Sunday, October 11, 2009

Narcissus and Eve

Narcissus, by Mchelangelo Caravaggio, ca. 1598.

If you are familiar with the Narcissus and Echo episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses, then you would have no problem spotting Milton’s own echo of this scene in Book Nine of his Paradise Lost. We know from Ovid’s work that Narcissus becomes transfixed with his own image reflected in a “clear, unmuddied pool of silvery, shimmering water” (3.407-408). He falls in love with his own “fraudulent image of beauty” (3.439), which ultimately leads to his demise. Moving forward some sixteen hundred years later, we can see that this episode still commands attention when it appears again in Milton’s epic. The scene that corresponds so closely to Ovid’s Narcissus episode begins with Eve’s looking “into a clear / smooth lake, that to [her] seemed another sky” (9.458-459). First, it’s apparent that this lake has the same mirror-like qualities as the pool in Ovid’s narrative. Like Narcissus, Eve is “pleased” with her image, and even hesitates to seek out Adam because she thinks he might be “less fair, less winning soft, less amiably mild, than [her] smooth watery image” (9.463-480). Dennis Danielson recalls a common critical response to the episode. He notes a majority of critics view Eve’s “Narcissus-like” infatuation “with her own image” (152) as evidence that she is “fallen before the fall” (153). But Danielson improves on this interpretation, showing that Milton is in fact “presenting Adam and Eve’s potential for falling." Eve's vanity reflects her “fallibility, not [her] fallenness” (153). Danielson’s argument is convincing considering Milton's narrative draws on Eve's fallibility to enrich the setting for a plausible fall following the lake scene. We know that Eve eventually succumbs to Satan’s flattery. She is so easily duped because she has already shown that vanity is her dominating weakness.

Danielson, Dennis. “The Fall and Milton’s Theodicy”. The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. Cambridge: CUP, 1999. 144-59.

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