Paradise Lost

What does it mean to be human? Why did God allow Adam and Eve to cause humanity’s fall? Why did Satan hate humanity so much? All of these questions and more are explored in the Christian epic that is Paradise Lost (1667).

Paradise Lost Paradise Lost

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Table of contents

    Paradise Lost: author

    Paradise Lost was written by English poet, civil servant, and philosopher John Milton. Born in 1608, Milton, the son of a composer, had received a middle-class education. He attended Cambridge between 1625 and 1629, during which time he composed Elegia Prima (1626), LAllegro (1645), and Il Penseroso (1645/6).

    Milton’s political writings on the church attracted widespread controversy. His attacks on the Church of England in works such as Of Reformation touching Church Discipline in England and Of Prelatical Episcopacy (1641) and The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty (1642) were particularly condemned at the time.

    Additionally controversial were Milton’s writings on divorce, which were thought to have been sparked by his first wife, Mary Powells, desertion. Between 1643 and 1645, Milton wrote four pamphlets, entitled The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Tetrachordon, and Colasterion, in which he advocated for the morality of divorce beyond the grounds of adultery, notably including spousal incompatibility. The backlash against these pamphlets provoked Milton to write Areopagitica (1644), which argued against the practice of censorship.

    Milton notably worked for Oliver Cromwell after the execution of King Charles I in 1649. During his political appointment under Cromwell’s government as Secretary for Foreign Tongues, Milton wrote many political works that defended the principles of Cromwell’s republicans. These included Eikonoklastes (1949), which defended the regicide of Charles I, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano (1652), and Defensio Secunda (1654).

    Following the restoration and coronation of King Charles II in 1660, Milton went into hiding. By this time, he was completely blind. Much of Paradise Lost was written during this time, although due to his blindness, Milton dictated the poem to his aides and daughter. Paradise Lost was published in 1667 and was followed by a sequel, Paradise Regained, in 1671.

    Paradise Lost: contexts

    Milton’s life was characterised by political and theocratic turbulence. These two factors certainly influence potential interpretations of Paradise Lost and may have informed Milton’s portrayal of allegorical characters such as God as the ‘true king’ of men and Satan as a rebellious rival.


    King Charles I (1600-1649) was a big believer in the divine right of Kings. He expressed this belief by placing strict controls on parliamentary power and practically dissolved parliament in 1629. The ensuing civil war gave rise to Oliver Cromwell (1599-1648) as the ruler of England’s Parliament, whom Milton supported politically. However, upon Cromwell’s death and the instalment of his far less competent son, King Charles II came out of exile and ascended to the throne.


    In his attacks on the Church of England, Milton was particularly disparaging about the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Together with Charles I, who was known to sympathise with Roman Catholics, Laud began to reform the Anglican church in line with ecclesiastical ideology by persecuting Puritans and non-ecclesiastical bishops. This greatly upset Milton, who was a Puritan.

    Ecclesiastical is a general term relating to the Church and its clergy as an institution.

    Puritanism is a branch of protestant Christianity, centred around an adherence to a strict moral code and living in accordance with scripture. Puritans were significantly more conservative and strict than average protestants.

    Paradise Lost: summary

    In this section, we will have a brief explanation of the books from volumes I-IV and followed by V-VIII.

    Books I-IV

    Milton’s narrator begins by invoking the ‘heavenly muse’ and states that his subject will be ‘man’s first disobedience.’ As with most epics, Paradise Lost begins in medias res, following Satan and the rest of the fallen angels in Hell in the aftermath of the battle of heaven, after their defeat by God’s army.

    Satan and his comrades establish Pandaemonium (Hell’s capital city) from minerals that they find in Hell. During their meeting, the fallen angels, now devils, discuss how they can win the war against God. Moloch, Belial, Mammon, and Beelzebub all argue for their own solutions and strategies. They conclude that the best way to do this is to corrupt God’s newest creation. This new creation is the newly created Earth and God’s children, humankind. However, such a task would involve travelling through the abyss (a boundless space between Hell and our universe) alone, a dangerous and arduous journey. Satan volunteers to undertake this task and leaves Hell.

    In medias res literally means in the middle of things’.

    At the edge of Hell, Satan meets Sin and Death. Sin is Satan’s daughter, born from his head when he first thought of disobeying God. She holds the keys to Hell. Death is the incestuous child of Sin and Satan, conceived prior to Satan’s fall (however, Satan seems to have no knowledge of any of these events).

    Satan wins over Sin and Death with his plan to corrupt Earth and mankind, and Sin gives him the keys to the gates of Hell. Satan leaves for the abyss and flies through Chaos and Night, an endless chasm filled with raw materials.

    Meanwhile, in Heaven, God talks of Satan’s plan to corrupt Earth and mankind. God foresees that Satan will be successful. However, God the Son (Jesus) offers himself as a sacrifice to save mankind.

