John Milton's Paradise Lost Essay: Allegory of Sin and Death

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Allegory of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost That Milton's Paradise Lost is unsurpassed--and hardly equaled--in English literature is generally accepted by critics and scholars. Whether it may have serious flaws, however, and what they may be, is less certain, for it is here that opinion varies. Of particular interest to some is the allegory of Sin and Death (II. 648-883). Robert C. Fox wonders that it has not been the subject of much more critical discussion, asking "Is it that Milton's readers are puzzled by this episode and, unable to explain its significance, prefer to pass it over in silence? Or do they regard it as so obvious in meaning that no interpretive remarks are necessary?" ("The Allegory" 354). Whatever the answer to Fox's query, his point is well taken; in a survey of the bibliography of the Modern Language Association from 1950-1980, fewer than twenty references specifically devoted to this allegory can be located, and many of these, rather than pursuing the question of its appropriateness and/or its importance within the total work, simply investigate its tradition and sources. Merritt Y. Hughes, in referring to those scholars who have commented on the allegory, writes that "for two centuries critics agreed that the step into pure allegory in Sin and Death was a blemish on the poem and an external incrustation. Recently they have been wondering whether it is not a part of the structural irony of the whole design" (177). It is this latter view on which this paper focuses; the allegory is indeed an integral part of the whole of Paradise Lost, not an error of judgment on Milton's part, as some critics believe. It is defensible on two levels, both in terms of structure and in terms of content. Since it is the presence of allegorical figures--abstractions--in the epic to which some critics object, it is necessary here to discuss both allegory and epic form. Allegory, according to William Flint Thrall and Addison Hibbard, is defined as "an extended metaphor in which objects and persons in a narrative . . . are equated with meanings that lie outside [it]," uses characters that "are usually personifications of abstract qualities, the action and the setting representative of the relationships among these abstractions. Allegory attempts to evoke a dual interest, one in the events, characters, and setting presented, and the other in the ideas they are intended to convey or the significance they bear" (7-8).
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