Reader and text

  • Margarita Stocker
Part of the The Critics Debate book series


What used to be the major critical question — whether Satan was so compelling as to disrupt the ‘official’ narrative of Paradise Lost — obviously involved assumptions about a clash between Milton’s intention and the reader’s actual response to the poem. Fish [1967] was the first to try to reconcile intention and response primarily in terms of a theory about how the reader’s response develops in the course of the poem. (Later [1980] he would postulate a general theory of reader-response which, like so many other literary theories, had whetted its teeth on Paradise Lost.) In his view, Milton actually intends that we should misread his poem. When the reader is seduced by Satan’s rhetoric, s/he is placed in a position similar to that of Eve seduced by the serpent’s [261]. Whenever Milton’s own voice intervenes to correct our response, he is deliberately disappointing our expectations in order to show that we too are corrupted — fallen readers. By constantly misleading and correcting our reading of the action, Milton makes us ‘angry at the epic voice … for being right, for insisting that we become our own critics’ [9]. In this way we are gradually rendered suspicious of our own reactions, becoming, like Adam, ‘not deceived’ about our own sinfulness.


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© Margarita Stocker 1988

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  • Margarita Stocker

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