.e., original models) of humanity throughout all of time and into eternity.
Losing Paradise at the beginning of human history is the way down…which, by means of (and at the end of) history, leads back up to Paradise regained. The Fall, while evil and therefore not fortunate, paradoxically has a fortunate result: Paradise.
1. Spatial and Visual Imagery
Heaven, Hell, Chaos, and Paradise are places where actions occur, but they are also states of mind. Satan says, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” God is “High Throned above all height” on the “Mount of God” over the rest of Heaven, which is above Earth.
Satan falls from good to evil, but also from Heaven to Hell, which is beneath Earth. Paradise is on top of the mountain; after the Fall, Adam and Eve are led by Michael “down the Cliff to the subjected Plain.”
After the Fall, moral chaos is symbolized in Adam and Eve by their “sensual Appetite” that has power over reason. Sin causes not only their fall, but also a spiritual darkness (hence the poet’s prayer, “What in me is dark, illumine” and “what is low, raise and support”).
Notice the mirror images of visible and invisible: God’s “glorious brightness” is “invisible”; “dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear.” Hell is “one great Furnace flamed, yet from those flames no light, but rather darkness visible.” Satan rebels at midnight; Eve falls at noon.
2. Generation: Seed, Tree, Fruit
Sin was born unnaturally from an evil seed in Satan’s mind. Satan mates incestuously with Sin, his “perfect image,” thus producing Death. In turn, Death produces “yelling monsters,” the hounds of Hell.
God’s universe began from Chaos, when the Son placed on Earth human counterparts (“seeds”) of the divine image. Fruit from the tree of knowledge is evil when wrongly used by Adam and Eve to “feed at once both Body and Mind.” God’s “chosen seed” is replanted through Abraham and Israel, and is reperfected by the birth of the Messiah.
Eve’s concluding words in the last speech of the poem are presumably accurate: “Though all by me is lost, by me the promised seed [Messiah] shall all restore.”
1. Vivid Imagery and Poetic Style
One of the most significant strengths of Paradise Lost is Milton’s vivid imagery and poetic style. Throughout the poem, he uses evocative language and striking metaphors to bring the characters and settings to life. For example, the descriptions of Satan’s fall from heaven, the Garden of Eden, and the war in heaven are all depicted with vivid detail. Milton’s use of rhyme and meter also creates a musical quality to the language, making it a pleasure to read aloud.
3. Exploration of Human Knowledge and Experience
Milton’s portrayal of the forbidden fruit as a symbol of knowledge is a fascinating exploration of the human desire for understanding and the consequences that come with it.
His depiction of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace as a result of eating the fruit highlights the human condition of seeking knowledge despite the potential negative consequences. The idea that ignorance is a tool for oppression and control is also a thought-provoking aspect of the poem.
3. Influence on Literature and Art
Paradise Lost has had a profound influence on literature and art since its publication. It has inspired numerous works of literature, including William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Besides, Gustave Dore’s illustrations for the poem have become iconic, with his images of Satan, the Garden of Eden, and the war in heaven being particularly memorable. The lasting impact of Paradise Lost on popular culture is a testament to its enduring power as a work of art.
1. Difficult Language and Dense Content
One of the primary challenges of reading Paradise Lost is its dense content and complex language. The poem is written in a poetic style that can be difficult to comprehend, even for those who enjoy reading poetry. Additionally, the content is steeped in biblical and mythological references, which can be overwhelming for readers who are not familiar with these traditions. As a result, the book requires a great deal of effort and patience to read and understand.
2. Excessive Footnotes and Annotations
To aid readers in understanding the content, most editions of Paradise Lost include extensive footnotes and annotations. While these can be helpful, they can also be distracting and disruptive to the reading experience. Constantly flipping back and forth between the text and the notes can be frustrating and disrupt the flow of the story.
3. Not for Everyone
While Paradise Lost is widely regarded as a classic of English literature, it is not a book that will appeal to everyone. The complex language, dense content, and heavy reliance on biblical and mythological references can make it a challenging read for some. Additionally, the book’s length and slow pace may not be appealing to readers who prefer more action-oriented or fast-paced stories.
Paradise Lost Review: Final Verdict
Paradise Lost by John Milton is a complex and challenging work that has been widely regarded as a classic of English literature. While it has many strengths, including vivid imagery, poetic style, and thought-provoking exploration of human experience, it also has its drawbacks, such as difficult language and dense content, excessive footnotes and annotations, and limited appeal to certain readers.
For those who appreciate high-caliber poetry and are willing to put in the effort to understand its meaning, Paradise Lost remains a significant work of art. However, for others, the challenges posed by the book’s content may make it a difficult or unenjoyable read.
Whether one chooses to read it or not, it remains a testament to Milton’s talent and legacy as one of the greatest poets in English literary history.
John Milton (1608–74) was born in London and gained early recognition as a poet.. He was educated at St. Paul’s School (London) and Cambridge University. In his middle years, most of his time was devoted to public affairs and to prose writings on behalf of educational, religious, social, and political reform.
He was Appointed Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State (1649). His failing eyesight led to almost total blindness by 1652 and semiretirement in that year; occasional publications on politics until 1659.
Paradise Lost was published in 10 books in 1667 and was then redivided into 12 books for the second edition in 1674. The sequels, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes were published as a double volume in 1671.
Buy The Book: Paradise Lost
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