Bittersweet Unity: Marital Relationship Through Hand Imagery in Paradise Lost

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Written by Mary Biese (Notre Dame) | Edited by Mary Boneno

The following was a college essay written by Mary Biese. It has been edited and approved by Mary Boneno. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

Adam and Eve’s marital unity stands at the heart of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Its state shifts dramatically as the pair moves from innocence to despair to bittersweet hope. Milton skillfully ties this theme of marital union with hand imagery: Adam and Eve enter the epic “hand in hand”[1] and exit the epic as they exit Eden, “hand in hand.”[2] This paper will trace this nuptial unity by following Milton’s use of the word “hand,” which he often pairs with images of botanical growth and integrates within broader clues into Adam and Eve’s marital relationship.[3]

Their blissful introduction in Book 4 shows a complete, gentle unity, shadowed by hints in Book 5 of what is to come in Book 9: namely, physical separation, followed by mutual sin and a break in their emotional bond. Book 10’s continuation of this disunity ends with the couple’s reconciliation and repentance. Book 11 starts with God’s command of expulsion paired with the promise of salvation. The couple’s bittersweet unity, now infused with both suffering and hope, continues into Books 11 and 12 and forever impacts Adam and Eve’s marriage. Their original cohesion forever lost, together they find both brokenness and healing as Milton concludes their story.

When Milton begins their marriage story, he does not conjoin their names[4] until the end of the 35-line description:

            So hand in hand they passed, the loveliest pair

            That ever since in love’s embraces met,

            Adam the goodliest man of men since born

            His sons, the fairest of her daughters Eve.  (4.321-324)

The first two lines point to the couple’s spousal unity in three other ways. Firstly, the word “pair” indicates that Adam and Eve should be treated as a unit, not to be separated;[5] secondly, the reference to “love’s embraces” evokes the emotional and physical bond of the marital act, which is often called the marital union; thirdly, these two lines are introduced by the phrase “hand in hand.”[6] The following two lines, 323 and 324, begin with “Adam” and end with “Eve.” Their names bookend the lines that complete this sentence, which itself begins with hand imagery and strongly introduces the theme of the couple’s unity.

The next hand comes at line 488, when Eve, narrating her first memories, tells Adam that “thy gentle hand / Seized mine, I yielded.”[7] Describing the couple’s first marital act directly before their next, Eve calls Adam’s hand “gentle,” emphasizing the emotional and physical coherence of their loving, mutual marriage.[8] The two are also united in their gardening work, which Adam describes as “requir[ing] / More hands than ours to lop their wanton growth.”[9] He uses two adjectives here, “More” and “ours.” “More hands” is most likely an allusion to future children, who are expected to spring naturally from the marital union. “Ours” points to their mutual work, which they follow with mutual rest, all in accord with God’s command.[10] Right after Adam and Eve’s conversation in Book 4 ends, Milton describes them as “talking hand in hand alone… pass[ing] / On to their blissful bower.”[11] The two enter and leave Book 4 “hand in hand,”[12] inseparable and “alone.” “Alone” here signifies not each person being alone in themselves, but the pair being “alone” as a marital unit. Lines 739-740 repeat these themes: “into their innermost bow’r / Handed they went.”[13] The gentleness of Book 4 extends into the beginning of Book 5, where Adam awakens Eve, “Her hand soft touching.”[14] Whether her hand is soft or Adam is touching her hand softly (or both), the sense of gentle marital companionship remains at the forefront.

As Book 5 progresses, Milton infuses strong marriage imagery into Adam and Eve’s garden,

            where any row

            Of fruit trees over-woody reached too far

            Their pampered boughs, and needed hands to check

            Fruitless embraces: or they led the vine

            To wed her elm; she spoused about him twines

            Her marriageable arms…

            to adorn

            His barren leaves.       (5.212-217)

The couple’s gardening is tied together with their marriage; hands, the symbol of unity, are “needed” “to check / Fruitless embraces.” Hearkening back to the marital “embraces” of Book 4, this passage takes it a step further: true unity is needed to prevent fruitless embraces. To prevent themselves from “reach[ing] too far” like these plants, they need to stay entwined, wed, unified—lest they embrace fruitlessly (like the sexual “play” in Book 9) and produce “barren” (or, one might say, fallen) leaves. Hands and unity here take on a new connotation, that of caution in the face of abundance.

