In Book 4 of Paradise Lost, the reader is introduced to Eve and her creation story. John Milton uses the scene where Eve sees herself in the lake in close relation to Ovid’s story of Narcissus. Milton writes, “I started back,/It started back, but pleased I soon returned, Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks/Of sympathy and love. There I had fixed. Mine eyes till now and pined with vain desire/Had not a Voice thus warned me…” (Teskey 90-91).
The footnote for these few lines says that “the episode closely follows that of Narcissus, in Ovid Metamorphoses, the crucial difference being that Eve is rescued and does not pine with vain desire for herself” (Teskey 90). The idea that Eve’s story follows so closely to the story of Narcissus makes critics and essayists respond in different ways. Taking a closer look into essays by Julia Walker, Mandy Green and Maggie Kilgour about Eve, Narcissus and other parts of Paradise Lost make me as a reader think beyond what is written on the page.
Mandy Green’s essay titled “The Virgin in the Garden: Milton’s Ovidian Eve” takes the character of Eve and compares her not only to Narcissus, but also to Daphne (who flees from Apollo, just as Eve retreated from Adam after seeing him), Flora (who named the flowers), the “frail and vulnerable Proserpine”, the “unwary gardener Pomona” and finally, “when she repents her sin, she is seen to resemble the pious and virtuous wife Pyrrha” (Green 922).
Green’s discussion about Eve compared to Narcissus is fairly basic in that she mentions “although no explicit comparison is drawn between the two, readers from the earliest editors onwards have recognized the obvious and open application to Eve’s first memories of Ovid’s Narcissus and his love for his own reflection in the water” (Green 907). She says that the most prominent connection between both stories is when both Eve and Narcissus “gaze at their relections in the pool” (Green 908). Something interesting that Green does to go beyond the text on the page is talk about how Eve does not remain self-absorbed.
She comes to this conclusion by explaining the differences between the bodies of water that both Narcissus and Eve look into. Narcissus looks into a pool of water that has “never been touched” making this idea of a beautiful place that illustrates “Narcissus’s own beautiful self-sufficiency” (Green 909). It is explained after that Eve’s scene is quite different because “the water spreads out into a broad expanse or ‘liquid plain’ rather than remaining contained in a pool or pond. This open prospect adumbrates the way that Eve herself will not ultimately remain self-enclosed” (Green 909).
Green makes this point to show that although the connection cannot be denied between the two characters, there is a difference in both stories; especially in their outcomes, where Eve finds love and fulfilment in Adam, Narcissus does not. Mandy Green’s essay was not the only one to find the differences and similarities in the stories of Narcissus and Eve; Julia Walker does the same thing. Walker’s essay titled, “From Eve: The First Reflection” talks about gender in Eden, the comparison between Eve and Narcissus and how Eve yeilded to both Adam and God.
Although her whole essay is interesting, the talk about Eve and Narcissus makes the reader realize the connections and think about the actual differences between them. Walker talks in the same way Green does by saying Eve’s interaction with herself at the lake is similar to Narcissus’s interaction with himself in the pool of water. She says Eve’s reaction is that she “identifies pleasure and admiration (this she does recognize) when she describes this Other as being pleased” (Teskey 517-518). This “Other” mentioned in Walker’s essay is Eve’s reflection that she sees.
She continues to say that, “Eve, like Narcissus, is unknowingly, ‘unwittingly’ self-absorbed” (Teskey 518). Walker mentions that both characters are told by a voice to be careful of vainity, but the difference is that Narcissus recognizes that he is gazing at himself unlike Eve. Walker says that Eve is “soon told by the voice of God, but is never allowed to see the image while knowing that she gazes at herself” (Teskey 518). She says that Narcissus’s story is much less judgemental of the character; unlike commonly thought, the idea of vanity and self-absorption being much more prominent in Eve’s story.
Walker explains that “Ovid’s narrator express[es] regret at the youth’s initial inability to regognize himself and pity at his subsequent grief. In Ovid’s narrative we find no hint of self-gratification- quite the reverse” (Teskey 518-519). Walker’s analysis of Narcissus and Eve looks at both the similarities (like the Green essay looked at) as well as the differences in the connection between the two. The final essay I looked at really got into some interesting differences and non-formalist ideas.
Maggie Kilgour’s essay, “‘Thy perfect image viewing’: Poetic Creation and Ovid’s Narcissus in Paradise Lost” is about Ovid’s story of Narcissus and how that can be seen in both creation stories of Adam and Eve. Her analysis includes much more talk about God than the other sources. Kilgour’s connections between Narcissus and Adam is not ever thought about, but with her explanations, it seems to make sense. Kilgour starts by talking about Eve’s story in book 4 of Paradise Lost and how “the Ovidian subtext.. is thus still most often read through allegorical interpretations of Ovid that identify narcissus with pride and self-love” (Kilgour 311).
This goes back to Walker’s essay and how the ideas of self-love are automatically associated with Narcissus, when in fact there is not as much present as in Eve’s story. Kilgour says: For obvious reasons, the story told in book 4 is usually read as being all about Eve: broadly, either it exposes her inherent and fatal narcissism or it shows her development from a stage of innocent self-love into a relationship with Adam (a process that can be read either positively, as a turn from destructive self-absorption, or negatively, as indoctrination into patriarchal oppression) (Kilgour 332).
Here Kilgour explains that the idea of narcissism with Eve is evident and affects the relationship growth with Adam. Kilgour also discusses when Eve first sees herself in the water; she states that “according to Eve, her first experience is what appears to be narcissistic self-knowledge and infatuation with her own image” (Kilgour 333). Looking at the actual text of Paradise Lost, the reader can gather that Eve is infatuated with her image, until she is warned by God of vainity. When Eve does follow the voice into Paradise, she sees Adam.
Kilgour’s ideas of a narcissistic Adam are quite intreguing. Kilgour mentions another critic, Heather James, who says “‘Milton and his God officially transfer narcissism from Eve to Adam, who apparently legitimates the human love of one’s own image because he imitates God’s narcissistic relation to his son’” (Kilgour 334). Adam becomes narcissistic because he falls in love with an image of himself, Eve. This change of who is Narcissus in Paradise Lost is probably the most interesting point made in all of Kilgour’s piece.
She goes on to say that “the verbal echo that now identifies Adam with Narcissus suggests also how Milton is dividing Narcissus’s story, like Adam himself, in half, giving parts of it to both partners” (Kilgour 335). Maggie Kilgour takes the story of Narcissus and introduces it with Eve’s story intertwined like both Green and Walker do, but she then expands past the text and defends how Adam becomes the Narcissus character. All three sources take Milton and Ovid’s stories and combine them, and while reading, I had done the same thing.
The fact that each essay somehow compares to each other and yet still has differences makes me think beyond what I read and think about other comparisons that can be made; like Kilgour did with Adam and Narcissus. At first, I was not completely sold on her idea, but then while thinking back through the poem, I found that it does in fact make sense. Adam falls in love with Eve, who is an image of himself. Does that mean he falls in love with himself? I believe this could be so. Then again, thinking deeper into that question, God created Adam as an image of himself.
Does that mean God is narcissistic as well? If a reader were to follow the line of creation backwards, Eve really is the least narcissistic of them all. She sees her reflection in the lake and likes what she sees, however she does not create another image of herself as God and Adam both did to make themselves happy. Thinking beyond the text in this way really makes the Narcissus story seem less prevelant. However, with all this said, the connection between both Narcissus and Eve is inevitable because of the simple fact that they both fell in love with their reflections.