The Traditions in English


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Wrestling With Eve


Early feminist polemics had to take up the problem of Eve; after all, the first woman was curious, gullible to temptation, responsible for our expulsion from Eden, and the cause of mortality and original sin. Accounting for our earliest foremother has long fascinated women writers. Written during the Renaissance, Aemilia Lanyer’s “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women” (NALW1 85)is perhaps our earliest feminist polemic. Interestingly, Lanyer ostensibly issues an “apology” from Eve that is simultaneously a “defense of women.” The speaker of the poem, Pilate’s wife, whose dream warned her husband not to condemn the innocent Jesus, takes up the defense of Eve, arguing she has historically gotten a bad rap:

And makes our former fault much less appear;
Our mother Eve, who tasted of the tree,
Giving to Adam what she held most dear,
Was simply good, and had no power to see,
The after-coming harm did not appear:
     The subtle serpent that our sex betrayed
     Before our fall so sure a plot had laid (18–24)

Rachel Speght’s 1617 A Muzzle for Melastomus (NALW1 110) also seeks to reclaim Eve. In it, Speght uses deft logic to undermine the argument of misogynist Joseph Swetnam. Speght takes pains to situate Eve as Adam’s partner, not his subordinate, since she was created from his rib:

. . . the material cause, or matter whereof woman was made, was of a refined mould, if I may so speak: for man was created of the dust of the earth, but woman was made of a part of man, after that he was a living soul: yet was she not produced from Adam’s foot, to be his too low inferior; nor from his head to be his superior, but from his side, near his heart, to be his equal. . . . (117).

In the eighteenth century, Mary Astell doesn’t take as revolutionary a position on Eve as Lanyer or Speght do, yet she employs the traditional view of Eve in a subversive way. In imagining a sort of protestant convent in her A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (NALW1 263), Astell implicitly references Eve when she writes, “Here are no serpents to deceive you, whilst you entertain your selves in these delicious gardens” (264), arguing that by living cloistered lives of learning, women will avoid the temptations to which Eve succumbed.

In one of her earliest poems [see Contexts section], Emily Dickinson takes a playful tone in the following stanza, offering herself as an alternative to Eve:

Put down the apple, Adam,
    And come away with me,
So shalt thou have a pippin
From off my father’s tree!

Dickinson was a religious sceptic, unlike her Victorian counterpart across the ocean. In her poem “Eve” (NALW1 1101), the devout religious renunciative poet Christina Rossetti also took up the problem of Eve. Given Rossetti’s religious tenor, it is perhaps unsurprising that her take on Eve is more conventional than the revolutionary reclaiming of earlier writers like Lanyer and Speght. Rossetti chooses to imagine Eve’s grief and guilt after her son Cain kills his brother Abel:

“I, Eve, sad mother
Of all who must live,
I, not another,
Plucked bitterest fruit to give
My friend, husband, lover;—
O wanton eyes run over;
Who but I should grieve?—
Cain hath slain his brother:
Of all who must die mother,
Miserable Eve!” (26–35)

At the turn of the century, the American poet Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt was often compared to Victorian poets such as Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yet her poem “The Coming of Eve” (NALW1 1182) is powerfully revisionist compared to Rossetti’s more regretful take. Piatt squarely puts the blame on Adam. When he falls asleep and God makes Eve from his rib, Eve beckons Adam to “command” her (21), to which he replies “I want yon Apple, Fairest!” (24). Aside from casting the temptation as Adam’s, Piatt reads the expulsion from Eden as a blessing:

Then, lo! the seraph’s sword of fire above them!—
And lo! all Eden blackened at their feet!
With none on earth and none in Heaven to love them,
Save one another, life at once grew sweet! . . . (25–28).

Contemporary women writers have been just as concerned with reclaiming Eve as early women writers were. Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay re-imagines “Eve” as a contemporary woman relishing in the taste of the apple (NALW2 595), while British poet Stevie Smith laments the curse of pain in childbirth that Eve’s sin invoked in her poem “How Cruel is the Story of Eve” (NALW2 585). The speaker suggests that Genesis is the root of Patriarchy, arguing of Adam:

He must make woman lower then
So he can be higher then.
Oh what cruelty,
In history what misery . . . .
It is only a legend

You say? But what
Is the meaning of the legend
If not
To give blame to women most
And most punishment? (24–27,39–44).

Smith articulates the crux of the issue, making a case for why through the centuries women writers have had to wrestle with the legacy of our first ancestor.

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