Table of contents
What is a Symbol?
Paradise Lost is rich in symbols. Words are just symbols that indicate something. Linguistically, everyone has common images in their minds regarding words. In literature when a writer tries to say something, the readers easily understand what the writer wants to say; however, sometimes a word may have more than one meaning; meaning thereby that there are certain words that symbolise something. For instance, a sea may be used as a symbol of wastness; it may also be used for mystery; therefore a symbol has more than its common meaning. Thus, a symbol suggests something else than the literal meaning. Use of symbols in a literary work is called symbolism.
Paradise Lost Symbols
John Milton was well aware of the use of the technique of symbolism. He portrays his knowledge of different fields of life in his book. In fact, it is a result of his hard work that he spent researching Greek myths, Latin phrases and reading ancient epic poems. In this article, we will go through the most famous symbols that John Milton uses in Paradise Lost. List of the most prominent symbols that exist in Paradise Lost is:
- Fall from Prosperity to Adversity
- Darkness in Heaven
- Freewill and Destiny as Symbols in Paradise Lost
- Forbidden Fruit
- Light and Hope
- Heaven and Hell as Symbols in Paradise Lost
Fall from Prosperity to Adversity
Paradise Lost is definitely a tragic story. If Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost we see he falls from prosperity to adversity as evident from his initial speeches; In the start of the book, the readers realise that once he was living a prosperous life but subsequently he fell directly into hell. He realises that he would no more enjoy the benefits of being the only dear one. Story is all about doing the sins. His speeches are evident that he was once the lord of heaven but now his expulsion is very bitter for him. Paradise Lost symbolises a story in which one cannot enjoy the Gods bounties if he does not abide by the laws and boundaries that He creates.
Similarly, Adam alongwith Eve was living the best life in Eden; the only boundary that was created from them was not to eat the forbidden fruit; however, said boundary was crossed, resultantly they were expelled from the heaven due to disobedience. It also symbolises that they fell from grace. Theme of Fall in Paradise Lost is a symbol that the poet uses to convey a message that one must abide by the laws of God else he should repent forever. Hence, the story is a symbol of falling from prosperity to adversity due to disobedience and it requires much hard work to get the bounties of God again.
In a nutshell, the poet uses this symbol to strengthen belief in God and not to be a disobedient person to be added in the list of those who get His anger forever.
Darkness in Hell
In the start of the poem, Satan is the one who is introduced to the readers first. He is in hell where there is darkness everywhere. Nothing was visible but darkness, says Milton. Darkness is a symbol that John Milton uses in his poem to show dark life of Satan. He would remain in darkness forever. No matter how much he tries he would never come out of that darkness. He sees a slight light in the darkness yet it is his wish that would never come true, hence, darkness in the hell and a little light of flames are symbols that John Milton uses in Paradise Lost accordingly.
Freewill and Destiny as Symbols in Paradise Lost
In the whole poem, the poet does not give his opinion about freewill; however, indirectly he uses symbols that force us to think that God gives everyone a freewill. It is our choice to do good and get good whereas to do bad and get bad in return. Satan is one of those characters who challenge the authority of the Almighty and then never get their position back. No doubt, he is morally strong and tries his best to regain his position but he remains unsuccessful in doing so. It was not his fate that caused his downfall but his own freewill.
Similarly, neither Adam nor Eve were destined to fall. Forbidden fruit was all that was banned for them but they deliberately ate it, hence, they also had a freewill. John Milton wants to portray that God gives humans a freewill from creation. Destiny is something that one should believe in but that is not all that one has in life. Freewill to do something good and changing the unfavourable circumstances in favour is another thing that one should do.
It is also noteworthy that the poet shows two types of freewill. On one hand, it is in the shape of Satan whereas on the other hand it is through Adam. Satan does not show any repentance but Adam repents of his sins. The poet wants to show that to do something good is always dependent on the will of the Almighty. If He does not allow you to do good; you can’t, John Milton portrays in Paradise Lost. Thus, free will comes second as the first one is the will of the Almighty.
It is one of the most important symbols of Paradise Lost that John Milton uses. Adam and Eve were free to eat anything but were forbidden to eat only one single fruit; however, they ate it. It symbolises the psyche of humans. It is also the nature of humans that they do the thing that is disallowed. A child is stopped time and again not to do something but he deliberately does the same. It means that it is natural to humans to experience the thing that is forbidden.
Forbidden fruit is also a symbol of trying something new. It is, therefore, Eve ate the fruit. It is also the nature of humans to explore something that they never witnessed. This nature of humans sometimes is beneficial whereas other times it is harmful; however, it is certainly there in humans and John Milton portrays the said psychological behaviour in his book through usage of technique of symbolism.
Light and Hope
Light and darkness are two major symbols in Paradise Lost. The light symbolises hope not only for Satan but also for other fallen angels. Satan sees very little light when he becomes conscious. There is less light and more darkness in hell, which directly symbolises his future. At the start of the poem, the readers should realise that John Milton through symbols describes Satan’s future when he talks about light and darkness.
There is also light in the life of Adam. Though he has been exiled from Eden yet there is hope for him in the shape of Christ. There is hope for him that he would come and help him regain his position. On many occasions the poet uses the words light and sometimes twilight in his book that symbolise hope and not certain hope respectively.
Heaven and Hell as Symbols in Paradise Lost
Story of the book revolves around heaven and hell. Adam is in heaven but Stan is in hell at the start of the poem. John Milton makes allusions from the Bible and also from ancient Greek literature. In the Bible, heaven is a place where a human would remain forever after his death in case he is a believer. If a person does not do good deeds or is a disbeliever, he would be thrown in hell where he would remain forever in the afterlife.
In Paradise Lost, Hell and Heaven are symbols of evil and good; wickedness and innocence; stubbornness and repentance; punishment and reward. It is also a matter of fact that both Adam and Satan want to regain their position in heaven. If any one of them regains his position in heaven, he wins. The story is all about getting the lost position back.
Both of these (heaven and hell) are symbols of reward and punishment in Paradise Lost. Heaven is a place which would be given for permanent residence in the afterlife as a reward. On the other hand, a person could also be thrown in hell as a punishment. In Paradise Lost, John Milton openly depicts this dogma. Thus, these are symbols in Paradise Lost accordingly.
Paradise Lost remained a matter of discussion between the critics due to symbolic words and images. A lot of symbols in the poem are deliberate contributions of the poet; however, critics also believe that some are unintentional. Nonetheless, It is very much astonishing that a poet uses such symbols in a poem when he himself is not aware of them. There are critics who say the opposite; they believe that the poet is well aware about every single symbol that he uses. Whatever may be the opinion of critics, it is a common agreement between them that Paradise Lost contains a lot of symbols.