Satan, as a character, has been satirized, mocked and made foolish in our modern world. John Milton, however, presents quite a different Satan from the devil-on-your-shoulder image people are used to seeing. In Paradise Lost, Milton draws on the Bible for his source of Satan?s character, thereby creating a horrifyingly corrupt Satan. Despite this portrayal, readers often find themselves sympathizing with Satan?s cause, and his determination, viewing him as a hero for his cause, as evidenced by his long, brave speeches. Later, however Satan?s speeches begin to show signs of regret, making the reader question their initial reaction to him. In the end the image of Satan is further skewed by his own incriminating speech. Thus, the speeches of Satan, which initially draw readers to be supportive of his plight, later reveal his truly destructive character, resulting in the reader disliking Satan more than if he initially presented himself as a coward.
Early on in Paradise Lost, Satan is found in conversation with his right hand man, Beelzebub, plotting another attack on Heaven. In this conversation, Satan establishes himself as a defender of freedom, a role that is attractive to readers. This is demonstrated in his speech in Book 1, where he says, describing Hell:
Here at least
We shall be free; th? Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav?n (1.258-263)Readers admire Satan?s independent attitude, that he feels he would rather be free and reign in Hell, than be under someone else?s authority in Heaven. This speech elevates Satan in the minds of readers to hero status, willing to defend what he believes in, even if it means suffering. His advocacy of freedom gains him reader support, which serves useful later in the poem when Milton uses this perception to highlight Satan?s destructive attitude. Milton is able to do this because it is always worse, and more shocking to see a liked individual reveal himself to be bad, than to always know a bad individual to be bad. Thus, the initial support that Satan gains from readers is designed to alienate him further when his evil side prevails.
As the character of Satan progresses, the reader becomes less willing to accept Satan?s goal of freedom of choice. This is largely due to Satan?s own words regarding his actions. In Book IV Satan is found reflecting on his actions, and wonders if he made the right decision in rebelling against God. He says:
how glorious once above thy sphere;
Till pride and worse ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav?n against Heav?n?s matchless King:
Ah Wherefore! he deserved no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided non, nor was his service hard (4.39-45)Looking back, Satan sees that his actions against God were not fully justified. He recalls how glorious things were, even calling God the ?matchless King?. He further decides that things were better than he thought, noting that the service was not bad, and that he probably owed service to God for creating him. After thinking about this, though, Satan attempts to justify his actions by saying ?O had his powerful destiny ordained/ Me some inferior angel, I had stood/ Then happy; no unbounded hope had raised/ Ambition?(4.58-61)?. Satan feels that it was his prominent position that forced him to become so ambitious, and that none of these feelings would have emerged if he had been a lesser angel.
This inner battle leads the reader to become slightly suspicious about Satan?s description of himself in earlier books, and their own interpretation of his earlier words. It becomes difficult to view Satan as a hero, when his own words call into doubt everything for which he stands. While Satan?s ultimate decision is to carry through with his plan, the reader is invited to look through this decision, and see the illogic in his decision.
In Book IX, the destructive side of Satan is finally revealed in full. It is this side of Satan, again seen through his own words, that corrects any leaning to the view that Satan is a hero. It is in this book that the true motives of Satan?s plan to corrupt man are finally revealed, and these motives are anything but heroic. He describes the hatred behind his plan, stealing any credibility he may have built up in readers. Satan?s hate, and passion for ruin is seen in his speech shortly before meeting Eve in the Garden. Here he says:
And the more I see
Pleasures bout me, so much more I feel
Torment within me, as from the hateful siege
Of contraries; all good to me becomes
Bane, and in Heav?n much worse would be my state.
But neither here seek I, no nor in Heav?n
To dwell, unless by mastering Heav?n Supreme;
Nor hope to be myself less miserable
By what I seek, but others to make such
As I, though thereby worse to me redound:(9.119-128)Any traits that may have allowed readers to view Satan as a hero, disappear in this speech. Here Satan says that, to him, all pleasure is hate, and that he?s not content anywhere. Most horrifyingly is Satan?s statement that his goal is not to make himself less miserable, but only to make others more miserable. These are not words of a hero. They are words of a wholly evil being, whose only goal is corruption and destruction. Satan?s goal of freedom of choice has been lost in his hate. This aspect of Satan serves as the final stage in a reader?s transition from viewing Satan as the brave leader of a just cause, to viewing him as a lowly coward.
Thus, when the character of Satan is traced through its evolution of Paradise Lost, the reason behind the order of development can be seen. Milton?s desire to create a strong hatred of Satan is achieved best by highlighting Satan?s good points first. Then, when Satan?s real character begins to emerge, the reader is appalled at the actions of their ?hero?, causing them to dislike him more than had he originally been a bad character. The reader?s distaste for Satan is strengthened by Satan?s shift in motives. The conquering of humans, which he originally presented as a rebellion against God and his authoritative rule, later came to be about pure corruption and hate. It?s therefore possible to say that if Satan had never given up on his original reasoning, he would still be the hero of Paradise Lost.
Works CitedMilton, John. ?Paradise Lost.? The Norton Anthology of English Literature.