A Third Choice: Adam, Eve, and Abdiel
Gerald Richman
Suffolk University

Richman, Gerald. "A Third Choice: Adam, Eve, and Abdiel." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.2 (September, 2003): 6.1-5 <URL:

    1. In Paradise Lost Book IX, after Eve reveals that she has eaten the forbidden fruit, Adam believes that he has but two choices: abandon Eve or join her in sin. But C.S. Lewis suggests a two-part third choice. "What would have happened if instead of his 'compliance bad' Adam had scolded or even chastised Eve and then interceded with God on her behalf [?]" asks Lewis, before concluding that "we are not told" because "Milton doesn't know." That's why Milton says "the situation "seemd remediless" (919)" (127). Several scholars have responded to the second part of Lewis's question by arguing that Adam should have followed the example of the Son in Book III.236-7 [1] (an example, of course, that Adam is not privy to) by volunteering to take Eve's punishment on himself (Danielson 121-7, Fish 269-71, Leonard 214-32, Samuel 610-11). Dennis Burden (168-71) and Stephen M. Fallon (229-30) see Milton pointing here to another alternative for Adam, the remedy of divorce. No one, as far as I have been able to tell, has responded to the first part of Lewis's question. What would have happened if Adam had "scolded or even chastised" Eve to repent while there was time for pardon? Indeed, this is Abdiel's argument to Satan in Book V, an example available to Adam through Raphael's narration:

      Cease then this impious rage,
      And tempt not these; but hasten to appease
      Th' incensèd Father and th' incensèd Son,
      While pardon may be found in time besought. (V.845-8)

    2. Although William Empson asserts, "The poem somehow does not encourage us to think of an alternative plan" (189; qted in Leonard 221) for Adam, in fact, through verbal and narrative parallels, Milton makes the reader aware of this third choice. For example, as Raphael calls Satan's blasphemy "bold discourse" (V.803), Adam labels Eve's eating of the fruit "Bold deed" (IX.921). Whereas Abdiel uses the verb "uncreate" in V.894 to indicate the consequence of Satan's disobedience, Adam uses it in IX.943 as an argument ad absurdum to justify ignoring the threatened penalty of death. As a result, Abdiel chooses to "fly / These wicked tents devoted, lest the wrath / Impendent, raging into sudden flame / Distinguish not"(V.889-92), while Adam in sharp verbal contrast announces, "I have fixed my lot"(IX.952) to die with Eve (emphasis added). The verbal echoes begin by aligning Adam's and Abdiel's understanding of the significance of the two situations, but end by contrasting their spiritual and physical responses.

    3. Narrative parallels also make readers aware of Adam's third choice. When Eve tries to persuade Adam to eat the fruit, she is in the same position as Satan when he tries to persuade Abdiel (and others) to join his rebellion against God. And Adam is in the same position as Abdiel. Both Adam ("How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost, / Defaced, deflow'red, and now to death devote?" IX.900-901) and Abdiel ("O argument blasphémous, false and proud!" V.809) immediately perceive the evil in the words and actions. But Satan is not yet completely lost; he is still savable Milton implies when he has Abdiel warn Satan,

           Cease then this impious rage,
           And tempt not these; but hasten to appease
           Th' incensèd Father and th' incensèd Son,
           While pardon may be found in time besought. (V.845-8)

      Only after Satan persists does Abdiel accept that it's too late for Satan:

           O alienate from God, O Spirit accurst,
           Forsaken of all good; I see thy fall
           Determined . . . (V.877-9)

      Satan both seals and reveals his fate by reiterating his crime and persisting in sin, fulfilling God's criteria for damnation (III.198-202). [2]

    4. Milton implies through Abdiel's words and actions that if Eve had repented and Adam had refused to join her in sin, Eve would have found pardon. Indeed Abdiel invents the whole process of repentance in V.845-8 that God (III.173-97, echoing Abdiel in 186-7) and Adam elaborate,

      What better can we do, than . . .
      . . . prostrate fall
      Before him reverent, and there confess
      Humbly our faults, and pardon beg, with tears
      Watering the ground, and with our sighs the air
      Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign
      Of sorrow unfeigned, and humiliation meek.
      Undoubtedly he will relent and turn
      From his displeasure . . . (X.1086-94)

      Rather than being replaced by a second woman, as she and Adam fear (IX.827-9, 911-12), Eve herself would have become a new Eve.

    5. But Adam does not force Eve to choose between repentance and a hardening of heart as Abdiel forces Satan. Adam falls into the fallacy of false choices, believing he has only two: lose Eve or be lost with her, for "But past who can recall, or done undo? / Not God omnipotent, nor fate" (IX.926-7). As C.S. Lewis observes, no one knows what Eve (or Milton) would have done if Adam had scolded and chastised her to repent "in time." If Adam had succeeded, however, Eve would have been made new. But, if, as the tale would demand, she were entreated fruitlessly, and, like Satan, Eve hardened her heart, confirmed herself in sin, and denied her Creator, a very different future might have awaited the parents of mankind than that made possible because "Prevenient grace descending had removed / The stony from their hearts, and made new flesh / Regenerate grow instead" (XI.3-5). Milton's Adam, of course, does not recognize and therefore does not exercise the third choice made available to him by Abdiel's attempt to save Satan. But verbal and narrative parallels make readers recognize Adam's failure to attempt to save Eve and may function at the narrative level, as words like (dis)obedience at the level of diction, to remind us of the alternatives available to free will, of alternative possibilities of Paradise Retained or Forever Lost.



I am indebted to Steven Berkowitz for helping to tighten and strengthen my argument and to the annonymous reviewer for EMLS for suggesting the reference to Origen (n. 2).

1. All citations are from Scott Elledge's edition of Paradise Lost and are indicated by book and line numbers.

2. Milton's suggestion here--that in the interlude between initiating sin and completing it, Satan had an opportunity for redemption (see Book IX.1003-1004, "completing of the the mortal sin / Original," which indicates the end of a parallel interlude between Eve's eating of the fruit and Adam's)--differs from Origen's argument that because of the infinite mercy of Christ even Satan has hope of future grace (De Principiis Book I.6.3 and Book III.6.5).

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).