Over the centuries, there have been innumerable interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve. This week on the Daily, Stephen Greenblatt, the author of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, retells some of these legends in modern idiom, and invents a few of his own.
It was the day of creation, and Adam and Eve were only beginning to find their way around the garden when Eve came across the tree whose fruit they had been commanded not to eat. They were both hungry; the fruit looked appetizing; they ate. It was the first time that they had eaten anything. (William Pynchon, 1664)
When Adam related to Eve what God had commanded him—“But from the tree of knowledge, good, and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die”—Adam had an idea. He reasoned that by intensifying the terms of the commandment, he could protect Eve, and thereby protect himself, from even the possibility of transgressing. Why should they have needed protection? Because if the tree were that dangerous, then any contact with it must be risky; and because if one held a piece of fruit in one’s hands, then it was always possible to put it in one’s mouth. “Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it,” he therefore reported the interdict to have ordained, “lest ye die.” “Neither shall ye touch it”—as anxious parents tell their children not to go near the stove—was, it seemed to him, a brilliant stroke. It would, in effect, create a buffer between the tree and any human who might be drawn toward it. But it turned out to be a disastrous strategy. For the first thing the serpent—the most cunning of all the beasts of the field—did when he found himself alone with Eve was not to offer her a piece of the fruit but simply to wrap himself tightly around the tree. Eve was astonished and horrified to see him do so, but he smiled and pointed out that he was still very much alive. And Eve, for the first time, felt she had been lied to.
The woman stood looking at the tree, with the snake coiled around it. She understood perfectly well that she was forbidden to eat the fruit, but she was bored, bored with the garden, bored with her repetitive tasks, bored, above all, with Adam.
She was well aware that she was in every important way superior to Adam. In the first flush of her creation, that superiority seemed insignificant—or at least she quickly recovered from the twinge of disappointment she felt when she saw the creature with whom she was paired. She understood, even before being told, that he had been made of less refined material than she. While he had been fashioned out of clay, she had been formed out of a human rib. While he had originated somewhere outside Paradise and bore the indefinable marks of that provincial origin, Paradise was her native ground. God had crafted them both, but inevitably his second attempt was more confident and self-assured than his first. The small but distinct improvements he had made were telling, and the woman was highly conscious and rather proud of them.
The man was less conscious of these improvements than the woman. He was reluctant to acknowledge her superiority, but he clearly sensed it, since it was he and not she who actively pursued the company of the other. She was quite content by herself. Not so he—he was forever hovering near her, telling her how beautiful she was, how infinitely desirable. He constantly made her little love offerings, as he called them—wreaths of flowers, for the most part, since it was difficult for him to think of anything else to give her. She had no impulse to reciprocate. It did not occur to her to tell him that he was beautiful, and, as for wreaths of flowers, what would he do with them except give them back to her?
She welcomed the rare moment that she was alone, by the tree with the forbidden fruit. Something at last would actually happen if she took only a small bite. Should she do so, she was certain that Adam, so much more afraid of God than she was, would never dare to follow her example. She would be free of him at last, free of the endless bickering, free of the tedious reconciliations, free of his fumbling attempts to enter her body. Their intercourse, in every sense of the term, had long ceased to hold any interest for her, and the prospect of endless years of the same thing, even if that thing was said to be perfect happiness, filled her with disgust.
She reached and pulled one of the apples off of the tree.
Eve’s hand reached out behind her and groped toward the fruit. Of course she had seen the fruit as she walked past the tree; she had taken notice of the branches hanging heavy all the way to the ground with its appetizing burden, and she had smelled the aroma and felt its appeal to her midday hunger. But when she lay on the ground, her head resting on one crooked arm, she did not turn to look at the tree again or focus on the fruit. Instead, her free hand simply reached behind her—no one, least of all she herself, could have said that she actively directed her hand to do so; it simply moved by itself. And when her hand had grasped the fruit, her wrist turned back and forth, back and forth, until the stem began to fray; and then her arm muscles contracted, and her hand began to pull the fruit off the branch and away from the tree and toward her mouth. And even as she did so, her knees buckled to the ground, and she could not have said why—whether it was to balance herself properly so she could pull with sufficient force in order to detach the fruit from the branch or whether it was because her body was sinking in grief and bitter remorse, sinking indeed toward death.
Why should one think that one’s body is one’s own? Does it not prove again and again that it betrays the person who dreams of being in control of it? Does the body not have, as we say, “a mind of its own”?
Stephen Greenblatt is the Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning author of The Swerve and Will in the World. His latest book, published this week by W. W. Norton, is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.