In Book 9 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan makes the argument most critical to the plot of the story, persuading Eve to partake of the Forbidden Fruit. The result of this conversation directly affects the outcome of the narrative and serves as the climax for the entire poem, since one of the essential themes of Paradise Lost is free will.
In his speech to Eve, Satan uses everything to his advantage that he can. Just as in the rest of Paradise Lost, Milton depicts him as a great orator with long, drawn-out speeches and colorful, poetic language. It does not matter if his argument is coherent or has any logical flaws, for Eve is innocent and naïve. In the end, his address succeeds because of his ability to appeal to Eve’s emotions.
Satan starts his argument to the first woman by appealing to her beauty and grace. As the footnotes in The Norton Anthology state, his introduction is based on the “extravagant praises of the Petrarchan love convention.” (p 822). In reality, there is a serious flaw with this initial statement, since beauty is a comparative and sociological concept. The only way Adam and Eve could have been able to understand this concept is if God or Raphael told them they were beautiful or ugly and explained to them what it meant. It is highly doubtful God would call his creations ugly, and if he told Eve she was beautiful, wouldn’t she be insusceptible to Satan’s suave guile, simply telling him something like, “of course I am beautiful.”?
In any event, Eve is somewhat flattered by the serpent’s remarks, merely questioning his ability to speak. Instead of being suspicious or frightened, she is in awe. Milton makes a point of saying that “into the heart of Eve his words made way, though at the voice much marveling; at length / Not unamazed” (Book 9 lines 550-552) and later on after Satan’s next speech, “and Eve / Yet more amazed unwary thus replied:” (Book 9 lines 613-614). It seemed that the purpose of including these phrases was to insure that the reader understands that Eve is intrigued by the Devil’s appearance.
This reaction is somewhat surprising, as one would think Eve should be afraid, for she has never seen nor heard of a talking animal before. Comparatively, if a snake started conversing with the average person on Earth today, one would think the most common response would be fear, no matter how pleasing and eloquent the serpent’s tongue. Instead, this is not Eve’s reaction as it is conveyed in the story. If Eve were stricken with terror, the first thing she would do is call out to God or Raphael or Adam, but instead she chats with Satan and is charmed by him.
The Devil uses this to his benefit, and once Eve reacts to him with wonder instead of dread, he cunningly explains how he gained the capacity to speak while all the other beasts cannot. In his long narrative, the serpent tells of his finding the Tree of Knowledge, eating of its fruits, and gaining intelligence and reason. To Eve, still under the intoxication of his influence, the slivering snake is speaking of a way she can become more than what she is. Since no one told Eve what eating the fruit did, she is naturally curious.
In her next few passages, Eve expresses very strong interest in the Tree, neglecting the possibility that this is the tree God spoke of. “‘Where grows this tree, from hence how far?'” she states in line 617 of Book 9. “‘Lead then,” she simply and boldly states after the serpent’s next passage (Book 9 line 631).
At this point, Satan has successfully convinced Eve to partake of the fruit by using her own ignorance and naivety against her, despite the fact that she recognizes the tree as being sacred simply because he has slithered his way into being viewed at with respect instead of contempt by her.
“‘But of this tree we may not taste nor touch;
God so commanded, and left that command
Sole daughter of his voice; the rest, we live
Law to ourselves, our reason is our law.” (Book 9, line 651-654)
In this passage, Eve tells the Serpent flat out that this is the one thing her Creator commanded, yet she is still somewhat open to possibilities, as she states her interest in his abilities after eating the apple in the line directly preceding this passage, “‘Wondrous indeed, if cause of such effects'” (Book 9, Line 650). If Eve was immediately outright opposed to eating the fruit, she would not have even acknowledged the snake’s powers. Instead, she would have called to God and asked him why the animal was not dead, since she understands, by her own admittance, that God told them “‘nor shall ye touch it, lest ye die.'” (Book 9, Line 663).
Once again, however, Eve bends and breaks to yet another one of Satan’s extensive, pretentious lectures when he explains that God just does not wish her to eat the fruit because he desires to be the only one with knowledge in lines 679-732. In fact, immediately after this lengthy discourse, Milton sums up Eve’s actions in one line, “Into her heart too easy entrance won:” (Book 9, line 734).
The mother of mankind soon takes the fateful bite, in line 780-781, “So saying, her rash hand in evil hour / Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat.”
The shows that despite the rational problems with their conversations, Satan’s ability to use figurative and pleasant speech to reach her emotions is worth more to Eve than everything she was previously taught by Raphael and God. Milton had no choice but to have Eve yield to the Serpent, since there was obviously a limit on the liberties he could take with the Bible. Perhaps Milton portrays Satan as a charming Tempter as a way of garnering sympathy for her. After all, what woman could resist such a smooth talker?
The Devil’s reasoning with Eve could be reasonably compared to the logic delivered in Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (p 457). The speaker in this poem uses gorgeous images of what life could be like if she moves with him, just as Satan does by telling Eve of how life might be enhanced by taking the Forbidden Fruit. There exists sound logic why the addressee should not take action (as evidenced in Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” p 443), but the aim of the speaker is to weasel around this by using persuasive speech. In the end, the result of both approaches is dependent on the feelings derived from the listener.
Overall, Satan’s argument is not very coherent, but he attacks Eve’s emotions and suits his words to be very conducive to his point. This persuasion is central to the story, forming the basis of the ‘free will’ angle that Milton is trying to expose by showing that Eve had a choice, and that God has always wanted humans to have freedom. Finally, it is hard for people in today’s world to see Eve’s position before the fall, and therefore it is appropriate that modern logic be temporarily suspended while reading Paradise Lost. It is this willful suspension that has helped generations of readers relate to Eve, and this suspension that makes Milton’s epic an enduring masterpiece.