    Satan enters earth by pretending to be a cherub, deceiving Uriel, who guards the entrance. He enters Paradise, observes Adam and Eve, and learns that they are forbidden from eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

    Meanwhile, Uriel goes to Gabriel and tells him of the cherub he let into Earth, as he suspects that it was one of the fallen angels. Gabriel sends his angels to search Paradise for an intruder. They find him and force him to transform into his true shape, and Satan nearly enters into battle with Gabriel. However, God halts the conflict.

    Books V-VIII

    Adam and Eve awaken. Eve reports that she has had strange dreams about a voice encouraging her to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. To ensure that the couple retain their free will, God sends Raphael to Earth in order to warn them about Satan. Raphael relays to Adam and Eve information about angels and the battle of Heaven.

    He explains that, some time ago, Satan was once the most powerful Angel to exist. However, he grew jealous when God announced that he now had a son. Following this, Satan rallied all of the angels that were loyal to him (around a third of all angels) to the North of Heaven, where he argued that they should be God’s equals and that they had been under an oppressive rule, with God’s new son doubling this insult.

    All of the angels agreed, except for Abdiel, who flew back to the side of God to warn him. God was aware of Satan’s disobedience but allowed the events to unfold in order to make an example of Satan. Satan and God’s armies clashed in Heaven. Satan’s army lost, and they were cast down to Hell after falling for nine days.

    Raphael explains that he is telling Adam this to warn him of the consequences of disobeying God. Raphael then tells Adam the story of creation and explains how Adam came into being. Adam asks about space, the Universe, and particularly about our own Solar system, but Raphael does not know the answers to all of these questions. Raphael also says that Adam is not entitled to know everything about the material world that God has made and that he would do well to not seek to gain knowledge that God is not willing to reveal.

    Adam thanks Raphael for sharing what he knows and then tells the story of his own creation, including his first meeting with Eve. After warning Adam to not see Eve as his superior in anything but beauty, Raphael leaves.

    Books IX-XII

    The story resumes its focus on Satan, who is examining the inhabitants of Eden and takes some particular inspiration from a snake that he comes across. He takes on its form and lies in wait. Eve and Adam awake and decide to work separately rather than together like they usually do. Eve reveals that she wants to work separately from Adam in order to prove that she is independently able to resist any temptation from Satan.

    While Eve is gardening, Satan approaches her in his snake form and speaks to her. He says that he is able to speak, unlike the rest of the creatures of Eden, because he ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Satan leads Eve to the Tree of Knowledge and argues that God actually wants Eve to eat from it as an act of bravery. He says that, upon eating the fruit, Adam and Eve will both become God’s equals. Eve eats the fruit.

    Eve finds Adam and reveals what she has done. Adam is horrified but eats from the Tree of Knowledge as well, as he does not want to live without her. He and Eve go off to have sex, but after waking, realise that they have fallen. For the first time, they both feel intense shame and cover themselves with fig leaves to disguise their nakedness. They proceed to argue and blame each other for causing them to fall.

    God is aware that Adam and Eve have disobeyed him by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. He sends Jesus down to Earth in order to exercise his judgment. Jesus scolds Adam and Eve and curses serpents to crawl on their bellies for eternity as a punishment. Adam’s sentence is that all men will constantly farm the ground before returning to it. Eve’s sentence is that all women will suffer in childbirth and be subservient to their husbands.

    Sin and Death, sensing that Satan has successfully corrupted Earth, venture out of Hell and build a bridge connecting Hell to Earth. Under Satan’s instructions, they go to Earth and immediately begin to corrupt it further. Satan then returns to Pandaemonium and speaks of his victory. However, he finds that all of his armies have been turned into snakes. Satan himself is then turned into a dragon. Death begins to feast on the creatures of the Earth. God is aware of these events but says that he will allow Sin and Death to remain on Earth until Judgement Day.

    Back on Earth, Eve and Adam are miserable and continue to argue. Eve contemplates committing suicide. They both return to where they were first punished and beg for God’s forgiveness. Michael is sent down by God to expel the couple from Paradise but shows Adam the future of humanity up to Jesus’ sacrifice in order to bring him comfort. Eve and Adam leave Paradise.

    Paradise Lost: characters

    The main characters of Paradise Lost are:

    Satan: the primary character of Paradise Lost, Satan is the fallen angel Lucifer who led a rebellion against God. He exists as a foil to the Son of God.

    Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n (Satan, Book 1).

    Adam: the first human and husband of Eve, Adam was created in God’s image.

    Eve: the first woman, created from Adam’s rib. She is described by Milton as more beautiful than any Greek Goddess.

    God (the father): the ruler of Heaven, Earth, and the known Universe. God sees everything, past, present, and future and is aware of all events that occur during the epic.

