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...
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...n. 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.
# Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
# Ed. A.H. Abrams. New York. W.W Norton and Company, Inc 2000. 1817-2044.