As Book 5 progresses, Eve gathers in the abundance of this garden; she “on the board / Heaps with unsparing hand”[15] fruits to create “inoffensive” (i.e. non-alcoholic) drink. Maintaining the innocence of Book 4, Eve unsparingly unites with Adam in her hospitality towards Raphael. Her generosity in fruit-giving is as of yet neither disobedient nor intoxicating. Further premonitions of woe come with the description of the table Eve has set, on which sits “All autumn piled, though spring and autumn here / Danced hand in hand.”[16] Though Eve has unsparingly heaped the table with fruit, its kind is only one, only Autumnal. There is no balance between the seasons, though they “Danced hand in hand.” This unity between the seasons she severs. Milton gives no reason for this, and the incident is seemingly mentioned only in passing, but it remains the last instance of “hand in hand” before the final lines of all of Paradise Lost. Perhaps Milton is driving home his point of prelapsarian caution and the importance of Adam and Eve’s coherence, which continues until their separation in Book 9. Even Adam himself claims to detect “Such disproportions, with superfluous hand,”[17] such negative imbalances within the world itself, against which Raphael cautions; all this hints at the separation and emotional breakdown (of Adam and Eve’s natural marital bond) that unfold in Book 9.

The couple’s precipitous marital argument begins as Adam and Eve plan their day’s work, and Eve suggests that they split up and divide their labors,[18]

            for much their work outgrew

            The hands’ dispatch of two gard’ning so wide.

            And Eve thus to her husband thus began.

            “Adam, well may we labor…

            Our pleasant task, enjoined, but till more hands

            Aid us…

            what we by day

            Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,

            One night or two with wanton growth derides.” (9.202-211)

While Eve notes the unitive aspect of their “pleasant task, enjoined,” she advocates for separate gardening rather than the conjoined rest to which Adam leads the couple in Book 4.[19] Eve refuses to ignore the issue of overabundance, as Adam seems to do, until the prospect of “more hands” seems more likely; for her, “The hands’ dispatch” is not enough. The present state of her work she sees “brought to little”[20] and “derided,” as she is as yet unaided by “more hands.” Conversely, Adam argues that their “hands’ dispatch,” or what he terms “our joint hands,” will surely be enough “till younger hands ere long / Assist us.”[21] Their hands, joined in matrimonial work, are insufficient for Eve, but not for Adam. His last speech begins with the assertion that God’s “creating hand / Nothing imperfect or deficient left / Of all that he created, much less man.”[22] He seems to have taken Raphael’s warnings to heart, but, given the hints of imbalance within nature in Book 5, Milton seems to be hinting at future imbalance still to come.

Neither Adam’s argument about God’s “creating hand” nor his literal marital hand prevents Eve’s departure, the description of which ends the marital disagreement: “Thus saying, from her husband’s hand her hand / Soft she withdrew.”[23] The repeated soft sounds within these lines evoke the Softness of the action of withdrawing, a stark contrast to the harder sounds of her preceding words.[24] No longer are the couple travelling “hand in hand” as before; “her” separates the two “hand”s in the first line, just as Eve, the first “her” to exist, physically separates herself from her husband. Milton reworks the soft, gentle themes from Book 4: Eve gently detaches herself from her beloved, twisting away from him like the marital vines at the start of Book 5[25] and promising in vain to return for communal rest.[26]

The next time Milton writes about Eve’s hand, her beauty moves Satan, but by the time Eve’s hand reaches for the Forbidden Fruit, Satan’s lies have moved Eve. The Devil spots “the hand of Eve: / Spot more delicious than those gardens feigned”[27]—in Eve’s prioritization of her gardens over her marital union with Adam, she is “deliciously” preyed upon[28] by a feigning foe in the absence of her husband. Her hand becomes spotted by sin as the Fruit strips her of her innocence. Milton tells us that “her rash hand in evil hour / Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate.”[29] In this pivotal moment, Eve rejects her relationship with God[30] and soon questions what kind of relationship she wants with her husband, which entails either a unity of dominance or of “equality” via the fruit. She considers living “Without copartner” but then, due to what she terms as love, decides that “Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe.”[31] She decides this rather quickly, mirroring the rashness of her “hand in evil hour.” In “reaching to the fruit” she has fallen prey to the overabundant reaching, akin to the garden whose overgrowth she has failed to stop.[32]

