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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The Promise by Chaim Potok


Goodreads: The Promise
Series: The Chosen #2
Source: Purchased
Published: 1969


Reuven Malter’s world is changing.  The neighborhood is filled with men and women who escaped from the concentration camps.  His best friend Danny Saunders has chosen not to become a rabbi like his father but to pursue a career as a psychologist.  And Reuven is struggling in school to gain recognition for his abilities.  Then his life becomes entwined with that of Michael, a teenage boy trapped by his own fear and rage.  Can Reuven and Danny help Michael escape?


Chaim Potok always writes a memorable story.  Perhaps it is no surprise then that he manages to follow The Chosen with a book just as sensitive and raw.  Now that Reuven and Danny have grown, they are following their own paths.  The way is still difficult, however, and the past can never truly be forgotten.  As Danny struggles to save Michael, a teenage boy who suffers from a secret inner rage, he and Reuven may discover that they are not so very different from this boy.

Told through Reuven’s eyes, The Promise unfolds the story of Reuven’s neighborhood as it fills with men and women who escaped from the concentration camps.  Their experiences have removed them from him and their concerns and fears to him seem sometimes overbearing.  His new teacher, in particular, sees only one right one for a person to be a faithful Jew and a scholar of the Torah.  And Reuven who wishes to use a different methodology is faced with the choice of remaining true to himself and losing all the fruits of his hard work, or lying to graduate.

Danny meanwhile lives the tiring life of a grad student as he trains to become a psychologist.  The others secretly whisper he is a genius, but Danny fears to fail since he walked away from his old life to pursue this career.  If he cannot save Michael with his unorthodox treatment, it will mean that everything he did was in vain.

Their stories gracefully intertwine with that of Michael, the son of a scholar who hates all the academics who attack his father.  He is troubled and violent, but refuses to speak.  Danny knows what it is to live in silence.  Reuven knows what it is to wonder if you can hate your own father.  Together, the three of them must find a way out.

The Promise is a subtle book.  Its story is quiet and its narrator reserved.  But it is a work that will haunt you.

5 starsKrysta 64

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mark Musa


Goodreads: Purgatorio
Series: Divine Comedy #2
Source: Purchased
Published: 1985


Having emerged from hell to see the stars, Virgil and Dante continue on through purgatory.  There Dante witnesses the souls who delight in the punishments that purify them and allow them to see the face of God.


I have always been a little disappointed that most people only read Dante’s Inferno because I think the books increase in beauty as they go along.  Furthermore, only reading the Inferno gives some readers the impression that Dante delights in gore and in sending people to hell.  Maybe he does a little–Pope Boniface VIII sure receives no mercy from him–but Dante is also interested in divine justice, free will, charity, and the glory of God.  It’s hard to receive a well-rounded understanding of Dante’s understanding of these concepts when readers are stuck feeling miffed that Dante is being oh-so-judgmental and damning them for things many readers wouldn’t even call a sin these days.

Reading Purgatorio can help reveal more about Dante’s beliefs, however, as it shows souls guilty of the same sins for which some are burning in hell–but the souls here are on their way to heaven.  The difference?  These souls repented before they died.  The souls in hell knew they were committing a mortal sin and separating themselves from God, but they did not care.  They, in Dante’s view, chose their own destiny.  The souls in purgatory chose differently, allowing for what I think is the most beautiful moment in the trilogy–Manfred’s smile.

Manfred, you see, was an apparently utterly horrible person who killed a few family members during his lifetime as he sought to gain political power.  Most people wouldn’t expect to see him on his way to heaven and possible a good many people wouldn’t want to see him going to heaven.  But divine mercy knows no bounds and Manfred, who was excommunicated by the Church, tells Dante that “The church’s curse is not the final word,/ for Everlasting Love may still return,/ if hope reveals the slightest hint of green” (Purg. III.133-35). Talk about a powerful moment.

