Classic Remarks: Is Paradise Lost’s Satan a Sympathetic Character?

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. We look forward to seeing your responses!

Do you think Satan from Paradise Lost is at all a sympathetic character?

Paradise Lost

Whenever I see someone comment that Paradise Lost‘s Satan is a sympathetic character, I think they must be referencing the fact that Satan is given interiority in the text, that readers are presented with the rationale Satan uses when he decides rebelling against God is a good idea–justified, right.  After the invocation, the poem opens with a scene of Satan in Hell, rousing the fallen angels who followed him, and promising them great things and a chance to regain Heaven.  He explains that he is powerful too and that to repent now that he is banished would be a disgrace:

“To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power,
Who from the terror of this arm so late
Doubted his empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall” (111-116)

Satan can make moving speeches when he wants to, though he often appeals to negative emotions like hatred.  Readers, to some extent, get to see things from Satan’s perspective, and perhaps that is what some people refer to as “sympathetic.”  However, it’s clear that readers are not actually supposed to be on the side of Satan or think him in any real way wronged by God.  Readers are shown the steps of reasoning that Satan took to make his choices; they are not supposed to ultimately agree with him that they were good choices.

The opening invocation asks: “Who first seduced them [humans] to that foul revolt?” and answers “Th’ infernal serpent; he it was, whose guile / Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived / The mother of mankind” (31-35). These are harsh, judgmental words, and they set the tone for how the narrator and God Himself speak of Satan throughout the text.  Satan is a deceiver, full of pride, sinful.  There’s no “trick” in the text here.  Readers are not supposed to consider the narrator unreliable or question whether God is right.  It is sometimes difficult for modern readers to take religious texts as seriously as the authors and contemporary audience did, but the veracity of God is taken for granted in this text.  Satan is given motivations in the poem, but he is not exonerated from his transgressions because of them.  I don’t think he is a sympathetic character.

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7 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Is Paradise Lost’s Satan a Sympathetic Character?

  1. Sarah J. says:

    I think it’s harder for people who aren’t religious to really get certain religious pieces. The fact that this is even being debated is shows how far society has come from understanding God. I’m currently reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and I wonder if people consider those demons to be sympathetic in trying to keep people from converting to the other side. When I wasn’t a Christian I may have felt the same, but even then I have always believed that Lucifer or Satan is someone who manipulates the situation to seem as though he is the victim. I would even given so far as to say that Satan is succeeding in getting to people if people come to the conclusion that he is sympathetic.


    • Briana says:

      I think you may be right. Even though Satan has interiority in this story, the narrator is pretty clear in condemning him, and that makes sense if you know anything about Milton’s background or his motivations for writing the story. He was Christian and meant it to have a Christian message; it’s not an apology for the devil.

      I took a class on Milton in college, and the professor mentioned to me in office hours once that I was the only person in the class who had written my essays as if I were taking the religion in the story seriously, which was shocking to me. As I said, it’s clear Milton was operating under a Christian worldview when writing the story. If you’re going to interpret it, it makes sense to take that into account. You don’t have to believe in any of it yourself, but you should probably recognize that Milton did and that it’s fundamental to some of the choices he made while writing.


      • Krysta says:

        I always find it odd that even published scholars seem not to take religion seriously. I don’t know much about Milton, but you can find people arguing, for instance, that Marlowe’s demons in Doctor Fausus are psychological. It seems pretty clear to me that at least Marlowe’s audience would have taken demons to be real and been worried about temptation. And the first rule of reading is supposed to be to read sympathetically–you have to understand what the author is trying to say before your begin to critique or dismantle it. So why scholars would not take the religion seriously in a work like Milton’s is truly puzzling.


        • Briana says:

          Yeah, I can see the value in alternative interpretations and asking what if questions, but I think there should be some base level of recognition if someone is very obviously and pointedly trying to write about a particular religious worldview.


  2. Dennis says:

    In some sense Satan needs to be sympathetic. We as readers need to understand why there is evil in the world and how easy it is to fall into sin. It is the author’s job to undercut that by the end of the epic. It is similar to Dante in the inferno where he sees Francesca and Paolo adrift. It take a trip through Hell and up mount Purgatory to begin to understand why the two deserve to be punished. Purgatory’s extensive look at how love is perverted by the mind to affect sin. It’s been too long since I read Paradise Lost to remember all of the details, but I think Milton tries to undermine the adversary.


    • Krysta says:

      It’s interesting, however, than even when authors undercut evil, readers often remain highly sympathetic. I’ve seen a number of students who refuse to acknowledge that Paolo and Francesca are in hell for lust. They say that Dante is punishing people for “being in love” and that it’s unfair and that he recognizes his own undying love for Beatrice in their love for one another. Despite the fact that Dante-Pilgrim goes on a journey that specifically condemns his previous sympathy for their sinful lust and despite the fact that Dante-Poet put them in hell–because, of course, if he really thought they weren’t sinning they wouldn’t be punished by eternal damnation in his poem! He could have put them in paradise! But Dante seems to have made the characters so sympathetic and so powerful that his own attempts to demonstrate the need to recognize the true nature of sin are lost by many. Even artistic representations of Paolo and Francesca present them as beautiful lovers in a moving love story. Dante can try to undercut evil all day long, but he in a sense he undercut himself before he started.


      • Dennis says:

        I agree with you that the author’s often fail to undercut the attractiveness of evil. Part of it is that we live in a different culture. Dante’s worship of Empire doesn’t seem as viable today with modern Humanism and its elevation of the individual over society. Brianna’s acceptance of the Christian outlook as a starting point for criticism is laudable but usually lost to most. Blake refused to condemn Milton’s Satan and even suggested that Milton secretly favored Satan by making him more lively.
        I see the difference between Blake’s vision and Milton’s as being one of intentionality and rules. Milton seems to try to order the world and visions seen in moonlight are inferior to those in the sun. Blake is more like GB Shaw’s version of Hell in the Don Juan episode of Man and Superman. There Hell is an attitude. movement between Heaven and Hell is fluid, but attitude conforms one to the party atmosphere of Hell or the visionary drudgery of Heaven.

        Liked by 1 person

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