Eve continues the divisive activity of her hands when she meets Adam, “in her hand / A bough of fairest fruit… / New gathered.”[33] Having cut herself off from Adam and God, she convinces Adam to join her in a union of sin. Instead of gathering fruit for Raphael, Eve gathers the forbidden fruit for Adam; from her husband’s “slack hand the garland wreathed for Eve / Down dropped, and all the faded roses shed: / Speechless he stood and pale.”[34] “Slack” refers to both stillness and negligence: Adam’s moment of “Astonied… horror chill” is followed by a Speechlessness: here he realizes the results of his slack, his negligence. The garland is dropped: Eve has fallen, the roses have faded, and their marital unity has been uprooted.

Adam is easily convinced[35] that the only way for his union with Eve to be reestablished is to eat[36] “that fair enticing fruit” which she gives him “With liberal hand” after embracing him.[37] This embrace turns to sexual play, as Adam

            forebore not glance or toy

            Of amorous intent…

            Her hand he seized, and to a shady bank


            He led her nothing loath…

            Took largely, of their mutual guilt the seal. (9.1034-1043)

In fallen man we see the mutuality and cooperation of marriage, the seizing and taking, but without the gentleness that was characteristic of their former innocence: their embraces are now “fruitless,” and they have thrown caution to the wind.[38] Immediately after Eve’s hand is seized and their play concludes, they, disturbed by shame, physically and emotionally uncouple themselves. The word “hand” disappears from the rest of Book 9 as their unity dissipates. The next “fruitless hours” they spend “in mutual accusation,”[39] or, in other words, in mutual division.

Milton’s hand imagery in Book 10 shifts dramatically from gentleness and greedy action to blame and despairing laments: Adam blames Eve, claiming “That from her hand I could suspect no ill”[40]—yet it was from her “liberal hand” that he, “Against his better knowledge, not deceived,”[41] had accepted the fruit. Adam and Eve each lament independently, Adam crying out, “Why delays / His hand to execute what his decree / Fixed on this day?” Why do I overlive?”[42] Before the next instance of “hands” occurs, Adam and Eve have reconciled: Eve echoes Adam’s wish for death and takes it one step further by suggesting suicide: “Let us seek Death, or he not found, supply / With our own hands his office on ourselves.”[43] “Our own” signifies their rejoining and their mutual possession of each other;[44] coupled with the wish for suicide, Eve continues the couple’s “mutual guilt.” Adam sees the problem with this option, reminding Eve of God’s clemency, since “his hands / Clothed us unworthy, pitying while he judged.”[45] Though Adam and Eve’s relationship is definitively broken,[46] they recover some of their lost unity in their reconciliation and repentance, focusing on God’s hands instead of their own “now bolder hand[s].”[47]

Adam and Eve are physically parted again by Michael, whom God sends to deliver the mutual decree of banishment and eventual redemption. Adam is again dumbfounded; Eve laments her separation from the Edenic flowers, which she “bred up with tender hand:”[48] for her, the age of tenderness has clearly passed. Michael quickly reminds her that she must submit to Adam, to whom she is “bound”[49]; likewise, Adam must submit “to the hand of Heav’n.”[50] They are united in their submission and sentence, but, instead of resting and waking simultaneously as they do in the rest of the epic, Eve receives in sleep what Adam receives in a vision.[51] Michael, “the gentle angel,” raises Adam “by the hand.”[52] Adam’s hand is here isolated and not united with Eve’s; gentleness now comes not from their marital bond, but from heaven. Though the gentleness and comfort of the Protoevangelium will come literally from the seed of their marital union, this hope only comes about through the Son’s intercession, who presents before God “Fruits of more pleasing savor from thy seed… than those / Which his own hand… / … could have produced, ere fall’n.”[53] Adam and Eve’s unified repentance is accepted, but only through the Son, seated “at God’s right hand,”[54] going beyond the limitations of Adam’s “own hand.”