This moment also reveals another aspect that makes Dante so lively, so complicated, so perplexing, so alive.  Even though I have met some readers who have cast Dante as a curmudgeonly and apparently stupid (I know, I know) follower of the Church who can’t think for himself but blindly follows whatever the Church says, Dante is actually always questioning his own faith.  He’s grappling with the same problems readers are.  If these sinners are so sympathetic, why are they in hell?  If this guy was saved, why wasn’t the other guy?  How can it be that my favorite poet ever, Virgil, is stuck in Limbo just because he has the misfortune to be born before Christ?  Is any of this fair?  I don’t understand.  It’s true that Dante ultimately tends to confirm the wisdom of the Church, even if he doesn’t understand it and even if he doesn’t seem to like it, but he isn’t blindly content with it.  And he’s confident enough to believe he can question his faith and that, if it’s true, it will stand up to the test.

So cast aside your preconceptions of who Dante is and what he wrote.  The complexity, daring, beauty, and imagination of his work may surprise you.

5 starsKrysta 64

The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis


Goodreads: The Screwtape Letters
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 1949


This collection brings together a series of essays and lectures, addressing topics from the morality of pacifism to learning in wartime to forgiveness.


Despite the tendency of modern readers to declare the independence of the individual from outdated notions of sin, C. S. Lewis continues to speak to contemporary audiences.  Something about him seems to bring clarity to the subject, reminding his readers of the deep importance of grappling with questions of morality.  He makes big theological concerns seem close, dealing not with abstract notions of sin or illustrating his points with examples of sins his readers would ascribe to someone else, but instead reminding his readers that, yes, this book is about you.  This book is about all of us.

Part of his magic lies, I suspect, in his ability to illuminate how everyday actions shape individuals.  He does not cry out the usual exhortations to  obey the commandments.  Don’t murder people.  Don’t steal.  Don’t, don’t, don’t–all things that seem to be the sins of that guy down the street or that woman in the newspaper.  Instead he says, look.  Look at what you are doing everyday, and see how you are failing (but also how you might do better).

One of the essays in this collection, for example, focuses on the desire of individuals to belong.  Titled “The Inner Ring,” it reveals how that very ordinary wish to be “in,” to be recognized, to be not the person who is on the outside being made fun of, can lead individuals to make moral compromises.  You start out by doing something small because everyone else is and because you don’t want to be the uncouth individual who still believes no one takes bribes or no one sweeps things under the rug or no one refuses to speak ill of others.  And soon you are corrupted.  You have become part of the inner ring.  But at what cost?

Another essay, “On Forgiveness,” addresses the modern tendency to excuse sin.  Yes, I did wrong, but… He points out both the need to take responsibility for our own actions and to realize that when we forgive others, we do not have to excuse their actions.  Indeed, if the action were excusable, it would not need to be forgiven!  Again, his essays hits home.  Finding a way to forgive an injury is something everyone has had to grapple with.  The essays are not about all those other sinners you can think of, but about you, the reader.

Lewis’s ability to make theological questions seem continually relevant and timely, and of the utmost personal importance, is combined with a clear prose style that makes philosophy seem easy.  He writes clearly and provides plenty of analogy and illustrations, always writing for the lay person and not for the scholar, always writing with the assumption that his reader is not necessarily already Christian and possessed of all the theological background knowledge.  For accessibility and relevance, Lewis really can’t be topped.

4 starsKrysta 64

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley


Goodreads: Brave New World
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1932

Official Summary

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress…

Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.


Minor spoilers about the message of the book.

I first read Brave New World in high school, in conjunction with George Orwell’s 1984, at which time I concluded 1984 was much more horrifying and Brave New World was a bore. I hoped that this reread of Huxley’s classic dystopian novel would give me a fresh perspective on it, since I’m older and have some more literature studies under my belt. Unfortunately, while I can admit that the themes of Brave New World are thought-provoking and extremely relevant to today’s society (at least American society, with which I am most familiar personally), I still found the narrative itself flat.

