Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
An understanding of John Milton's methods of representing death in Paradise Lost is crucial to the reader's understanding of the poem, and to Milton's defense of God. In the poem, Milton depicts death in two ways: as the subject of representation and as a method of representation. As a subject of representation, Milton presents the idea of death to the reader as part of a potential allegory in Book Two. The choice to represent Death in allegory is historically controversial, and is complicated by the presence of Death's mother Sin, whose body is the canvas for the horror and mutilation of Death's hunger. The depiction of Sin's mutilated maternal body refers to other literary characters such as Edmund Spenser's Errour and Duessa, Ovid's Scylla, and Ariosto's Alcina. Sin's womb and antecedents as well as Death's disembodied nature alternately invite and repulse allegorical reading. Sin's body becomes the grounds for an investigation of the utility of allegory and signification. In turn, the way that Death is depicted on her body as part of a potential allegory creates the idea of death as something which requires interpretation. This sets the stage for the reader's later encounters with the idea of death as a method of representation. In Books Nine through Twelve, the idea of death is used by the human characters of the poem in order to depict their state of ignorance and feelings of love and despair. However, the ultimate interpretation of death in the poem depends greatly on the earlier preparation of the reader by Milton's potential allegory. God and other heavenly representatives argue for an interpretation of the body which treats the physical as a metaphor for the spiritual, as well as for the interpretation of death -- both the literary death depicted in the poem as well as the reader's own experiences -as a gift of God's goodness and a remedy for the unhappiness of fallen humanity.
McElroy, Jennifer C., "Interpreting Death in Paradise Lost" (2010). English Master’s Theses. 17.