ABSTRACT

Milton, following Genesis, dates man's Fall from his eating the fruit of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” yet in Paradise Lost Adam and Eve know evil before they disobey God's command. Set forth in part in Raphael's instructive discourses and acknowledged in the speeches of Adam and Eve themselves, this prelapsarian knowledge is conceptual. It makes Adam and Eve free and responsible moral agents, but is not therefore incompatible with innocence: they may “see, and know, and yet abstain.” The series of choices they survive in innocence proves them “sufficient to have stood,” yet also foreshadows their corruption by manifesting potentialities which make them “free to fall.” By eating the fruit they for the first time actualize evil in their own existence, and the “event” for which the tree is named is this new and catastrophic knowledge of evil as an experienced actuality. The Fall is neither the inexplicable ruin of an ignorant bliss nor the inevitable result of a flawed creation. Milton's conception of a knowledgeable, yet sinless, innocence not only is congruent with his analysis of virtue in Areopagitica, but also makes possible a narrative rendering of the Fall which is coherent, credible, and dramatic.

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