1984 still scares me because I find the portrayal of the surveillance in the novel terrifying.  Rebellion against the established order is impossible because someone is always watching. There is no privacy; even in your own home you are not alone and cannot behave as you wish.  It’s appalling and stifling.  Brave New World doesn’t inspire that same  visceral horror in me , the feeling that makes me superficially declare 1984 a more moving book, because on the surface Huxley’s world is  much more innocuous.  In the end, that’s what should be really terrifying about the book--that it’s not scary, that some people would legitimate consider the world utopian rather than dystopian.

After all, the values of the Brave New World society are not so different from what we would consider left-wing viewpoints today (though of course I’m not saying every person who is left-wing agrees with all of these things or agrees with them to such extremes).  The society values recreational sex and promiscuity; sleeping with many people is good.  Parenthood or pregnancy is no longer an “inconvenience.” Abortion is on demand. So is euthanasia; when a person becomes too old to be useful to society, they’re put to sleep.  The government has legalized and subsidizes recreational drugs.  It also pays for birth control and sterilization.  Education and job training appear to be free, as well.

The major problem with all of this, of course, is that none of it is optional.  It’s not that you can have sex with everyone without judgment or get an abortion or spend your entire weekend high; it’s that you must. At least, I think that’s the problem many readers would initially see.  The problem, as the book presents it, is that many of these things this society values are not good at all.  The society, in the name of making everyone happy, has also made them complacent.  Life is flat.  There’s no purpose because there’s nothing to truly do, nothing to overcome.  Love, passion, sacrifice–none of these things exist, and life is emptier for it.  I can’t say I disagree with this.  Throughout history arguments have been made for the necessity of people experiencing at least some pain, at least some obstacles they can overcome.

However, the problem of writing about a world/life that is flat is that the story itself must also be somewhat flat, must also be bit about the pointlessness of it all.  None of the characters have ever been truly compelling to me, precisely because they don’t experience much opposition or shocks to their worldview and subsequently don’t experience much growth. There’s a message to that, too: the book takes the pessimistic view that no one really can grow.  They can feel they ought to, but too much of history and culture and freedom of choice has been destroyed for them to know how to.  That’s interesting philosophically, but it doesn’t necessarily make for an engaging plot or characterization.

So is Brave New World worth reading? Yes. It’s a staple in dystopian literature, and I think readers who want to know about the genre, or just be well-read in the classics, should add it to their list.  It’s referenced often enough in Western culture that having a working knowledge of it can be beneficial.  I think it’s also very eye-opening in terms of the things it posits as belonging in a dystopian world. But am I promising it will be the most exciting book you read this year? No, not really.

3 stars Briana

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney


Goodreads: Beowulf
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2000


Seamus Heaney offers a new translation of the classic Anglo-Saxon alliterative poems, which tells the tale of the hero Beowulf as he fights monsters from the murderous Grendel to the greedy dragon.


I’m no scholar of Old English, but perhaps this qualifies me to review this book as one of the general populace to whom it seems to be marketed.  Seamus Heaney here translates the famous Anglo-Saxon epic alliterative poem–famous now, that is, in large part thanks to Professor J. R. R. Tolkien, who argued we should view it as a work of art and not merely a text to be mined for historical details.  This translation became both a New York Times bestseller and the standard text offered in many an American classroom. So how good is the story really?  And the translation?

I have not tried to compare Heaney’s translation with the original Anglo-Saxon text, so I do not know myself how faithfully he translates or what kinds of changes he may have made and how they affect how we understand the text.  I do know, however, that his text is lively and vivid.  It invites the reader in to this epic journey and says, “Shh, listen.  A great tale is about to unfold.”

And a great tale it is.  “Anglo-Saxon epic poetry” may not immediately seem appealing to the average reader, but Beowulf is, in fact, an engrossing fantasy adventure.  It begins with the titular hero facing the monster Grendel, who creeps in a famed hall at night to kill the warriors sleeping there, then ends with a spectacular and doomed fight against a dragon.  Beowulf is, by the way, a super brave and strong and all-around amazing hero–and he is never going to let you forget it.  So intertwined with his epic fight are details both of all the other amazing feats he has performed, as well as tales of the feats other historical figures have performed.

