Identity, as defined in Milton’s Paradise Lost, is defined by its oppositional relationship to God. According to monism, a belief system that Milton reflects throughout this work, all existing things ascribe to a single source or concept. In this case, there is no such thing as identity that is separate from God’s. If man is created in God’s image, then only God has a true identity and that man is a representation of that identity. In Paradise Lost, God creates Adam in his image, and Eve in the image of Adam. It is through Adam that Eve develops a relationship with God. Yet the poem’s thematic thrust is based on the pursuit of a singular identity separate from God, beginning with Satan’s resistance, and later Adam and Eve’s fall. Eve then is defined by her disobedience to God because of her desire to have an active and singular identity separate from Adam and thus God.
This is revealed in the first passage when she sees her image in the pond. Eve’s first reaction to seeing her reflection is a startling one, but she soon welcomes her own image and is “pleased” by its “answering looks/Of sympathy and love;” Eve’s narcissistic reaction to her own image locates her desires for an identity, one in which she can claim with “vain desire.” It is only until God intrudes upon this relationship between Eve and her own identity that she is pulled away from herself with the promise of Adam, whose “image…[she] shalt enjoy/Inseparably thine…” Eve’s narcissism is thus taken in another direction: toward Adam, whose image is not unlike her own, and thus a representation of God; and later, by becoming the “Mother of the human race,” through her progeny. The appropriate identity Eve is allowed is as wife and mother.
Eve’s vanity and narcissism nonetheless leads her and Adam astray when she is tempted by Satan to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Her desire to have this knowledge is also located in her desire to have an autonomous identity separate from Adam and God, to know things that do not limit her identity as defined by Adam and God. The second passage reveals this representation of her in the line: “‘Was she thy God, that her didst obey/Before his voice? or was she made thy guide,/Superior, or but equal…” Here, Eve is shown as being resistant to her role and identity as woman, in fact becoming like Adam or superior to either God and man. Eve’s representation in Paradise Lost is reductive since she is lacking both in “dignity” and “superiority,” and is “[U]nseemly to bear rule…” making her choice for an identity a false one. Yet since Eve is able to convince Adam to eat the apple, the interpretations of her as being incapable of “ruling” are contradictory. Her qualities are that of someone who is easily led (as revealed in the first passage when she is easily swayed by God and later when Satan persuades her to eat the apple), and yet who can easily sway others (as revealed in the second passage). The contradictions in these representations form the idiosyncrasies of her character, one who is driven by whimsy and narcissism but who is a cunning temptress who brings about the fall of Man.
Yet despite these contradictions, Eve is represented as someone whose desire for an identity places her within the same context of Satan’s rebellion against God. According to Milton, her choice is a false one since she has no identity separable from God and/or Adam. Therefore her transgressions are taken with far greater weight since they pose a threat to Adam’s identity — “hadst thou known thyself aright” — in parallel to his relationship with God. In other words, when Adam is convinced by Eve to choose his own desires over obeying God’s word, he is making the same false choice as Eve. By believing that Eve’s place in his relationship with him is greater than God’s, Adam thus validates Eve’s identity as separate from his own and God’s. Eve’s desire for identity is the catalyst for her fall from grace, which establishes Milton’s representation of her not as self-definition but as vanity, a far greater sin than Adam’s loss of identity in relationship to God.