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Sympathy for the Devil: An Analysis of Satan in Paradise Lost

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"Paradise Lost" by John Milton

"Paradise Lost" by John Milton

Devoid of Hope

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is a major figure in the narrative. The poem’s intense focus on his temperament presents a psychological profile of someone with a conflictive personality. Among his fellow fallen angels, he is a rebellious leader with no regrets, but in private his deeper thoughts come forth. As revealed in Paradise Lost, the true Satan is a sad, miserable creature devoid of hope.

Satan is the most complex emotional character in "Paradise Lost."

Satan is the most complex emotional character in "Paradise Lost."

Analysis of the Devil

Throughout, how Satan behaves in front of fellow demons or angels is not the same as when he is alone. Satan appears more confident in himself when others are before him. In Book II, before the demonic council, the poem reads “and by success untaught/His proud imaginations thus displayed” (2.1-10). The word “untaught” has a meaning of not trained by teaching, while “imaginations” in this context means scheme or plot, though there is a pun on the additional meaning of imagination which is the ability of the mind to be creative. Satan is being congratulatory towards himself in front of his fellow demons because he is devising his schemes by his own “imagination” and not through teaching. The meaning of “displayed” is to make a prominent exhibition of something in a place where it can be easily seen. By exhibiting himself in a certain manner and then bolstering it later, Satan is acting superior.

Compare this attitude to Book IV: when alone in the Garden of Eden, Satan says to himself “O had his powerful destiny ordained” (4.58). In this line, Satan is beginning to question himself as a strong rebel. The one he is referring to is God himself, and he is acknowledging several things about God. One is that he is “powerful,” which means having great strength. Powerful is connected to “destiny,” meaning the hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future; fate. The last word of the verse, “ordained,” means to order or decrease something. Satan is acknowledging God’s power to include the ability to control the life and path of individuals, which includes Satan himself. By Satan using the word “ordained,” there is an implication of holy hierarchy, with God having the ability to ordain all. This one line, with the use of these particular words, indicates that Satan is conscious of the supremacy of God.

An additional verse in which Satan recognizes God’s superiority reads: "boasting I could subdue/The omnipotent. Ay me, they little know/How dearly I abide that boast so vain/Under what torment inwardly I groan” (4.85-88). “Boast” is used twice as part of a reiteration; the word means to glorify oneself in speech. Satan here is referring to his words and actions in both Books I and II. The word “omnipotent” means having unlimited power or ability to do anything and refers to God himself. Much like in line 4.58, Satan is once again acknowledging that God is powerful, and with the use of “omnipotent”, he sees God as someone who can and will do anything. In short, Satan accepts that God is infinitely stronger than himself.

The next word after omnipotent is “ay” which means, when used before “me,” to express distress or regret. Satan is explicitly indicating a form of regret, but to understand fully that regret requires further examination of the verse. Continuing with the verse, “they” refers to his fellow demons. Satan is saying that the demons are lacking some fundamental knowledge or information (“little know”). The next verse continues with the word “How,” and combining it with the previous three words, creates a spoken line that seems disjointed. A more common way to phrase these words would be ‘how little do they know.” The phrasing thus illustrates disjointed thought exemplifying Satan’s emotional state of mind.

The meaning of “abide,” which means to tolerate or put up with, also means to submit to. Satan is “abiding” the “boasting” he did in front of his fellow demons. With this use of “abide,” there is an indication that the boasting was not sincere and almost forced upon himself. Submitting to this action is conflicting for Satan, as indicated by the disjointed words “they little know how,” and the use of the words of regret “Ay me.” The reason for this regret and negative emotion touches upon his use of “vain.”

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The definition of “vain” is that of something lacking substance or worth. This emotional response stems from the fact that Satan’s pride and boasting were lacking any real worth, since his plan to try to subdue God is also lacking substance. What the demons do not know is that Satan’s boasting was done in vain because he doubts he can overcome God, who is far stronger. Additionally, the definition of the adverb “dearly” becomes clear, which is to mean at great cost. The boasting he did had a great cost to him emotionally because he knew that in the end, he could not compete with God, yet he had to hide that fact from his fellow demons. The vanity of his boasting steams from a paradox: he claims he can subdue, yet he knows he cannot. While his fellow demons are not aware of this fact, Satan is aware. This causes him distress, but he can only express it when he is alone.