These historical asides may sometimes lose the average reader.  Who are these Scandinavian figures and what are they doing in this story?  (And why is the great British poem about Scandinavian heroes, anyway?)  But they do ground the story in a larger narrative that makes the audience reflect on Beowulf and his place in society.  Though Beowulf triumphs against his first monsters, the specters of history and death are always behind him.  By the time the dragon comes, you know he is lost.

But losing cannot deter a great hero.  Beowulf will seek fame and glory wherever it may be since only fame keeps a pagan hero alive after death.  His final battle, abandoned by all but one faithful follower, is, for me, the emotional heart of this tale.  Doom comes to us all.  Beowulf perhaps faces it more boldly than most.

Though I’ve read Beowulf several times, it remains a powerful and moving story.  And the people who helped it make the New York Times bestseller list seem to agree.

5 starsKrysta 64

At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

At the Back of the North WindINFORMATION

Goodreads: At the Back of the North Wind
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1871


The poor son of a cabman, Diamond never dreams that the hole in the wall will allow the entrance of the North Wind–a being who appears to him as a beautiful lady and takes him on journeys across the globe as she goes about her appointed tasks.  But his lovely experiences become fewer as he grows and soon he must face the hardships of everyday life.  But one who has been at the back of the North Wind never can forget the beauty there, or the promise of joy to come.


George MacDonald’s classic fantasy contains elements of the sentimental, featuring a young protagonist (Diamond) who goes on a spiritual journey with the North Wind and returns refined–a pale-faced boy not of this world, who sings to his baby brother, cares for the poor girl who sweeps the street crossing, and inspires drunken men to reformation through his kindness and gentleness.  If ever there were a cult of the child, MacDonald seems to be one of its most fervent members.  And yet, somehow, MacDonald’s work never does seem to feel overly sentimental or moralizing or silly.  Instead, it seems to capture that beauty and that childlike wonder similar stories could not.

Much of the first half of the story engages with philosophical questions about the nature of evil–why does the North Wind, an agent of God, sometimes cause destruction?  Why does she appear as a frightening beast to some individuals but a beautiful lady to Diamond?  Does seeming harm sometimes actually result in good?  Young Diamond cannot understand all that the North Wind tells him–and, indeed, the North Wind admits often that she does not fully understand God’s plan, either, though she knows she must obey–but he accepts her words with childlike faith.  He is clearly meant to be a model for the reader, who might grapple with the same questions but also ultimately have to admit he or she cannot understand everything.

The second half of the story sees the North Wind as a character fade from view, though her influence remains always in evidence.  Having seen the country at the back of the north wind, Diamond becomes a changed individual, determined to lessen misery wherever he finds it and convinced that pain will ultimately be replaced with joy.  So he goes through life a model child, so convinced of his morals that others call him simple simply because he is good.  Concerned with worldly cares such as hunger, illness, and death, many cannot fathom why Diamond would share what little he has or help others when he might advance himself instead.

All this seems very didactic, and MacDonald even inserts an authorial voice from time to time to tell readers what the lesson of the story is, lest they missed it.  And yet, somehow the book never feels preachy.  I think it is too convinced of its own message; MacDonald is not just telling people to be good–he is utterly convinced that goodness exists and that people can find it.  And, what is more, he illustrates the goodness and beauty he believes in, and invites readers to participate in it.  It’s as if he’s hearing a far-off echo of a secret message and he’s trying to share it.

It is not difficult to understand why so many people love this story or why it has become a children’s classic.  Many books try to engage with the ugliness of life and succeed, but it is far more difficult to represent the beauty and joy of life.  MacDonald does not shy away from depicting the dirty and coarse parts of life, but his ultimate message exclaims that the purer things outshine the others.  And that kind of hope is a rare gift indeed.

4 starsKrysta 64