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book review

Adam, Eve, and the power of stories

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute/Library Research

The best works of cultural history aren’t those that provoke a mere nod of assent, the sense that history was just so. Rather, they’re books that adrenalize and agitate, provoke a response, cause you to underline, argue, and curse.

By this standard, Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve’’ is a good book indeed. When Greenblatt describes the novelty of Milton’s focus on Adam and Eve’s “inner lives” in “Paradise Lost,’’ I nodded vigorously. When he reads Augustine’s theology as an intellectualizing of sexual guilt, I got so frustrated that I had to put the book aside for several days. A critic who can elicit such varied responses is one worth reading and contending with.


We all know the story: the first man formed from clay, the first woman formed from his rib, the serpent, the Tree, the terrible repercussions. But Greenblatt, eminent Harvard professor and winner of both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, tells the story of this story — how Adam and Eve have been conceived and reconceived over the millennia. Their story has been used to justify misogyny and to abolish private property, to engage questions of ultimate concern (why are we so ill-fitted to the world?) and those of more practical import (why do we fear snakes?). And here to explore the power of narrative.

As presented in Genesis, their story seems a simple one, though Greenblatt reminds us of its many strange parts. (How could an eternal God “tak[e] a walk in the cool of the evening breeze?”) The story’s afterlife, though, is labyrinthine, and Greenblatt leads us through its many byways and dead ends: the early Jewish and Christian theologians who urged an allegorical reading, arguing that the story’s details were not literally true but “hint[s] toward a concealed and more abstract meaning”; the later, more doctrinally rigid thinkers who argued the story must stand or fall by its literal truth; still later artists like Milton who depicted Adam and Eve as “flesh-and-blood people, better than we are, to be sure, but not different in kind and not philosophical abstractions”; and finally those moderns who ceased believing in an actual garden or a real snake altogether.


The story of Adam and Eve is an ironic one — in hoping to become God-like, humans only become more human-like — and Greenblatt says that its legacy is ironic, too. Because Milton and others were so successful in imagining the Fall not as mere allegory but as historical event, later believers asked not just whether the story was aesthetically convincing but whether it really could have happened. Many answered no, and so, Greenblatt claims, “the story began to die.”

This book is frequently very good, as when Greenblatt examines Renaissance depictions of Eden: Van Eyck’s precise attention to “Adam’s clipped toenails and his random hairs,” Dürer’s creation of an Adam “stitched together according to an idealizing geometrical scheme drawn from a pagan idol.” This is criticism at its best, showing how particular details arise from, and contribute to, history’s currents: humanism, with its focus on creaturely beauty; classicism, with its willingness to borrow from ancient sources. There are also delightful little squibs of theological history, like when the 17th-century nun Arcangela Tarabotti, defending women against Eve-inspired hatred, writes, “You vain men hate women’s beauty because your impure hearts prevent you from enjoying her presence without lust.”


Yet there are also stretches that had me sometimes literally shaking my fist — the long section on Augustine, in particular. All Christian theology is a footnote to Augustine, and Greenblatt rightly emphasizes the theologian’s centrality to later Christian thought on will and desire, human fallenness and divine mercy. Less convincingly, Greenblatt interprets Augustine’s theology as a working out of the guilt he felt over sexual desire. The story of Adam and Eve, by this reading, explains humanity’s essential sinfulness — and Augustine’s own. Yet Augustine actually finds us most human when we are most Christ-like, most loving and merciful. Fallenness is real for Augustine. But that doesn’t mean that we’re fundamentally corrupt. It means that we’re blind to our truest selves.

All critics have biases. Greenblatt’s is a tendency to see all of history pointing toward, and finding its ultimate fulfillment in, Renaissance humanism: the “unprecedented illusion of life” its artists provide, the loosening up of all that doom-and-gloom Christian theology. To which a medievalist might respond: What about Chaucer? Or Margery Kempe? Augustine himself wasn’t just obsessed with sex. He also was attuned to the beauty of life and the pleasures of friendship. His is a theology of love.

Arguing with Greenblatt about these ideas is a pleasure, though, as is his clear prose and the fluidity with which he moves between paintings and poems and polemics. This is the kind of book — lucid and delightfully infuriating — that I wish more academic superstars would write.



By Stephen Greenblatt

Norton, 419 pp., illustrated, 27.95

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.”