BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, September 2017
The story of Adam and Eve occupies two short chapters early in the biblical Book of Genesis and is never mentioned again in the Bible. But the story, as Stephen Greenblatt so vividly and beautifully points out in The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, lies at the foundation of Western culture’s enduring questions about the origins of human nature and our moral shortcomings.
With his typical eloquence, Greenblatt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Swerve, explores the life of a biblical story that artists, philosophers, theologians and poets have struggled for hundreds of years to understand and interpret. Augustine of Hippo laid out the most famous interpretation of the story by using the tale of Adam and Eve’s transgressions as the centerpiece for his own concept of original sin: We’re born sinners, since the act of sin is transmitted through sexual intercourse. For Augustine, as Greenblatt so felicitously puts it, “human sinfulness is a sexually transmitted disease.” The fourth-century monk Jerome laid the blame for the couple’s wrongdoings at Eve’s feet, an interpretation that continues to foster mistreatment of women in churches and in society. Greenblatt paints an exquisite portrait of artists such as Albrecht Dürer, who imagined the beauty of the original couple in his engraving “The Fall of Man,” which illustrates, for Greenblatt, a “vision of those perfect bodies that existed before time and labor and mortality began.” In John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” according to Greenblatt, Adam and Eve finally become real, depicting their struggle with freedom and innocence and the tension between the forces of good and evil.
In the end, Greenblatt elegantly concludes that the story of Adam and Eve is a powerful myth that deeply informs our understandings of temptation, innocence, freedom and betrayal, the choice between good and evil.