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John Milton's Paradise Lost Summary, Themes, and Quotes

Madison Mateski, Ellie Green
  • Author
    Madison Mateski

    Madi Mateski has a Bachelor's in history education from Brigham Young University-Idaho and a Master's in English from Arizona State University. She taught 10th grade English for four years and now works as a writer and editor.

  • Instructor
    Ellie Green

    Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Explore John Milton's Paradise Lost. Learn the summary and analysis of the poem, identify its meaning and themes, and read popular John Milton quotes. Updated: 12/15/2021

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John Milton's Paradise Lost

John Milton was an English writer and politician who lived during tumultuous times. He observed the English Civil War, its violence, and the execution of tyrant King Charles I of England. He also knew of the vicious 30 Years' War and its impacts on a ravaged Holy Roman Empire. Some of his views were controversial, but his most lasting achievement was his epic poem Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost Background

Milton loved classical literature. His inspiration included The Odyssey by Homer and The Aeneid by Virgil, both epic poems. He mourned that no epic poem - or a poetic, 12-book story - had ever been originally written in English, so he decided to create his own.

Paradise Lost is an epic poem detailing the Christian creation story, with plot and thematic elements drawn from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Paradise Lost takes the basic framework from the Bible story and adds Milton's own interpretation in the form of detailed characters and plots. The story follows the rebellion of Satan, the creation of the world, and finally the fall of mankind.

Genesis from the Bible

An Image of Genesis From the Bible

First published in 1667, Paradise Lost gained fame quickly, and by the turn of the 18th century was considered a literary classic.

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  • 0:03 Introduction
  • 3:11 Plot Summary
  • 6:05 Examination of Themes
  • 8:09 Major Contradiction
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Paradise Lost Summary

Paradise Lost actually opens from Satan's perspective. Having just been cast out of Heaven for rebellion, Satan finds himself in a lake of fire, where he fumes over his defeat (Book I). He then gathers together all of his fellow fallen angels and they devise a plan. They will take their vengeance on God by tempting God's newest creation, mankind, to sin - and then God, who is the eternal judge, will have no choice but to also destroy his new beloved creation.

Satan convinces the other devils to let him be the one to leave Hell and travel to paradise to tempt mankind. On his way out of Hell, he meets Sin and Death, two personified characters (or characters who are the embodiment of an abstract idea). He learns that he is actually the creator of both - his rebellion yielded Sin, and his lust for sin yielded Death. Sin and Death agree to let him out of Hell if he allows them to feast on mankind after their fall (Book II).

As Satan approaches the earth, Milton shifts his narration to Heaven, where the reader observes God speaking with his Son (in Milton's version, the Son of God is a created angel adopted to be the Son of God; Milton was not a Trinitarian). Since Milton's character God is omnipotent, he can see everything in the past, the present, and the future. He knows that Satan will tempt mankind and decides to let him do so - but to prove his own glory, he will allow humanity an opportunity to repent, so that when humans die, they will enjoy paradise in Heaven instead of suffering in Hell. God asks for someone to volunteer to pay and die for the sins of mankind. The Son of God volunteers (Book III).

Satan, a shapeshifter, takes the form of an angel as he approaches earth. The brightness of the sun reminds him of the glory and happiness his rebellion lost him, and he rages about his punishment but also confesses that he feels no real remorse.

After he sneaks into the paradise designed for mankind, called The Garden of Eden, Satan observes Adam and Eve, the first humans. He learns that they are free to do whatever they please but have one commandment they must not disobey on punishment of death: They may not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan also listens to Eve describe the backstory of her creation from one of Adam's ribs and her temptation to love her own reflection more than Adam or God.

Adam and Eve were originally placed in a garden.

Adam and Eve were Originally Placed in a Garden

Before long, Satan is discovered and thrown from the Garden, but he continues to wander the earth, looking for a way back in (Book IV).

God sends Raphael to warn Adam of Satan's presence and intended deception. Raphael informs Adam of how Satan rallied a third of Heaven's angels to rebel against God, gathered an army, and attempted to take the throne of God. Satan nearly succeeded before God sent his Son to destroy the army. Terrified of the Son's wrath, the angels threw themselves out of Heaven and into Hell out of a desire to escape it (Books V and VI).

Raphael then describes the creation of the world. After the destruction of a third of Heaven's angels, God wanted a new creation. For six days he worked, designing the earth and the Garden of Eden before he created Adam out of dust and gave him a companion in Eve. When Raphael has finished his message, he leaves Adam and Eve alone with the command to resist Satan's upcoming temptation to eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree. (Books VII and VIII).

Satan finds a way back into the Garden and possesses a snake to keep from being discovered. As he prepares to tempt the humans, Adam and Eve begin to argue. Eve, seeking to explore, wants to garden separately from Adam, and Adam, fearful of temptation, wants to stick together. Eve insists on leaving but agrees to meet Adam at noon.

While Eve is gone, the serpent comes to her, flatters her, and brings her to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He convinces her that eating the fruit will make her powerful but will not kill her. After she has eaten, the serpent slinks away and Eve's nature falls. Whereas before she was innocent and loving, now her character is conniving and cruel. She determines to share the fruit with Adam so she will have a companion in death. When she meets with Adam, he agrees to eat the fruit because he does not want to be given a new Eve after her death. After they have eaten of the fruit, they fall asleep, wake up, and argue away the last of their time in the Garden (Book IX).

God sends his Son to the Garden to judge the humans. They initially try to cover their sin but eventually admit to having eaten the fruit. He doles out punishments for everyone involved. Satan will forever retain the form of a serpent; Eve will suffer terrible pain during childbirth; Adam will only be able to provide food for his family through intense labor.

Sin and Death make their way from Hell, where Satan meets them and announces his success to all the other demons. In the meantime, God explains that the Son will offer redemption for all mankind, but for now the world will be in a fallen state full of disease and suffering. Finally, Eve apologizes to Adam and the two decide to repent and seek reconciliation with God (Book X).

God accepts the prayers of Adam and Eve but declares they must still leave the Garden. An angel approaches the humans and delivers the news and shows Adam a vision of what will happen on Earth until the flood of Noah (Book XI).

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main theme of Paradise Lost by John Milton?

Paradise Lost has many themes: free will, obedience, revenge, and pride. The main theme Milton confronts in his writing is the question of free will or predestination, or whether or not humans make their own choices or whether they are fated.

Who is the real hero of Milton's Paradise Lost?

Some historians argue that Milton sympathized with Satan, since there are parallels between Milton's character God and the tyrant King Charles I of England, whom Milton argued should be executed. Other historians argue that Milton intended for Satan to be an unsympathetic character, since the poem assigned the blame for Satan's misery to his own character, and since Milton argued that the English people should accept the new government after the English Civil War.

What happens at the end of Paradise Lost?

At the end of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve fall from their perfect states and are forced to leave the Garden of Eden. They must find a way to create happiness and peace in a fallen world.

What is John Milton saying about man in Paradise Lost?

In Paradise Lost, Milton was arguing that mankind is inherently fallen due to the fall of Adam and Eve. Mankind will naturally choose evil over good if given the choice.

What is the meaning of John Milton's Paradise Lost?

The meaning of Milton's Paradise Lost changes depending on whether Milton ascribed to the doctrine of free will or the doctrine of predestination (God-given fate). If he believed in free will, the meaning of Paradise Lost is that humans cannot blame God for their poor choices. If Milton believed in predestination, the meaning of the poem is that no one can escape their God-assigned fate.

What is the main plot of Paradise Lost?

Paradise Lost follows the story of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The story describes the Christian creation story and mankind's fall.

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