The limited, fallen “hand” of mankind, henceforth afflicted with suffering and violence, shows up four times in Adam’s vision of his future descendants. Cain’s selfish sacrifice is “Unculled, as came to hand;”[55] wars breed “On each hand slaughter and gigantic deeds;”[56] the prophet Enoch is nearly “seized with violent hands;”[57] and even Noah’s virtuous “uplifted hands,”[58] reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s narrated prayer of supplication in Book 10,[59] are mentioned only after nearly all of overly-violent mankind is utterly destroyed. Thus Milton portrays the bitter effects of the Fall—that is, sin, suffering, and death.

Both Adam and Eve lament these bitter effects, yet rejoice in the sweet effect of the Fall—that is, the conquering of the bitter effects by “my Redeemer ever blest.”[60] These words, Adam’s last, are echoed in Eve’s final words: “By me the promised seed shall all restore.”[61] Though they end their direct speech in the poem with joyful praise, they still linger mournfully over their Lost Paradise. With three “hand”s Milton closes Paradise Lost:

            In either hand the hast’ning Angel caught

            Our ling’ring parents, and to th’ eastern gate

            Led them direct…

            They looking back…

            Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;

            The world was all before them, where to choose

            Their place of rest, and providence their guide.

            They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,

            Through Eden took their solitary way.  (12.637-649)

Michael, having parted the couple before with separate sleeps, now catches them “In either hand” and leads them out of Paradise as a marital unit: Milton no longer refers to them individually, as he has done for most of Books 11 and 12, but uses collective words to show their new bittersweet unity. Their tears they wipe; their despair has hope; their toil has rest; their guide is not God, but they still have his providence; they must leave their old home, but “The world was all before them.” They are together promised suffering and redemption, and they together enter into their new life. They are solitary as a unit; they are united in bittersweetness for the rest of their lives.[62] Through Eden they travel in the final line of the epic, as through Eden’s events they have arrived at this point in the poem.

And finally, Milton carefully places the last two hands, the last “hand in hand,” the ultimate image of unity, in the closing lines of his domestic epic. Adam and Eve, introduced to us hand in hand, exit hand in hand “with wandering steps and slow.” “Wandering” contrasts with their prelapsarian state and implies that they are Lost; “slow” in turn contrasts with the rapid-fire chain of events, separations, and prophecies in Books 9 through 12. Their narrative ends as it began, but with brokenness and a hope of healing for that brokenness, not in their lifetimes but in the lifetimes of the “more hands” that will proceed from their marital union. Though their marriage has been permanently changed, through divine intervention Adam and Eve find their spousal unity bittersweetly restored.

[1] See 4.321. All quotations are from the 2008 Modern Library (New York) edition, ed. Kerrigan, Rumrich, and Fallon.

[2] See 12.648

[3] I will focus on books 4, 8, 5, and 9-12. I am leaving out, for brevity’s sake, those instances of the word “hand” that have less to do with Adam and Eve themselves, such as the numerous references to the Son of God at God’s “right hand” and those instances of Satan being “at hand.”

[4] See “sons of Eve” (1.364), “Adam’s room… Adam’s son” (3.285-286), and “Adam’s abode” (3.734)—their names are mentioned separately.

[5] Curiously enough, this is the first instance of the unifying word “pair” in Paradise Lost.

[6] This phrase only shows up four times in the epic, the last of which comes right at its conclusion (12.648).

[7] See 4.488-491

[8] While her yielding here is an act of submission upon being “seized,” she is the one who instigates the following marital act; there is mutual gentleness in both instances of union.

[9] See 4.625-629

[10] See Adam’s explanation: “God hath set / Labor and rest, as day and night to men // Successive” (4.613). This rest is also an imitation of God resting from the work of creation: “and from work / Now resting, blessed and hallowed the sev’nth day, As resting on that day from all his work (8.591-593)”

[11] 4.689-690

[12] Instance 2 of 4 of the phrase “hand in hand.”