The verse continues, showing Satan’s further emotional conflict. The meaning of “torment” is severe physical or mental suffering. “Under” has a meaning of extending or directly below something. Here is a double meaning for Hell, since after the War in Heaven, Satan has been physically tormented after being cast into Hell. In terms of Biblical text, the Bible uses the word “torment” in reference to Hell in Revelations 14:10: “and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels” and in Luke 16:23 “And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments.” In Luke 16, a rich man tormented in Hell is looking up at those not being tormented. Here is an indication of being “under” Heaven or Paradise. “Under torment” has a double meaning of both physical torment in Hell and of mental anguish resulting from his vain boasting.

Continuing with the verse, “inwardly” is an adverb meaning within private thoughts or feelings. All these emotions of doubt and pain the Devil hides from his fellow demons; however since he is alone in the Garden of Eden, he expresses this pain. Satan continues to express his pain with the word “groan,” which means a prolonged dull cry expressive of agony, pain, or disapproval. All of these feelings and emotions he hides from the others, and it all stems from his knowledge he is unable to subdue God, yet still lies about it.

“Better to reign in hell than to serve in Heaven” (1.263) are famous words uttered by an insubordinate Satan soon after his fall. The definition of “reign” is a noun meaning having dominance, while the word “better” is to be more advantageous or favorable. At this moment, Satan is telling the demons that Hell is a much better place than Heaven. The logic comes from the word “serve,” which means to perform duties or services for another. In Hell, the demons can be “kings,” but in Heaven, they are servants of other kings (God and His Son). Additionally, “serve” can also refer to prison, and that can mean Heaven is a prison and that Hell is true freedom. Satan is trying to convince his fellow fallen angels that they will be happier in Hell.

A Pathetic and Tragic Character

In private, Satan spins a different tale. After acknowledging God’s power in line 4.58, he continues: “Me some inferior angel, I had stood/Then happy.” “Inferior” means of lower rank and status; an “angel” is a being believed to act as an attendant, agent, or messenger of God. God has power over Satan, not vice versa, which makes the boasting in 4.87 even more false. When God created him as an inferior angel, he stood before God happy, which means feeling or showing pleasure or contentment. As an angel, he was serving God and was happy doing so. When he tells his fellow demons that it is better to be in Hell, he is once again fooling them. Much like boasting about subduing God, Satan’s saying it's better in Hell is also in vain. He knows that when in Heaven, he was happier than now. His unhappiness and pain in his present state he further reiterates in lines 4.73 (“Me miserable”), 4.78 (“To which the hell I suffer”), and 4.91-92 (“only supreme/In misery”).

The reasons for Satan’s two-faced attitude are explained in lines 4.82-83: “my dread of shame/Among the spirits beneath.” Satan is feeling dread, which means great fear or apprehension. The definition of “shame” is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. Satan is acting one way “Among the spirits beneath” (his fellow fallen angels) because he fears what they will think of him if he concedes his actions were shameful and foolish—that everything he did is wrong and foolish. He knows he cannot subdue God and that he (and assumedly his fellow demons) was happier in Heaven. All of their efforts are now in vain, and Satan knows this. He cannot admit to the demons that they have been defeated and that their actions were wrong.

Another feeling Satan admits to is hopelessness. Line 4.108 says: “So farewell hope.” The meaning of “farewell” is a parting salutation. In addition, “hope” means a wish or desire accompanied by a confident expectation of its fulfillment. Satan is now parting ways with hope since any wishes or desires have no chance of fulfillment. Satan has no hope to subdue God and/or regain entry into Heaven, something he internally knows and admits only to himself. It is part of the shame Satan felt dread to say to his fellow demons. The situation is hopeless, and Satan in this line is woefully accepting of the condition.

The examples from verses from Book II when compared to verses of Book IV showcase a devil with two sides. When in front of his demons, he is prideful and confident, but when he is alone, his true feelings come out. He knows he will never be happy now—or ever again—since he can never overtake God. He knows he is a weaker angel and that, despite being weaker and a servant, he was happier before. His inward pain of dread and hopelessness creates a sympathetic and tragic character.


Rubem on May 04, 2018:

I want to sell my soul

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