Rethinking Eve

Most people in the Western world know the story of Eve, right? Created from a rib of Adam; the blissful existence in Eden; the snake; the apple; the fall; the eviction; toil thereafter and the pain of childbirth. Pretty straightforward story for people to understand throughout history.

Except it’s not. Thanks to a St. Thomas Young Scholars Grant, senior English major Joe Molohon dedicated this past summer to investigating how we take for granted the idea that Eve's story is static and that we relate to it in the same ways people always have.

“There’s a lot more to the Bible than you think of; it’s not the inflexible text that a lot of people think it to be,” Molohon said. “The Bible is everywhere and I’ve always wondered about its interpretation. So much is based off what it says; it’s such a large influence still. I was curious to see where these ideas came from and how it works.”

Under the advisement of English professor Martin Warren, Molohon developed the idea to investigate Eve from one of Warren’s classes.

“He was really fascinated with how culture and text speak to each other, that dialogue between them, and how various literary texts are clearly born from and influenced by the culture and speak back to it,” Warren said. “The idea was to look at Eve and see how the figure, the image of Eve, is changed across time. The figure of Eve becomes a way of revealing how the culture is perceiving Eve and, through her, gender relationships and women.”

A major starting point was examining the Biblical language itself. This gave Molohon the chance to dig into Hebrew and it quickly became clear how much the understanding of what a word means can change your ideas about a text, even one like the Bible.

“The word ‘Adam’ is a big one. In the Bible the name is taken to mean 'man' and 'him,' ... It works better, actually, in the plural neuter form in referring to humankind,” Molohon said. “So the cases where ‘Adam is made’ and it’s taken to be ‘Man is made in God’s image,’ it’s actually probably ‘humankind.’ It seems small, but it’s big. It represents the unity of humankind; we don’t know who was made first. Both share this image of God.”

Beyond language, Molohon found the applicable literary tradition of having just two characters in a scene speaking at once; since she ends up being the only one speaking, Eve unfairly ends up at the center of “the fall” by herself.

“There’s this idea that Adam was actually present the whole time and was speaking the whole time with the serpent, too, but Eve is written as talking because just two characters speak,” Molohon said. “The serpent takes up a spot, so there’s just one of the two people to speak and it doesn’t really matter which one; they’re there together and he’s a reason just like Eve for the fall.”

Molohon and Warren also poured through examples of how different cultures throughout time perceive Eve, highlighted by material from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve.

“There was always the history of patriarchy, obviously, so there was a lot of reading into the Bible [by past authors] what they wanted to see. They thought women were less than men and can find [what they want to see subconsciously] in the Bible,” Molohon said. “I tried to stay objective as a scholar, which was difficult at times. I obviously disagree with Milton [whose “Paradise Lost” is often viewed as misogynistic]. The trouble is keeping that outside perspective and looking at it as an outside issue and reporting on what people are seeing.”

By summer’s end (and a little into the fall semester), what was originally a 20-page paper turned into 60 pages.

“That says a lot about him, but also the richness of this topic. Once he got into it and saw how this figure of Eve goes across time and what the figure of Eve means across time, it was just fascinating,” Warren said. “I was really impressed. It’s great scholarship. Part of the joy was working with Joe and watching him grow as a scholar, which is the whole point of the Young Scholars program.”

Molohon said he hopes to use the experience while attending graduate school next year to focus on creative writing.

“It was fun to apply creative writing to a scholarly project like this. Both things are very important,” Molohon said. “Creative writing is not done in a vacuum with just what you come up with in your head. You need to know about the real world to write. All writing is in a sense coming from the world and you, so you need as strong a sense as possible of all those things.”