[13] The note in this edition states that “Handed” means “hand in hand, as at line 689” (page 150).

[14] 5.17

[15] See 5.343-349

[16] See 5.395

[17] See 8.26-38

[18] See 9.214

[19] See pages 2 and 3 of this essay.

[20] “Our day’s work brought to little, though begun / Early, and th’hour of supper comes unearned” (9.224-225).

[21] See 9.244-246

[22] 9.344-346

[23] 9.385-386

[24] See 9.378-384

[25] See 9.214-219, where Eve suggests that Adam go “to wind / The woodbine round this arbor, or direct / The clasping ivy where to climb” while she goes among the roses. Post-Fall, Adam drops her crown of roses.

[26] See 9.399-411

[27] See 9.438-444

[28] Metaphorically of course—the only physical preying here is Satan viewing her physical body and then convincing her to physically eat the Fruit.

[29] See 9.780-781

[30] Adam typically being the in-between for Eve and God, Eve’s rejection of God necessarily has bearing on her relationship to Adam (see 4.299: “He for God only, she for God in him”). We also see Nature truly being imbalanced and woeful: and Nature from her seat / Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe, / That all was lost” (9.782-784).

[31]  9.816-832: She decides to give hin the fruit only at the thought of her being replaced, which she could not endure. This is a more selfish motive than the close of her speech: “So dear I love him, that with him all deaths / I could endure, without him live no life.”

[32] See page 4 of this essay: To prevent themselves from “reach[ing] too far” like these plants, they [Adam and Eve] need to stay entwined, wed, unified.

[33] 9.850-852

[34] See 9.888-894. See also note on page 6 about botany: Eve’s departure from Adam is visualized in the image of roses, which here, already faded, are also dropped. One can easily imagine Adam twisting the roses into a crown like vines twisted around another plant; here Milton skilfully uproots his vine imagery and replaces it with that of roses, twined together but then dropped—perhaps the crown of roses is un-twined and deconstructed when it hits the ground. With his evocative imagery, Milton leaves the imagination with many possibilities.

[35] Milton uses similar language for Eve when he says that Satan’s words “replete with guile / Into her heart too easy entrance won” (9.733-734).

[36] See 9.907-916, 952-959: “Our state cannot be severed, we are one, / One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.”

[37] See 9.990, 996-997. This affects the earth as well (see lines 1000-1004).

[38] Eve tells her husband, “fear of death deliver to the winds” (9.989). The hesitations and cautions surrounding fruitlessness and/or abundance in Books 4 and 5 are here totally ignored.

[39] “Thus they in mutual accusation spent / The fruitless hours, but neither self-condemning, / And of their vain contest appeared no end” (9.1187-1189).

[40] See 10.137-143

[41] 9.998

[42] See 10.771-782

[43] See 10.1001-1006: “Why stand we longer shivering under fears / That show no end but death, and have the power, Destruction to destruction to destroy?”

[44] Possession carries with it a negative connotation akin to that of taking and seizing, again emphasizing the fairly predatory connotations of Adam and Eve’s post-Fall marital embrace in this passage.

[45] See 10.1055-1063

[46] See 10.191-208: they even receive separate punishments.

[47] See 11.93-98

[48] See 11.276

[49] See 11.286-292

[50] See 11.371-376. See also footnote #30 (page 6 of this essay) regarding submission and hierarchy.

[51] Raphael compares this to Adam’s sleep during Eve’s derivation and creation (11.369), emphasizing the teleological hierarchy previously mentioned.

[52] 11.421

[53] See 11.25-36

[54] See 12.450-465: a summary of the Son’s foretold victory.

[55] 11.435

[56] 11.659

[57] 11.669

[58] 11.863

[59] See 10.1086-1100. They also pray pre-Fall, but their post-Fall prayer is more applicable in this context.

[60] See 12.572-573.

[61] See 12.620-623

[62] See the discussion of Book 4 earlier in this essay and the treatment of the word “alone,” perpetuating the marital unit as alone/solitary but unified.

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