    God (the son): also referred to as Jesus (though he had not been given this name at the time of the events of Paradise Lost), the Son is a part of God and sits at God’s right side in Heaven. He volunteers to save humanity following the fall of man.

    Paradise Lost: analysis

    Now we will analyse the literary style and devices used in 'Paradise Lost'.

    Greek epic

    Milton styles his poem as a long-form epic, with much of the work making reference to Greek mythology. In this sense, Milton uses and reshapes the classical tradition in order to tell a distinctly Christian story. A particularly telling stylistic device is that Milton calls upon the Holy Spirit as his muse to help him tell the story of the book Genesis from the Bible at the beginning of Book I, in the same way that Greek poets call upon muses to help them tell their stories. Later on in the poem, he also calls upon Urania, the Greek Muse of Astronomy.

    Milton uses Greek mythology as a comparison to Satans own journey. Can you figure out which legends hes referring to in the following quotes?

    Pursuing drive them out from God and bliss,

    Into their place of punishment, the Gulf

    Of TARTARUS, which ready opens wide

    His fiery CHAOS to receive their fall.

    (Paradise Lost, Book VI, ll. 52-55)

    Into the wilde expanse, and through the shock

    Of fighting Elements, on all sides round

    Environ’d wins his way; harder beset

    And more endanger’d, then when ARGO pass’d

    Through BOSPORUS betwixt the justling Rocks.

    (Paradise Lost, Book II, ll. 1014-18)

    Extended metaphor

    It is a popular opinion held by many critics that Paradise Lost is a political allegory. While this is not the only way to interpret the poem, it is true that much of Milton’s frustrations regarding the fall of Cromwell’s government and his problems with the church are reflected in his work. If we take this allegory to be true, Satan’s Hell could theoretically represent Cromwell’s republican government rebellion against the oppressive rule of the ultimate Kingdom, Heaven. Satan’s own speeches against God are incredibly stirring, and many a reader of Paradise Lost may find themselves agreeing with him.

    How has Paradise Lost influenced literature?

    Paradise Lost has inspired many great modern works of literature. Milton’s ideas about God, Sin, the material world, and the universe are fascinating and contain a lot of relevant debate. It is no wonder that Paradise Lost has subsequently inspired works such as the His Dark Materials series (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman and Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley.

    Paradise Lost - Key takeaways

    • The main story of Paradise Lost concerns the fall of man and the original sin of Adam and Eve, originally catalogued in the book of Genesis in the Bible.

    • Paradise Lost tracks Satan as he resolves to corrupt Earth and tells much of the story from his point of view. The main story also catalogues the Battle of Heaven, which occurs before Genesis.

    • Paradise Lost was written by John Milton between 1658 and 1664.

    • It is known as the first ‘English epic due to it departing from the traditionally preferred Latin language, in which all previous epics were written. It shares much of its features with classical antiquity, which Milton employs to enhance his telling of a Christian tale.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Paradise Lost

    What is the main story of ‘Paradise Lost’?

    The main story of ‘Paradise Lost’ concerns the fall of man and the original sin of Adam and Eve, originally recorded in the book of Genesis. It tracks Satan as he resolves to corrupt Earth, and tells much of the story from his point of view. The main story also catalogues the Battle of Heaven, which occurs before Genesis. Aside from Satan’s journey, the story of ‘Paradise Lost’ also takes on the point of views of God, Eve, and Adam before the fall of man.

    Why is ‘Paradise Lost’ so famous?

    ‘Paradise Lost’ is famous for three reasons:

    1. It is an ‘English epic’. Before ‘Paradise Lost’, all epics were in Greek or Latin. Milton sought to pen a distinctly English epic as a unifying cultural staple, which is why he chose to use English instead of Latin (which was seen as the more academically prestigious language at the time).

    2. It is well written. Although it may not be particularly palatable by modern standards, Milton wrote this entire poem whilst blind and in exile. Despite this, the poem is a work of art in terms of its skilful use of sound and language. It not only reads well, it sounds beautiful.

    3. It has inspired many great modern works of literature. Milton’s ideas about God, Sin, the material world, and the universe are fascinating and contain a lot of relevant debate. It is no wonder that ‘Paradise Lost’ has subsequently inspired works such as the His Dark Materials series (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman and Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley.

    When was ‘Paradise Lost’ written?

    ‘Paradise Lost’ was written between 1658 and 1664. This was during the time that Milton was in political exile due to the death of Oliver Cromwell and the downfall of the Protectorate (Cromwell’s government).

    Who wrote ‘Paradise Lost’?

    ‘Paradise Lost’ was written by John Milton.

    What is the most famous line from ‘Paradise Lost’?

    The most famous quote from ‘Paradise Lost’ is attributed to Satan: ‘Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n’.

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