The Interpretative Choice

  • Stanley Eugene Fish


Wondering at the ‘blind alleys’ readers of Paradise Lost have been led into, C. S. Lewis moves to ‘dismiss that question which has so much agitated some great critics, “What is the Fall?”‘ by answering, ‘The Fall is simply and solely Disobedience — doing what you have been told not to do.’ Aligning himself with Addison, for whom ‘the great moral which reigns in Milton is … Obedience to the will of God makes men happy’, Lewis poses a question of his own: ‘How are we to account for the fact that great modern scholars have missed what is so dazzlingly simple?’1 This could be profitably rephrased to read, ‘How are we to account for the fact that Adam and Eve, when the time comes, miss what is so dazzlingly simple?’ For the reader, the poem is a ‘life situation’, analogous to the situation of the happy couple in Paradise. The ‘dazzling simplicity’ of the poem’s great moral is the counterpart of the dazzlingly simple prohibition, and the obligation of the parties in the two situations is to defend the starkness of the moral choice against sophistications which seem to make disobedience attractive (‘Here grows the Cure of all, this Fruit Divine’) or necessary (‘what seem’d remediless’).


Animal Spirit Blind Alley Paradise Lost Happy State Great Critic 
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  1. 3.
    The possibility of being unconsciously subversive is discussed by Milton in the Christian Doctrine (The Works of John Milton, xiv. 101, 103): ‘That the fall of man was not necessary is admitted on all sides; but if such, nevertheless, was the nature of the divine decree, that his fall became really inevitable, both which opinions, however contradictory, are sometimes held by the same persons, then the restoration of man, after he had lapsed of necessity, became no longer a matter of grace on the part of God, but of simple justice.’ By keeping the two points of belief (the Fall was not necessary, the decree made it inevitable) in separate compartments, the mind entertains blasphemy on a subconscious level, while being outwardly orthodox. Milton makes this manœuvre impossible by forcing an awareness of the contradictions involved in holding these and like opinions, much as the process of dialectic forces awareness (and choice) upon the respondent: ‘The respondent now is confronted with an alternative and a choice. Either he erred in making the initial and succeeding agreements leading to this evident, albeit discomfiting, consequence; or his previous opinions were without foundation. If he decides that he erred in his initial doxa or somewhere along the way, he is obligated to indicate at what point and why. If he concludes that he was ill-advised in making concessions to begin with, he is convicted of subordinating truth to prudential interests. If he determines, willy-nilly, to reaffirm his original proposition, he must at least concede that he is on record for holding contrary or contradictory judgments. Eventually he may be led to square himself with himself. Meanwhile, like Alcibiades in the Symposium, the man will be self-convicted until he is self-convinced (216c).’ Robert Cushman, Therapeia (Chapel Hill, 1958), p. 235.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    As readers of Paradise Lost, we are in a curious position, analogous to that proposed by one critic for the narrator of Chaucer’s Troths and Criseide: ‘By the beginning of Book IV … the narrator’s love for Criseide has become such that when he finds himself forced to face the issue of her perfidy he comes close to denying the truth of his old books…. It is a strange historian who becomes so emotionally involved with the personages of his history that he is willing to impugn the reliability of the sources upon which his whole knowledge of those personages presumably depends.’ (E. T. Donaldson, Chaucer’s Poetry: An Anthology for the Modern Reader, New York, 1958, p. 967.) This is true to some extent of Milton’s narrator, but truer still of his reader who becomes ‘emotionally involved’ with the originals of himself. Despite certain knowledge of the history and a unique commitment to its source (the sacred text) he finds himself increasingly eager to deny the fact of the Fall and thus avoid the issue of his own perfidy, either by ascribing it to a natural and therefore innocent depravity or by fixing the blame on some other agent. The latter is the more attractive alternative, since it seems to preserve the free will of the victims, at least superficially; actually there is no difference at all between believing that Adam and Eve could not help but fall or believing that their fall was caused by someone else, and in the end this kind of reasoning inevitably returns to God.Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    Millicent Bell, ‘The Fallacy of the Fall in Paradise Lost’, PMLA, lxviii (1953), 871Google Scholar
  4. E. M. W. Tillyard, Studies in Milton (London, 1951), p. 11.Google Scholar

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© Stanley Eugene Fish 1967

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  • Stanley Eugene Fish

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